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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Retailers drive revenue with email. So can publishers

February 1, 2021 | By Allison Mezzafonte, Media Advisor – Sailthru @sailthru

A fundamental shift has occurred in the past year: Publishers experienced a fortuitous combination of increased audience size and engagement. Many publishers are considering how to balance subscription marketing with ad monetization in order to take advantage of new readers and higher engagement.

In a recent survey, 53% of publishers experienced an increase in engagement with their email newsletters during the Covid pandemic. Email is taking on a new role in nurturing these relationships and maximizing their value. Much like retailers, publishers can leverage email as a path to conversion.

Rethink the “customer” experience

Executives are rethinking many parts of their business in light of the pandemic’s silver lining of higher engagement. And with third party cookies under imminent threat, publishers have both a challenge and opportunity with how to collect insights about visitors to deliver value for advertisers and drive business operations effectively.

One way that publishers can take better advantage of their new engagement opportunity is to collect more data. They have an opportunity to more effectively test and integrate new revenue opportunities by approaching their digital business the way a retailer approaches ecommerce. Many publishers have discussed adding commerce opportunities to their models, such as The New York Times’ addition of Wirecutter to their portfolio. However, for many publishers, the concept needs some direction.

Often, the best work across publisher initiatives is done by connecting experiences between the website, search, and social media. Unfortunately, email remains a relatively static, separated channel. Retailers would be shocked to know that publisher email is frequently bifurcated between content-based newsletters and transaction-based messages about subscriptions with little coordination between them. Email is a hidden opportunity that will help with many 2021 publisher goals.

There are many strategic and tactical improvements that publishers can make to better orchestrate channels to achieve their goals. And these improvements have already proven successful in ecommerce. The multichannel retail experience includes data collection and segmentation, intricate channel orchestration, a dedication to measurement and analytics, and sophisticated testing and personalization with email and SMS. These channels must work together seamlessly to serve to engage, connect, and communicate.

Mapping the “customer” journey

A loyal reader has a particular series of actions that they will, pretty predictably, take. They might visit the site every morning. Or perhaps they open their mobile app every evening as they hang out on the couch. A search-driven reader might have another set of behaviors. They might averaging 30 seconds on the page, with a possible second article before abandoning the site.

These various user profiles are essentially different “customer segments.” Each of these offer their own set of value opportunities and paths to conversion. Many publishers have already created segmented strategies and content personalization. However, multichannel revenue-driven marketing, including email, usually takes a back seat. This reduces the ability to re-engage, offer deeper personalization, and drive conversion.

Retail tactics to learn from

Publishers have more in common with the ecommerce experience than they may realize. In fact, several established ecommerce best practices can be repurposed for publishers:

Browse abandon

Retailers will often trigger a personalized email when someone abandons a product search. Publishers can do the same, tracking everything from scroll depth to which search terms drove them to the site. By testing segmented triggers to bring different readers back to the story, or to similar or different stories, publishers come across as more relevant and more interesting.

Cart abandon

Similarly, retailers will trigger a personalized message via email or SMS to remind people of what’s in their cart. Publishers can do the same with event and subscription signups, or with articles saved for later reading.

Interest-based triggers

Every time a consumer reviews a product, or clicks on a link, that information is gathered to improve personalization and triggered messaging in the future. This information, be it driven by content behavior or more transactional behavior, should be collected by publishers to build richer user profiles and to inform segmentation and marketing actions. This data is also hugely valuable for editors seeking to better understand reader interests.

Live content

Retailers used live content during Black Friday/Cyber Monday to drive interest in sales, manage inventory. Streaming content showing employees explaining products, and influencers discussing health tips, drove engagement and sales. Publishers can imagine incorporating everything from breaking news and live entertainment to real time interviews and podcasts.

Channel optimization

Email is only one element of a multichannel communication strategy. It’s best to test within and across channels to understand how to get people to stay engaged based on their preferences and habits. For example, testing the success of driving engaged readers on mobile web to download the app, or transitioning engaged mobile app readers to in-app messages and push instead of email, can help publishers meet readers where they are without any friction. SMS can take things one step further for brands that don’t have standalone apps but cover breaking news, the same way many D2C retailers alert shoppers about sales.

Bonus points

These five common triggers in a retail strategy also serve another purpose: to test messages and collect more data. Adding triggers along the customer journey doesn’t just provide opportunities to re-engage, they make businesses smarter. Combining insights and measurement across different parts of the business can help speed up learning. Personalizing different elements of the customer journey can help speed up conversion.

Content is the product that many publishers focus on, but it’s the readers (aka customers) that will deliver insight and revenue. By turning focus toward the transactional touchpoints along the reader journey, publishers will find more chances to increase their insights and improve their performance. Retailers may have more measurable ROI. However, what retailers have spent years learning through testing can now serve as a reliable blueprint for publishers.


About the author

Allison Mezzafonte has worked in the media and publishing industry for 20 years and is currently a growth consultant, as well as a Media Advisor to Sailthru. A former publishing executive for Bauer Media, Dotdash, and Hearst Digital, Allison serves as a strategic partner to media clients.

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