Successful digital publishers produce content that connects with audience expectations. These publishers are committed to engaging audiences more deeply with an audience-first approach. To assist digital publishers in attracting new audiences, the World Association of News Publishers (WAN-IFRA), in partnership with Google News Initiative, created Table Stakes Europe (TSE). Their latest report, Building and engaging specific audiences, outlines case studies in which publishers tackle core challenges to connect to new and distinct audience segments based on targeted demographics or psychographics.
The TSE identifies seven core strategies for news publishers to employ in developing new audiences. Notably, the process is relatively the same, regardless of the target audience — whether they be younger, sports-minded or niche, religious, and cultural segments.
Serve targeted audiences with content and experiences they want.
Publish on the platforms your targeted audience uses.
Produce and publish constantly to match your audiences’ lives.
Funnel occasional users into regular and paying loyalists.
Diversify and grow the ways you earn revenue from the audiences you build.
Partner to expand your capacity and capabilities at lower and more flexible costs.
Drive audience growth and profitability from a “mini publisher” perspective.
Finding younger paying readers
Using the TSE framework, FWT, a regional and local news publisher in the region of Värmland, Sweden, sought to appeal to a younger audience. Their case study deals with the publications’ concerns around their aging audience and the need to attract readers under 45.
NWT’s business model is subscription based, with a hard paywall. They offer articles free only for the first hour after their publication. Their current reader revenue contributes 70% of their total revenue, with advertising the remaining 30%. NWT’s first step is to learn about the interests of a younger audience. Focus groups and research studies immediately provided needed intelligence. They found that adults 18-29 like to read about entertainment, relationships, careers of other young people or celebrities, and breaking news. While adults 30-45 are interested in society and investigative journalism, real estate, new stores and restaurants, and topics about kids and family life.
NWT identified five goals to measure their effectiveness in attracting a younger audience:
20% of subscribers will be under 45
65% of all new digital subscribers will be under 45
30% increase in subscriptions on e-paper
20% of page views from logged-in users under 45
37% percent increase in digital subscriptions
Notably, NWT increased its digital reach among the 18-39 segment from 24.4% to 35.1%, and digital reader revenue increased too. NWT identified six steps attributing to these achievements.
Learn about the younger audience’s needs, interests, passions, and problems.
Produce relevant content for the right people on the right channels at the right time.
Educate and recruit both current and new staff.
Make changes to the current digital product to serve a younger audience.
Constantly test and evaluate product(s) against set goals.
Develop and implement a social media strategy.
Identify tactics to target new audiences
Another case study using the TSE framework to help attract a younger audience focused on Le Parisien in Paris.
The French publisher used vertical videos on TikTok to appeal to new and younger subscribers.
The plan for TikTok was to focus on “explainer” videos, offering essential details and insight during the French presidential elections. They hired a dedicated TikTok journalist, introduced an experiment-to-learn attitude, and included segments of hard news in addition to their explainer series.
Le Parisien’s TikTok following grew from zero to more than 400,000. While Le Parisien is not monetizing on TikTok, the vertical videos are essential to building brand awareness among a younger audience – their future paying subscribers.
TSE offers an important framework for digital news businesses to identify and attract new audiences. While the two case studies offered here focus on attracting younger audiences specifically, the report includes additional target audiences. Importantly, the transformational process includes a similar process regardless of the target audience. Connecting newsrooms to audiences and personally resonating with each is essential for publishers’ success.
Whether reliant on advertising, subscription revenue, or a combination of both, attracting new audiences is a critical component of media success. And, given that Gen Z is the largest generation, the cohort takes on particular significance. While they consume about the same amount of news as Millennials, they use it much differently than previous generations. Therefore, it is critical that media leaders understand their specific consumption style to attract this younger audience.
The International News Media Association (INMA)’s new report, What Gen Z + Media Need From Each Other, identifies strategies to grow digital news media appeal among the Gen Z audience. Author Paula Felps explores six case studies to see how news media companies are experimenting with connecting with Gen Z. The case studies were on Germany’s Funke Zentralredaktion, The Wall Street Journal in the U.S., Norway’s Dagens Næringsliv, The News Movement in London, The Sydney Morning Herald, and The Australian in Australia.
Understanding Gen Z
The report first offers insight for a better understanding of Gen Z’s news consumption habits and what drives those habits. Felps cites Reuters Institute report to profile Gen Z’s digital consumption habits, and McKinsey and EY research to identify levels of engagement.
Attitude and behavioral differences identified in the research reports:
Most Gen Zs turn to social media platforms for news coverage. WhatsApp and Instagram are growing. However, TikTok is becoming the fastest-growing network for news among its younger users. Forty percent of 18 to 24 years old use TikTok and 15% of them use it for news. (Reuters Institute)
Gen Z is very inclusive; they reject hierarchy and crave transparency. (McKinsey)
Making news more understandable and balanced is key to reaching this age group. (McKinsey)
Authenticity is a significant personal value. Issues like climate change, racial injustice, and health care are authentic concerns of Gen Z. (EY)
Gen Z doesn’t want more crisis coverage. (Reuters Institute)
Attracting the Gen Z audience
The case studies covered in the report reveal that experimentation is essential in attracting Gen Z. Two of the successful initiatives included areFunke Zentralredaktion and The Wall Street Journal.
Funke Zentralredaktion creation of a political TikTok channel is a strong example of attracting and growing a Gen Z audience. Funke used TikTok to introduce top politicians to the platform and asked them questions concerning the Gen Z demographic. The TikTok videos included serious issues but maintained a creative and modern look using filters, emojis, and sounds. The channel grew to nearly 70,000 followers in less than one year, with some videos reaching more than 3 million views.
Important lessons learned from Funke Zentralredaktion’s Gen Z subscribers:
Approach serious topics in a creative manner.
Ensure that the topic is relatable; find the right angle to address.
Meet Gen Z on their platforms, e.g., TikTok.
The Wall Street Journal (WSJ),part ofDow Jones, created a student membership program to capture college students to create new readership habits. WSJ learned the great value of acquiring younger subscribers and creating a lifelong relationship with the brand.
Important lessons learned from the Wall Street Journal’s Gen Z subscribers:
Less news in more formats, offer alternatives to reading news like podcasts or videos.
Free and easy, meaning content needs to be compelling and cost-conscious subscription pricing.
Digital only and be present where they are – such as Instagram and TikTok.
Personalize to attract, engage, and retain this audience.
Hiring Gen Z in the newsroom
Another aspect of attracting this younger audience that the report covers is their critical role as content creators. One example offered in the report is that of The News Movement. Created by two news veterans, William Lewis, former chief executive of Dow Jones, and Kamal Ahmed, former editorial director at the BBC, the goal of this news platform is to commission and produce content by and for Gen Z. The News Movement distributes its content on Gen Z’s their favorite platforms (i.e., TikTok and Instagram) as well as on its own site. It also has partnerships with the Associated Press (AP) and others to help it produce content. It’s presently in beta.
Felps’ INMA report identifies new approaches for the news media to experiment with to attract Gen Z, like using video or podcast formats and creative filters.
To ensure future sustainability, media companies must engage with Gen Z to offer news that is more understandable and relatable. And, in addition to meeting this audience where they already are, by distributing content on the platforms and in the formats this generation prefers, it is also critical that media leaders understand that Gen Zers must be included on staff and afforded a voice in the newsroom.
Although TikTok is widely considered a “Gen Z platform,” the video-sharing app also boasts an extremely high number of Millennial users. With over 100M active users in the U.S. alone, 32% of TikTok’s global users are between the ages of 25-34. With such a large and diverse audience – not to mention the recent revelation that young people are even turning to TikTok as a search engine over Google – there is a unique opportunity for digital publishers to adapt their strategies on the platform to reach critical audiences at scale effectively.
To do so, media companies must consider how best to leverage the viewing trends and the receptiveness these generations have to certain types of media. Below are key insights into how Gen Z and Millennial demographic similarities and differences fit into the larger social landscape, what influences their decision-making when it comes to attention, and ultimately what success looks like for digital publishers on the platform.
Where to find Gen Z and Millennial social media users
The rise of TikTok has significantly shifted the way people consume media. In fact, when surveyed about which sources of digital media they use the most, 37% of Gen Zers revealed TikTok takes up most of their time. While Millennials still skew a bit more towards Facebook (39%) and Instagram (19%), there is still a sizable audience of Millennials on TikTok. Nevertheless, as the preference for engaging short-form content continues to grow in popularity with Gen Z and Millennials, other social platforms are beginning to take note.
With so much buzz around TikTok’s growing user base and platform layout, it’s no surprise that Instagram introduced Reels. And, with 42% of Gen Zers sharing they also use Reels, it’s clear that this demographic jumps at the chance to create and consume short-form content no matter the platform. This insight gives publishers the perfect opportunity to maximize viewership of their short-form content. They can post virtually the same video to several platforms which means that they can cast an even wider net with little to no additional effort.
What’s influential in TikTok users’ decision-making
Though more social media platforms are mimicking TikTok’s strategies, 40% of Gen Z and 32% of Millennial users find advertisements on TikTok to be the most creative and authentic versus other social platforms. And two-thirds of users research products after seeing them on TikTok. This points to the platform’s power in helping to build brand awareness and influence purchase decisions.
This provides a unique opportunity for publishers to capitalize on especially when it comes to branded content. Last year, Buzzfeed signed a first-of-its-kind deal with TikTok, signaling the beginning of media companies leveraging the platform to create innovative deals between publishers and brands. This allows brands to capitalize on a built-in audience and allows publishers to attract new audiences – brand loyalists – to their content.
Branded hashtag challenges are one of many great tactics to attract engagement by enlisting consumers to become active participants in brand campaigns via user-generated content. So, empowering platform users to join campaigns by submitting their own content is the type of word-of-mouth marketing advertisers crave and built for the digital age. Using creative means to get information across results in a higher chance of user recollection and can help to increase follower count (for both publishers and brands), and eventually – readers.
Strategies for digital publishers to try ASAP
There are a few breakout media brands whose success on social platforms like TikTok provides insight into how digital publishers can best approach converting Gen Z and Millennial social media users into subscribers and promote consumer loyalty.
The Washington Post successfully uses TikTok to reach a younger audience and break away from its more traditional, serious tone. Morning Brew, the media company that aims to help professionals of all ages, began to use TikTok to help grow its newsletter subscriber count. The publication partnered with a creator to create authentic TikTok videos while also promoting the Morning Brew message. This enabled Morning Brew to expand its social media footprint as well as gain thousands of quality, engaged newsletter subscribers.
Digital media publishers have an opportunity to extend their reach by using social media platforms focused on short-form video content. Ultimately, TikTok truly allows for and incentivizes creativity that both Gen Zers and Millennials heavily respond to. Digital publishers can use a variety of features and trends to create effective, immersive, and interactive content to reach their target audiences with unprecedented efficiency. Authentically reaching consumers through TikTok will help media properties gather accurate data on consumer interest as well as humanize humanize the company by providing digestible content in a more relatable and accessible way.
As much as your media organization values its audience, you might find their online behavior wildly unpredictable.
Whether your readers are active on your website only to become randomly inactive or subscribe and unsubscribe at a moment’s notice, it’s essential that you get to the bottom of your audience’s expectations, needs and actions. After all, there’s an abundance of other online services and media organizations competing for your audience’s attention.
“[For] local media companies to survive and thrive into the future, they must deliver beyond what they traditionally have offered,” John Newby, a business strategist, shares withEditor & Publisher.“[They] must understand their most significant threat — that of their reader’s limited time.”
To consistently earn your readers’ time and loyalty, you’ll have to successfully predict what kinds of digital experiences will captivate them. And while this may seem like an impossible task, there are actually a few easy ways your organization can predict and respond to audience behaviors:
Pay attention to audience engagement signals
Every action — or inaction — your audience members make on your brand’s website or app is crucial information that can help you foresee their next actions before they ever make them.
For example, actions as simple as liking a content topic or interacting with other commenters can indicate that your users are highly engaged and ready to subscribe. On the other hand, declining interactions can also reveal that a user is about to unsubscribe or stop visiting your website altogether.
All of this information can be collected as first-party data through your digital engagement tools. They can then be fed into a user re-engagement or subscription strategy to target readers with paywall messages, subscription discounts and content promotions as needed.
“When we look at data as tools to predict [behavior] we have the opportunity to intercept an undesired action, or multiply the effect and impulse actions aligned with our goals,” Stephanie Lievano, a subscriptions expert, tells the International News Media Association.
The attention span of humans is also dropping worldwide. A Microsoft study reports that the average person’s attention span has fallen from 12 to eight seconds.
This means that it’s important to watch out for drops in user attention, visit frequency and engagement actions. If and when alarming engagement signals do come up, taking data-driven steps to keep audience members hooked on your digital properties can prevent them from losing interest in your brand.
Identify behavior patterns from groups of people with similar interests
From solidifying strong relationships with readers to growing registrations and loyalty, success in the media industry often starts with data. By going beyond third-party data in particular, your company can draw consented information around the thoughts, likes and dislikes of its registered users. You can then look to this information for actionable insights into the behaviors and interests of your organization’s unknown audience.
More specifically, when a group of known audience members follow a particular pattern of likes and interests, your organization can form a lookalike audience made up of anonymous users with similar characteristics. You can then target this lookalike audience with relevant ads, content, and registration prompts based on the insights drawn from your known audience.
Ultimately, the more you learn about your registered users, the better you can match their behaviors to unknown audience members so you can appeal to their interests and habits.
However, an average of 99.6% of unsubscribed audiences are anonymous on publisher properties online. Therefore, forming groups of anonymous users that mirror known audiences can improve your company’s overall business results.
Moderate evolving language to keep audiences protected
For this reason, your media company must do everything in its power to keep toxicity off of its digital properties. And that means stopping people from posting offensive comments before they can ever hit that publish button.
Unfortunately, this is easier said than done.
Betty Birner, a professional linguist, explains that “language is always changing, evolving and adapting to the needs of its users.” So how can publishers moderate toxic comments on their pages confidently when users are constantly developing new words and phrases?
Media organizations can stay ahead of trolls by taking on a moderation system powered by artificial intelligence (AI) that learns as language evolves. That way, companies can stop toxic language from offending users and damaging the reputation of their brands.
Viafoura data highlights that good-quality, troll-free conversation increases audience engagement, leading to 35% more comments and 62% more likes per user.
The bottom line is that an effective moderation system can give you greater insight into how to keep your community healthy and active before destructive, trolling behavior can take root.
Why foresight is critical to the media industry
If your business strategies are only focused on responding to past audience behaviors, it may be too late to captivate your users or prevent churn. To keep your audience happy, hooked on your content and loyal, you’ll need to accurately predict their future behaviors before they ever come to fruition.
That said, staying ahead of your audience’s changing habits and interests will give your company the opportunity to serve readers better — and forge stronger, lasting relationships with them.
In the 18 months since social audio spaces were introduced the media landscape, digital content companies have experimented to uncover their purpose and how they can best serve audiences. For The Washington Post, the answer was revealed amid the discussion of a massive leak of offshore data, which exposed the secrets, deals, and assets of the world’s rich and powerful.
The Pandora Papers investigation was not The Post’s first use of social audio. They’d experimented with Clubhouse in mid-May 2021 and held their first Twitter Spaces event June 10, 2021.
It was, however, one of their most ambitious experiments as it involved other global news organizations simultaneously joining the Twitter Spaces event. The Pandora Papers investigation spanned five continents and involved 600 journalists in 117 countries.
“The Pandora Papers was the largest reporting consortium in journalism history. We’re talking about [journalists examining] 11.9 million documents and financial records,” said Michelle Jaconi, head of news talent strategy and development at The Washington Post.
That’s a wealth of information – but a challenge to present given its scope and depth. “The amount of nuance that you can go into in a platform in audio where you don’t have the set limitations of an article is wonderful.”
“Twitter Spaces has been an incredible playground for creativity and exploring ways where we could stretch that platform,” Jaconi said. “That one was one of the biggest and most ambitious spaces we’ve done, because we did it across different newsrooms. It was an incredibly fascinating test and stretch, and incredibly well received.”
Space(s) for transparency and engagement
Social audio allows The Post to share the teamwork and collaboration that takes place in their newsroom, Jaconi explained. The work that goes into a large scale, investigative report is largely invisible to readers. However, the audio format allows the journalists to communicate the process and passion that goes into a project like this one. As Jaconi points out, “The voices humanize the work, effort, the passion and the care that goes into every piece of journalism at The Post.”
One thing the team at The Post has learned through its use of social audio is that the audience is incredibly curious and wants to learn more about the journalistic process.
“We learned, wow, there is an audience for this, and [social audio] is incredibly good for things that are so complex that you need extra time and nuance and care to explain,” Jaconi said. “And, especially with Pandora Papers, we were testing the platform and how much we could stretch the production capabilities of an audio event that was truly global. We had some issues. But I think Twitter’s even gotten better since then at the product and the production aspect of doing massive events.”
Attracting and engaging audiences
Like all publications, Jaconi says The Washington Post not only wants to increase the size of its audience, but also engage younger, next generation, diverse and global audiences. For the use of Twitter Spaces grew the following of @washingtonpost on Twitter, as well as the following of their reporters.
“I think one of the things that social audio is incredible for is that social platforms convene audiences of curious people – or sometimes just bored people who become curious when they see a trending hashtag,” Jaconi said. “Every time we do one of these spaces, our reporters get new followers. That shows that we’re building audience.”
Social audio spaces create an intimate connection between The Post and their audience, on a device that many use to interact with their family and friends. “That is a wonderful way for us to not tell our expertise, but instead to show it. We do it in a way that provides intimate connection between our reporters and their audience,” Jaconi said.
For reporters who often work in text-based mediums, one of the things that makes social audio fun is that they get to know their audiences more personally and engage directly.
“While you’re talking, you can actually see avatars and photos of people joining in that conversation right there with you. And that is something that I love for reporters to know,” Jaconi said. “Who doesn’t like telling a story and looking at the avatar of someone and saying, ‘oh, thank you for listening. That’s so interesting that you’re popping into this conversation and listening to me.’ That has been really rewarding for everyone who’s participating.”
And, as it continues to improve the functionality of Spaces, Twitter is now surfacing live audio to users when they first log in and providing beacons to audiences indiscriminately. This adds value for digital content companies because previously, Twitter had only surfaced Spaces to an organization’s existing audience.
“Social audio is one of the most exciting playgrounds right now to gather new audiences because the product keeps getting better,” Jaconi said.
Adoption, addiction, affection
In helping Post reporters reach new audiences, Jaconi looks for a funnel of adoption, addiction, and affection. With The Post’s recent reporting on the war in Ukraine, Jaconi said they are seeing an uptick in followers, but also affection. Social audio plays into this by increasing the personal engagement between audience and reporters.
In particular, The Post has sees a trend of audience members sending deeply moving messages. “People have been following reporters for the first time and posting comments like: ‘I am praying for your safety. I hope you’re okay. Please be all right.’ That is affection and concern for our journalists,” Jaconi said, noting that she’s never seen this kind of thing take place at this scale before.
“To have that be the overwhelming chat response to an audio space from our reporters covering the war, boy, is that a different experience for our journalists and reporters,” Jaconi said. “It means that we we’ve done a really good job and reaching people who are interested in information and are interested in building that relationship with us and our reporters.”
Jaconi explained that there are a few best practices in the social audio space that digital content companies ought to think about.
First, update your Twitter app. Jaconi explained that Twitter often updates Twitter Spaces and improves and fine tunes its functionality. (We covered some of those in our last social audio piece.)
Second, remember that audience members can join Twitter Spaces mid-stream. It’s possible those audience members have never met you before. Hosts should make a habit of re-introducing themselves during the course of an event. This should include addressing new people joining the Space and telling them what they’re speaking about, their name, background, expertise, and the topic of discussion.
“It doesn’t have to be boiler plate. It can be done in a casual way. But also, because there’s audiences that are listening while they’re multitasking, I really urge people to introduce themselves again,” Jaconi said.
Thirdly, Jaconi suggested that digital content companies who engage in social audio spaces ought to “feed their audience.” This means give your social audio space a thread of everything you covered in that space. If you’re using social audio to discuss investigations, mention the methodology of your investigation, the complexity of doing the investigation, biographies of speakers or guests and the like, in a thread. This assures that the listening experience isn’t just a one-off that happened in the Twitterverse, and instead is and can be connected to other content, events, or used in the future.
“It is so rare, and so exceptionally powerful, to be in the same place as your audience at the same time, with everybody convened,” Jaconi said. “You’re convening the curious at something that you’re an expert in. So feed them when they’re there, because it might be a while before you convene them again.”
Social audio, which came to prominence with the now eerily-quiet Clubhouse, took off during the pandemic. A slew of competitors has emerged during the past 24 months. And just this week, Amazon joined the market with Amp. The company’s pitch is that the new audio app allows users to become live radio DJs, curate playlists, and talk to listeners and guests.
NPR is no stranger to live radio. The Washington-based non-profit media organization hosts two flagship news broadcasts: Morning Edition and All Things Considered. And, in 2020, more people than ever before were consuming NPR content through their website, radio, apps, live streaming, and smart devices, according to Nieman Lab, which pinned its audience around 57 million.
For Matt Adams, engagement editor + social audio at NPR, moving into social audio spaces made sense because it allowed them to meet audiences where they are. Audio also clearly plays to the strengths of their radio roots—but offers added benefits. And, unlike live video, which may take a while to set up or look a certain way, Adams explained, social audio can be set up in minutes. “This is like, get on your Twitter app. You start it. And then you’re just in a conversation. It’s very quick and easy.”
NPR has been doing Twitter Spaces for a year. Adams says that its first Spaces was with the Code Switch team about their fellowship. “I thought it would be a great way to get people who are interested in applying to that fellowship to ask questions and get answers for it,” he said.
And from there, Adams started to experiment. What’s Next: An NPR Conversation Series ran two or three Spaces every day for a week. NPR and member stations would invite their audiences to join on various topics including kids and COVID, climate change, The Supreme Court, and Indigenous community coverage.
Social audio is a great tool for digital content companies to connect with and expand audiences. Adams says it clearly offers a quick and easy way to talk to their social audience. “What I think is cool is it’s we’re not speaking at them; we’re speaking with them. We can bring them on stage and get their questions and thoughts.”
One of the Spaces that worked really well in the What’s Next series, Adams says, was a conversation about the housing market. “There was a lot of back and forth about, how do you buy a house now? Why is the housing market so wild out there? How do you figure it out?” Adams said.
Find new audiences
While engaging with current fans is important, a big goal for a lot of digital content companies is to attract new and younger audiences. Adams believes social audio offers a way to do just that. In fact, over the last year, Twitter Spaces has introduced new audiences to NPR.
One way is through audience referrals. As companies invite speakers to social audio spaces, their followers are notified that there’s a Space happening. When NPR Weekend Edition host Scott Simon interviewed Matthew McConaughey, they did it on Spaces. And that brought Matthew McConaughey‘s fans to NPR’s Space. “They might not follow NPR, they might not even listen to NPR, they might just be there because they’re Matthew McConaughey fans,” Adams said. “But maybe we pick up some new followers… and that’s key.”
“It’s a great way to just interact with people that you might not be able to interact with otherwise. I think that’s very cool.”
Find new content
Adams said that NPR’s social audio spaces have also sparked content and story ideas from the audience. “Sometimes they’ve said, ‘I think you should be thinking about this or doing that. The host’s like, ‘it’s a good idea. We should think about that or add that to our coverage.’”
NPR has opted to record some of their social audio spaces and later make them downloadable—or even broadcast them on air. They have also transcribed their Twitter Spaces into stories that get page views also grow audiences. All of these tactics allow them to better leverage what might be a one time live-only event in a variety of ways, and to reach broader audiences.
Where Adams has seen social audio really work is for trending topics. They can quickly produce Twitter Spaces to discuss current events and issues, like Ukraine, Russia, or the State of the Union Address.
Listen and learn
As Amazon jumps on the bandwagon this month, it’s clear that social audio isn’t going away soon. And, with potential options to monetize it in the future – from in-app tipping features, to sponsorship, to tickets for premium events – it might become a revenue stream as well.
Social audio offers Zoom-weary audiences the intimacy of podcasts but also the ability to participate in discussions, be brought up on the stage and ask questions directly to speakers in real time.
It is interesting the way in which live social audio experiences mirror live radio, but also how they differ. Unlike pre-recorded segments or podcasts, live offers real time audience engagement. But, as the name would imply, social takes it even further. Audience members can “see” each other. They are able to react even if they don’t speak up. And they feel easily empowered to engage. For younger audiences, who may have never listened to terrestrial or even satellite radio, this new format offers the ease and comfort of social media. But for all audiences, engagement and interaction can clearly reach a new level altogether.
Adams saw this firsthand when NPR hosted a Twitter Space based on a story about college students’ experience during the pandemic. Adams asked the reporter to bring her sources into a Space for a discussion. “And then all of the college students in the audience were joining and then jumping up to talk about what was happening at their school and what they were going through,” he said. “There was just this big conversation between the sources and the audience, and we were just directing traffic. It was awesome. It was not what you would do on the radio.”
One wish that I have for America is for more organizations to have the clarity of logic, depth of commitment, and force of execution happening at NPR as they address their businesses challenges and needs concerning Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.
In January of 2020, NPR President and CEO John Lansing made audience diversity NPR’s number one priority. Since that time, the organization has shared its progress across workplace, content, and audiences. This includes a three-year strategic plan that opens with the words “NPR must change to survive.” To get a first hand view into this progressive change agenda, I had the privilege of sitting down with the Chief Marketing Officer of NPR, Michael. The conversation that unfolded might be considered a masterclass on establishing a long term DEI strategy.
According to Michael, the business imperative for DEI is simply “believing in the strategy that to serve a more diverse America, you need to have a team of people whose life experience is more in line with the customers that you’re serving.” That sentiment is shared from NPR CEO, John Lansing down through the organization.
“NPR came out of the Great Society program of the 1960s, where the government set up the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which helped launch NPR and PBS. Their mission was to create media resources that weren’t being fed by the commercial media.”
Back in 1971 when NPR launched, their audience was in line with the United States. About 80% white and 20% diverse audience, similar to the country at the time. Today, their radio audience is still about 80-20, while the composition of the American population has shifted to 60-40. And, of course, the country has made a massive switch to digital in the intervening years as well. In order to get back in sync with America, NPR has been prioritizing efforts to make the network younger and more diverse.
Michael says that NPR has a fiercely loyal audience, because their values align with those of the audience. However, he says most Americans are not even aware of NPR. “We know from research data that only 30% of all Americans have actually even heard of NPR, which is maybe surprising to people who are big fans of the brand. There’s a huge swath of America that we need to make aware of the great work that we do, and a lot of that audience are younger and more diverse people.”
As impressive as NPR’s DEI strategy and tactics are, so too is Michael Smith. The second son of “immigrant strivers” from Jamaica as he describes, Michael was raised by a single mother, gained admission and scholarships to Stanford University. Now, he is living his childhood dream of being a leader in media and entertainment.
“I’ve always had this feeling of being the new kid and being outside, and I think there’s something actualizing about the power of being able to have your voice heard, even if it’s not being heard in your day-to-day life. You feel like if you’re making media content, you can be heard by the world. So I think that’s what drew me to it.”
The beneficiary of an 1980s minority-focused internship program at the San Francisco Chronicle Foundation, Michael, like myself, took advantage of internship opportunities designed to address diverse pipeline issues. I benefited from a program at Viacom that still exists, which recruits and trains underrepresented media talent. Throughout our conversation, Michael offers insights from his four decades of navigating the media industry, from an intern to founding the Cooking Channel to the CMO of NPR — as a Black man.
His story is inspiring to anyone who is interested in a career path, but lacks the immediate familial access to knowledge and mentorship in that industry. His combination of hard work, curiosity, creativity and agency provides a blueprint any individual can follow to manifest their professional dreams.
Here are a few highlights from our conversation, curated to help any individual or organization seeking to adapt to societal change and create a safe space for employees of all backgrounds, orientations, races, and beliefs.
This is NPR’s “number one priority. To really diversify our audience to better reflect and serve America. We’ve always been about making a more informed, and more culturally enriched population through our content, but we haven’t always done it. Our commitment right now is to very much reflect all of America, and put the public back into National Public Radio.”
“It’s really one big thing, which is just believing in the strategy to serve a more diverse America. You need to have a team of people whose life experience is more in line with the customers and service users that you’re serving.”
“If you think about when a brand like NPR started in the 1970s, the country was about 80-85% white. If you think about who the listeners were, most of whom were in colleges, who were in corporations, and all kinds of institutions, it was 80-90% white. We’re at a time now where it’s really changed. For the first time in some states like California, the majority of kids who are in elementary school are of color.”
Change or risk extinction. It appears NPR sees something that many organizations are failing to prioritize. If you cannot relate to your audience, then you will eventually lose them. Our nation has become more diverse and our nation’s media (and other organizations) need to adapt to meet their audiences’ expectations and sensibilities. Once you identify the core business case for diversity, it unlocks the license to infuse DE+I goals intrinsically into your business strategy, goals, and roadmap.
2. Get educated on the headwinds BIPOC employees face
Listen and learn:
“I know from my own career, when I got out of college and business school and was working on Madison Avenue back in the ’80s at Young & Rubicam, a popular and famous agency. There were only two African-Americans, me and one other gentleman, in the entire company – account management – and they had, I think, about 800 different people in account management.”
“One of the things that I had noticed when I was younger is that a lot of senior executives in media: If you looked at their family backgrounds, their fathers were also in media. Or they had brothers or cousins, or there were the people around the dinner table when they were 12 or 14. Their dad was reading The Wall Street Journal and talking about what was going on at work. They just had certain insights that people, especially BIPOC people, we just didn’t have.”
“In terms of discrimination, I think that the biggest thing that I’ve faced, and I think a lot of people of color have faced, is being underestimated, undervalued and marginalized in terms of what people think your potential could be.”
In today’s job market, if you wish to foster safety and retain high potential BIPOC employees, it is unwise to ignore the effects of race and privilege. Creating lasting inclusivity requires the hard work of building trust and connection for team members to explore privilege and bias. Peer to peer storytelling can be effective when appropriately moderated and as bonds of trust in organizations are strengthened. Ongoing people-manager training, community gathering, and proactive mentorship programs can help to close the trust gap, and reduce missed opportunities between employers and underrepresented talent.
3. Make long term investments in BIPOC pipeline
Listen and learn:
“When you think about diversity and inclusion across U.S. companies, there are two things going on, and they’re both related to this question of the pipeline. One is getting more people into the pipeline. Two is once they’re in the pipeline, making sure that they actually make it through and thrive.”
“You see, what C-Suite leaders need to do to really make diversity a reality is, first get true buy-in to why this matters. Not just the moral reason behind it, but the business imperative. Because your audience is changing and you’re gonna become a dinosaur if you don’t reflect the people you’re serving outside of your company. You gotta get buy-in at first, and then understand the nuances of the situation. It’s a combination of bringing people into your organization, but more importantly, what do you do once they’re in the organization.”
“I give a lot of credit to, as we talk about diversity, to the San Francisco Chronicle Foundation, which is a newspaper foundation that had created a minority internship program back in the 80s. The idea was to help kids of color get exposure to the business. If it wasn’t for that, I don’t think I would have gotten my foot in the door at the TV station that they owned. And then that led to other internships that I got in the industry and started my career.”
Content is king and content companies are the king makers. In the cases of media and advertising, as the cost of creating content falls and new platforms for brands and storytellers emerge, the competition for all talent is increasing. In order to create long term demographic shifts, investments need to be made that recruit and support the retention of candidates over an extended period. If you aren’t investing in BIPOC talent, stand back as players from all sectors win the love of the talent and audiences that you covet.
4. Measure the impact of investment in DE+I
Listen and learn:
“We measure our social impact on how many people we reach with our content, and how much of a change we make in our society through that content. When we look at NPR historically: We had about 80% white audience, 20% diverse audience, and that was similar to the country. But if you look at us today, our radio audience is still about 80-20, and the country has changed to digital. So we realize that we’ve gotten out of sync with America, and so we’ve been re-doubling our efforts to make the network younger and more diverse.”
“We’ve had great success in podcasting, because that’s the platform that younger people really resonate with. It’s on demand. They listen on their smartphones. We found that our podcast content, whether it’s shows like How I Built This or Planet Money or Code Switch, or It’s Been a Minute, those shows actually have about a 40% to 45% people of color audience.”
“So we see the path forward. Which is to make content and put it on the platforms where younger people are. We have another series on YouTube, which is another place where young people love to go. It’s called Tiny Desk Concerts, and it’s basically live concerts featuring a wide variety of diverse artists. And that series is bringing in young and very diverse people into the NPR fold. So we just feel like it’s about those series.”
Numbers don’t lie, unless you want them to. For NPR, by focusing on goals of attracting a younger and more diverse audience, they were able to implement strategies that are yielding the processes and connections necessary to produce the content that appeals to their desired audience. Whether your business goal is to appeal to more consumers, employees, clients or potential partnerships, identifying the business imperative for diversity, equity and inclusion and measuring it clearly, is the most effective tactic of assuring your moral goals remain linked to your business health regardless of leadership or cultural changes.
Watch or listen to highlights of Michael Tennant’s conversation with Michael Smith
About the author
Michael Tennant is a founder, writer, and movement-builder dedicated to spreading tools of empathy and helping people find their purpose. Before founding Curiosity Lab, Tennant spent 15-years becoming a media, advertising, and nonprofit executive, and delivering award-winning marketing strategies for companies like MTV, VICE, P&G, Coca-Cola, sweetgreen, and Oatly.
Tennant founded Curiosity Lab in 2017 and created the conversation card game Actually Curious. Actually Curious became a viral sensation in 2020 during Covid-19 and the rise of the racial justice movement for helping people build meaningful connections and to tackle the important topics facing our world.
He has channeled his business success and momentum into a sustained movement supporting BIPOC and other underrepresented communities through speaking, writing, leadership, mentorship, consulting, partnerships, and talent-pipeline programs.
As McKinsey reminds us, great products result when companies build bridges between technology innovation and audience preference. It is critical to deliver a holistic experience across functions and every stage of the customer journey. In media, aligning teams to develop data-informed products that engage audiences is more than a pathway to excellence. It’s essential for survival.
However, it can also be expensive to support. The record number of newsroom closures in 2020 offers unsettling proof that quality content cannot be the only draw. Organizations need to combine content and experience in new ways that decrease friction, increase satisfaction, and adapt to how consumers want to interact and where they are in the journey.
Continuing with our series of DCN video interviews, I talk to Millie Tran, chief product officer at The Texas Tribune. A local news success story, the Texas Tribune has built a sustainable business, employing more than 60 journalists through a range of revenue sources, including thousands of paying members.
Drawing from her experience at the Tribune, as well as The New York Times and Buzzfeed, Tran shares how the Tribune aligns editorial with the back-end processes to adapt content and coverage to what most readers find most useful. She also reveals how her team harnesses audience data and innovative news modules and visualizations to drive a 2x increase in homepage views and keep readers coming back.
Watch the video or read the full transcript below.
Peggy Anne Salz: Product is the new marketing, but it’s not a new focus. It is gaining new significance as content companies’ perfect ways to draw from their data, to customize content and measure the results. But what are the business benefits? How can you individualize flagship products to drive views and longer sessions? How should you focus efforts and investments? Tough questions, yes, but we get the inside track here today from The Texas Tribune on Digital Content Next.
I am your host, Peggy Anne Salz, mobile analyst, content marketing consultant and frequent contributor to Digital Content Next. Of course, DCN is a trade association serving the diverse needs of high-quality digital content companies globally.
So my guest today is the chief product officer of The Texas Tribune. So it is a perfect match with our topic. That is where she leads audience, engineering, data, design, marketing, and communications and loyalty teams. Before this, she was deputy off-platform editor at The New York Times and before that global growth editor.
I am so excited to have her here today to talk about how she creates a holistic and successful product. Millie Tran, welcome to Digital Content Next. Great to have you here.
Millie Tran: Thanks for having me Peggy. I am excited to talk.
Peggy: It is a great topic. Product is so important, and I would like to start by understanding the alignment between product and the newsroom.
So, just thinking about your day-to-day routines, strategically and in practice, what does that look like?
Tran: I love this question. You know product can feel really opaque. I think traditionally we think of product as sitting in the center. But at a news organization, the news is the product.
So that alignment between product and the newsroom really manifests in the alignment with me and our editorial director Stacy-Marie Ishmael. I would say we are constantly in communication. And one of our core functions in each of our roles is just making decisions, making a call under conditions of uncertainty, conflict, complexity and increasing and sometimes unknown interdependencies.
We make a decision over here it can affect two things over there. And we are in a process of constantly anticipating those downstream effects so we can make the smartest decision based on our strategy. The balance between editorial decisions, product decisions and revenue decisions.
How I see my job. I think it is a mix of people, process and product. And I think it has to be in that order. It has to be that you understand people, their roles, their jobs, their skills, to work together most efficiently and effectively to build that product.
Salz: I love that because first of all you have people first, that resonates with me and you are thinking about not just the output, not just the articles, videos, podcasts, whatever it needs to be. You are focused on an experience. What you yourself have called a more holistic product. I would like to understand what you mean by that. I think you have also tweeted about that as well.
Tran: Probably. Speaking of tweets, I was just reminded of this tweet that Margaret Sullivan shared the other day about how she is a big fan and supporter of local news. But the websites are so horrendous, and I think that neatly ties up with what you are asking. Holistic to me means the whole experience. All of those things you mentioned, those modules, articles, videos, podcasts. There are micro experiences to each of those things, but all of those add up to the overall user experience.
When I say holistic user experience, I also mean not just the engineering, not just the CMS, it is also the design. It is also the way we write headlines, for example. So it is organizationally something we want to provide our users. I know even the ads we consider putting on our website, are not random ads that are offensive and distracting to the journalism. If you go to our website, you will see right now the ads are very relevant to someone interested in Texas, for example.
Salz: That is very important because relevancy, as you said, it is the entire experience, and it has to fit together. What are the systems I am even interacting with or working with in the first place? It goes far beyond CMS is what I’m hearing.
Tran: It is, and I would say we have a great tech setup here, our CMS is homemade, so that is our engineering team’s biggest product, and that powers our website. We have our data visuals team who are doing one off projects that we can test and learn from.
So we have a way to experiment with new products and a nice process to build it into the broader systems to make it easier. It is this nice feedback loop of experimenting, learning, and then integrating it into how we just do our work.
So our journalists and editors can also make these things easily because that also informs the work product at the end.
Salz: I want to get back to the whole idea of delivering a product, a product is the new marketing. We said that at the top and it is a success when it either acquires audiences or deepens the connection with existing ones. What is it at The Texas Tribune? What is your audience approach? Is it acquisition or retention or maybe, something else?
Tran: That is a great question. I think it has to be both acquisition and retention.
One of our big strategic priorities right now is double and diversify. Doubling our audience and making our audience reflect Texas, be more representative of Texas.
I often think about our membership. We want to grow the number of people who are supporting us through small dollar donations. The way to increase the members is to either have more people come to your site and then you have this natural conversion flow.
A percentage of our total readers are members so there is this natural conversion flow already. So you get more members by increasing the number of people who come to you or you increase the effectiveness of converting them. So at every point, do they come back, do they potentially sign up for a newsletter? We have seen that newsletters are our most effective channel in membership conversion. So: getting a reader to donate to us. I think it is about putting both of those things into a framework that helps you understand the costs and benefits of each at every point.
So, I think it is about having all the data, putting it in a model and framework that helps you balance all of these things. I don’t think you can just choose one or the other. Having that broad view will help you make better decisions.
I said that is a quantitative framework and to loop back to what you said about product is the new marketing. I think people subscribe to things. They support organizations, they support brands for reasons that we can’t always quantify. It is really important also to understand the emotional connection that someone has to your product and your organization, your brand.
I think in addition to having that quantitative framework, you need a way to understand why people are supporting you. I think that goes back to an organization’s mission and values.
Something that I am really proud that we do is have our journalism free to publish for kind of any news organization.
When you support us, you support Texas overall having a better news ecosystem. I think people, that resonates with people. I think understanding that resonates with people is really important, even if you cannot quantify it in that model I just talked about. To your question it is balancing the acquisition and retention, but also balancing the measurables and immeasurables.
Salz: I like that because that is exactly it, it is very holistic. It is about looking at what you can measure, and we will talk about that in a moment.
There are events, there are metrics, there are things you want to optimize too, but you also want to optimize the experience. That is thinking about the people, the audience, what resonates with them, what did they appreciate?
Now I would love for you to unpack that. Maybe you can give an example, walk us through the homepage because that is where the conversions happen. That is where the conversations happen.
Tran: Yes, so let me just pull up my homepage for you. This is The Texas Tribune homepage. There are two things on here already that I can talk through that we just launched within the past year during my time at the Tribune.
So this navbar is something we launched and what you’re seeing here, by the way, these little green numbers are live audience data. We use Parse.ly for this so we can see in the last 10 minutes or whatever time period, what people are clicking on. We can see what is of interest, what is resonating with people, that will inform, not necessarily decide, what we choose to feature.
Going back to what I was saying, about our two teams, the data visuals team, which is in the newsroom and then the engineering team. This navbar was code that was in a previous, I think it was in an election page, a way for us to highlight different topics on that page. We ended up pulling that code and the engineering team made it a part of our core CMS.
So we took something that was a one-off, we learned about how people used it and then saw a need for it. There are so many coronavirus stories that we did not know how to surface all the different lines and angles. We knew that we had the code. We took it and then the engineering team built that feature into our CMS. Now editors can just choose their own topics each day and highlight the most important. I think that is a great example of the culture of experimentation, it is a culture of learning and iterating.
When the most people are on our homepage, we want to optimize for the most important things that they should see.
That was one quick way that we did that. Another way is this coronavirus in Texas model you will see here.
I think the beauty in all of this again, is the flexibility and adaptability. It’s actually not a coronavirus in Texas model. It is a model to feature any kind of series that we choose.
You can imagine this not being here. If you are scrolling through, it would take so long to see all the relevant stories in one place. This in itself is such a great product because it does a lot of things. It gives you the latest coverage in a very skimmable way. So you are not having to scroll so deep because most people don’t, and again, that is understanding the audience behavior and making it a better product, given that information. We also have feature coverage, so it is not just chronological, it is our editorial priorities.
I talked about newsletter subscribers and having that module there is really important to us because if we can get people to subscribe to our newsletters, they can become part of our email universe and therefore eventually hopefully become a member.
Salz: Absolutely. You can re-engage with them and talking about engagement you have some other modules that you were showing me in prep that I was very interested in. How you turned a news story into a module. Can you walk me through that as well?
Tran: Yes, absolutely. This is a story that we did, late last year about how Texas has made it easier and harder for people to vote in the pandemic.
You will see if you notice the order here. This was not the original order and what we did was make sure that we were tracking what people were clicking on, so we can get a sense of what people needed to know most. We ended up moving that question about when was the last day to register to vote first. And again, I think that’s just being responsive to reader needs, working with our newsroom, working with our engineering team, working with our data visuals team to really have an integrated news driven, but reader informed product. And you’ll also see here there’s fiscal support, right?
So April Hinkle who’s our chief revenue officer was able to take it to market and get funding for it. Again, this is just one way that we really tied in, the newsroom, product and revenue.
Salz: You more than doubled your views to the homepage in just one month.
So you went from 400,000 in February to more than a million in March, obviously breaking news, very important. We’re all talking about COVID, but that number is also consistent. So you keep them coming back. We talked about how that works when there’s news, breaking news, but of course it’s not a static world out there.
So I’d like to understand how you adjust to make the changes in the editorial product accordingly to keep that number as high as it is.
Tran: We found that our readers who visit the homepage are just also more engaged with us, right? They’re more loyal. They visit an average of 2.3 pages versus 1.4 of all visitors on site. They stay on the site for longer to 2 minutes, 45 seconds compared to 1 minute and 10 seconds for all visitors.
So they are more engaged. They’re reading more, they’re staying longer. So I really want to retain this audience. If this goes down, that would be a huge red flag to me because there are people who have come to, I would say, depend on us.
So I think it’s one, meeting that editorial promise and mission. And then two, it’s about making that experience better. And that’s all the things we talked through about making the homepage, you get more information in one glance, it’s fast. Speed matters in page loads.
And going back to your very first question about alignment between news and products, that’s one way to bring together that news promise and also making the best product experience for that person looking for information.
Salz: Of course, there’s another side to this. There are the challenges, you see it everywhere. Local newsrooms are crunched, even closing down. I’d like to have an understanding about the investment and staffing necessary to achieve what you’ve been able to do.
Tran: I’ll always say that it begins like starts and ends with the journalism, but I think just as important is having the kind of architecture and infrastructure to support that journalism.
So I think it’s really important to invest just as much in the scaffolding around the journalism to enable that journalism, with a continued focus on the reader and I think it’s important to say also the revenue.
And in terms of investment, we’re hiring two people right now for our marketing team because that marketing function actually serves several parts of the organization.
It serves our republishing strategy. It serves our event strategy, which has a direct line to revenue. And it serves our membership strategy, which has a line to revenue. Thinking about all the things that make things you see at the back end possible is really important. So that’s where we’re focusing our investments for this year.
Salz: I’d like to just think about going forward in a different way. You talk about holistic product and I’m looking at this all the time, what is the next big thing? Although I have to say we have a lot of work to do on the existing products we have.
We haven’t really nailed it in apps, but we are talking about AR, we are talking about voice, both are poised for explosive growth.
So let’s talk about what other innovations you might be looking at or ways you want to make your product or plan to make your product more engaging, more accessible, and increase of course engagement retention in the process. What’s on the horizon?
Tran: You mentioned AR, that’s definitely not in my roadmap. But voice on the other hand, that is more plausible.
With voice for example we have a pretty robust suite of audio products already. We just rebooted Point of Order which is our podcast with our CEO, Evan Smith ahead of The Texas Legislature being in session again. So I think it’s about aligning what we have currently to build off on and then really sizing the opportunity for us. Again, I’m really laser focused on understanding the ROI of every investment, predicting and modeling the outcomes of that. And I think in doing that you’re balancing high risk with high reward. And I think not everything will fall into that. But you also don’t want to limit yourself in not taking those risks. So anyway, to your actual question… I’m thinking about all of it and hoping that we can make the smartest decisions that aligns with our strategy, with the information we have.
Salz: I think you will, because of course you have these very specific guidelines. You’re thinking about people, you’re thinking about process, and you’re aligning to create a holistic experience. Some of these will play a role. Some of them, of course, maybe not. But all of it will be very interesting to watch as it goes forward.
Thank you so much for sharing Millie, for speaking about what you’re doing at The Texas Tribune, showing it as well in your homepage and giving us a little peek into where your thinking is going into the future. Thanks again for being on.
Tran: Thank you so much Peggy. This was great.
Salz: Thank you. And of course, thank you for tuning in and taking the time today. In the meantime, of course, be sure to check out all the great content here on digitalcontentnext.org or join the conversation on Twitter @DCNorg.
So until next time, I’m your host Peggy Anne Salz signing off for Digital Content Next.
Digital publishers see rays of hope as they continue to monetize premium content, transform business strategies, maximize technology investments, and increase revenue diversification. Just over two-thirds (69%) of digital publishers expect to see an overall revenue growth in 2020 according to a new report, Publishers Bullish on Talent, Tech and Growth in 2020, from Folio. Of those publishers expecting revenue growth, a quarter anticipate double digits. Only 4% of participants expect revenues to decline. This research is based on 182 surveyed industry professionals accompanied by eight in-depth executive interviews.
Respondents report the top three categories for revenue
growth are digital advertising including branded content (58%), live events
(43%), and marketing services (38%). In addition to revenue growth, audience
growth is also expected in 2020. Twenty-eight percent of publishers expect a
10% growth in audience while more than one-third (36%) expect single-digit
Audience development is more than just chasing clicks on digital platforms. It’s about learning your business ecosystem and how the pieces work together. Executives cite email (54%), social media (53%), and events (44%) as the strongest performers for audience development.
Publishers recognize the need to invest in the video side (35%) of their business as well as back end technology and operation systems (34%) for content management and advertising businesses. Publishers, especially traditional magazine businesses, see video as a very lucrative way to reinvent their content strategy and distribution model with attractive advertising packages at high CPMs.
Catherine Levene, President, Chief Digital Officer of Meredith Corporation, participated in Folio’s executive interviews. Meredith charted its course in preparation for 2020. Levene said Meredith is keenly focused is on innovation. This includes technology investments, including a new content management system and a first-party data and insights platform.
She also mentioned Meredith’s investments in video
production and distribution and new content-to-commerce capabilities. Levene sees
a win-win for their audience and advertisers, “We are creating content and
experiences that drive engagement and are offering predictive advertising that
achieves results for our marketing partners.”
Erin O’Mara, President of The Nation, also participated in the executive interviews. O’Mara described the digital business as more than just a website, it’s about super-serving the audience. A new initiative, “The Nation Classroom,” uses their archives to create robust teaching modules for high school student. The goal for this project is to be profitable as well as to make available to schools that cannot afford it. O’Mara see this initiative as an important step to extend a brand experience through community outreach.
As Folio’s research suggests, there is no time digital media
brands to standstill. It’s essential for media companies to take the steps to identify
the key business and audience strategies and investment in them.
Referral traffic to content has risen in recent years due in part to a largely unknown channel — mobile-first aggregators. Here’s what we know about mobile aggregators, why they matter, and importantly, their growing influence over reader traffic.
What is the mobile aggregators story?
Mobile-first aggregators present a growth story — the referral traffic they send to publishers has doubled in the past two years. A significant portion of this growth is driven by Google Chrome Suggestions and Google News, which each grew more than 50% this year (and drives significantly larger shares of referral traffic than Twitter).
The field of global mobile aggregators is also growing. Tokyo-based SmartNews and China-based news aggregator TopBuzz have shown rapid expansion, driving an increasing amount of traffic to sites. More importantly, their growth has changed the traffic landscape. Smartnews and TopBuzz are both now sending as much traffic as Yahoo.
Why content creators should pay attention to mobile aggregators
Digital-first organizations are still in the early stages of understanding the primary drivers of subscriptions. However, effective strategies rely on identifying the behaviors content creators can (and want to) encourage that will ultimately lead to more reader revenue.
From our research thus far, publishers have had far less success in converting readers from mobile-first aggregators compared to more traditional channels such as email. Connecting the dots is crucial.
Therefore, a deeper understanding of mobile-first aggregators can open up a whole new level of engagement, and by extension, a new reader revenue channel.
Next steps: Demystifying mobile aggregators
Based on what we currently know about mobile aggregators, here’s what content creators should keep in mind:
Strategize around these new mobile referral sources
Overall,we see the mobile-first aggregators as more of a missed opportunity than an unsolvable problem. We believe content creators can take advantage of this mostly untapped source of traffic by understanding their unique impact and optimizing content accordingly.
Audience development tactics are needed
For too long, mobile-first aggregators have been categorized as a subset of the larger platforms (i.e., Google search) we know well. However, we believe they should be seen as their own channel, which would get publishers closer to segmenting (and therefore optimizing) key drivers of traffic.
It’s all about attribution
Segmentation of traffic leads to better attribution. The ability to uncover mobile aggregator-specific patterns and better track their impact. Moreover, it can clear the path towards leveraging the channel for higher engagement, loyalty, and conversions.
Our data shows that the growth of mobile-first aggregators has significantly upended the traffic source landscape. Publishers would be remiss to take this shift lightly, as they may be missing out on a major source of referral traffic in the long-term.
This also coincides with a trend we’ve long seen — the fact that mobile-first readers are demanding better experiences. Therefore, it’s unsurprising that aggregators have become this increasingly influential source of traffic.
On September 25, Vox Media acquired New York
Media — the company behind my former employer, New York Magazine. Vice Media
acquired Refinery29 on October 2. And five days after that, news broke that
digital media company Group Nine had reached an agreement to acquire publisher
The long-expected digital consolidation is
finally upon us. Media companies, it’s clear, are looking to survive by getting
bigger in an effort to increase revenue and better compete by way of sheer
scale. By expanding their audiences, they hope they’ll be able to build a more
sustainable revenue model.
But is that necessarily true?
There’s nothing wrong with chasing scale or growing your business through intelligent mergers. (Piano recently took that route too, acquiring Cxense.) However, for media companies, growing overall audience doesn’t necessarily mean increased engagement or enhanced revenue. Not unless a critical percentage of that audience is made up of loyal users.
Identifying (and keeping) loyal users
At Piano, we often define “core audience” as those users who view at least 10 pages a month. If 5% of your audience or higher visits that often, that’s solid performance. However, if that number falls below 2%, there’s work to be done to drive deeper engagement and grow that share.
Building your core audience — and their engagement — is key to reaching your overall audience and revenue goals. And that starts with putting users at the center of your site experience. The media companies that Piano works with — companies that have made reader revenue the centerpiece of their businesses — understand that better than most. After all, they’ve realized that they need to build relationships if they expect users to pay.
So, what lessons can digital media companies
learn from leaders in subscriptions? And what other opportunity does a
user-first digital landscape present?
Understanding what your audience values
What do your most loyal users read or watch on
your site? Which topics resonate with them most? Are their preferences
different than those of mass, one-off users?
A successful user-first strategy starts with knowing how your site’s core audience behaves and understanding what users are looking for when they get there. Both are key factors that contribute to subscription conversion, and audience data like this plays a large part in driving strategy. However, while data explains a lot, our customers find that talking to users is just as important.
Asking users what they value about your content,
website and brand, either through surveys or one-on-one interviews (ideally
both) can give you an idea of unmet needs and what you could be doing that you
aren’t yet. It helps develop an understanding on how they see you compared to a
competitor and recognize the opportunity in those differences. And as you work
to understand your users, you may begin to identify different segments of your
core audience — along with the different content habits, demographics and
benefits they gain from your brand.
And that’s the kind of information that’s
critical to the next step of building a user-first strategy: defining the
Defining the customer journey
At Piano, we’ve developed a model for the
customer journey that can be applied to both media and other types of business.
It helps define the milestones of increasing user engagement and key
conversions you want to drive along the way. This is what it looks like:
Of course, these generalized milestones are applied differently from brand to brand. Business Insider and The Daily Beast, for example, both use registration as a sampling tool. They offer temporary access to premium articles in exchange for registration. In that case the Known stage of the customer journey becomes an important milestone, with a set of specific tactics employed to target active users who might not be ready to subscribe, encouraging them to register and experience paid features.
That highlights another essential element of
this approach: considering the “next best action” you want your users to take
to move them from one step of the customer journey to the next, then using
small nudges, “micro-experiences,” to move them along that path.
In a user-first world, building deeper user
engagement means considering the value exchange between the user and business.
What action do you want the user to take? What’s the benefit to them? What are
you asking in return? If you ask for permission to track them, for example,
does that enable you to improve their reading experience by only showing
articles they haven’t read yet? Are you making that benefit clear?
GDPR and the coming California privacy rules
require sites to ask permission for tracking, but few sites are doing more than
disclosing what’s being tracked. There’s a missed opportunity to use human
language instead of legalese and take it as a moment to build a relationship.
Lastly, the specific tactics also define the
metrics to focus on. In the case of the two sites I mentioned above, the
exposure rate (the proportion of users who see a registration offer) and the
conversion rate (of those exposed, how many register) are both key metrics to
measure and understand.
In the Piano database, there’s a pretty wide
range of exposure rates, but registration conversion rates are fairly stable —
2.2% for the bottom quartile and 3.4% for the top quartile. If you have enough
audience, even a 1% conversion rate can bring in a lot of registered users. If
subscriptions are a goal, then exposure rate, conversion rate, revenue per
user, retention and customer lifetime value are all crucial metrics to
Building user-first revenue
If you get the user journey and value exchange
right, you open up a world of opportunities to drive revenue. For
subscriptions, donations and memberships, certainly. But less obviously,
direct, trusted reader relationships become more valuable for advertising
That value hinges on publishers collecting first-party data and capturing user consent to track and display targeted advertising. Insider and Mediahuis in Belgium have each developed in-house solutions to create rich first-party profiles of users. Their approach primarily uses behavioral data on content consumption and extending their reach via lookalike modeling. They also allow advertisers to bring and match their first-party data to refine that targeting.
Diving a little deeper into the current ad landscape, increased privacy regulation and consumer awareness, plus changes in web browser cookie policies have made publisher-user relationships both valuable and essential. Valuable because publishers can build trust and encourage users to log in, allow tracking and even volunteer data in the right circumstances. Essential because without it, programmatic ad revenue drops, as browsers squeeze out third-party tracking.
Focusing on user relationships also opens up other product possibilities. Some other innovative examples we’ve seen: Austrian publisher Russmedia developed a gamified “Landlepunkte” points system to encourage user engagement, with points redeemed for swag, digital coupons and local event tickets. It dramatically increased user registrations, logged-in users and articles per user. Amedia in Norway turned 73 local newspapers and a national obsession with local professional soccer teams into a national live streaming sports network.
That’s the type of value a user-first strategy
can bring. That and the loyalty obtained from users who intuitively know they
live at the center of the experience you offer. No matter how big (or small)
your company is.
About the author
Michael Silberman, SVP Strategy, leads Piano’s Strategic Services team, helping clients develop reader revenue strategies and drive success and revenue on the Piano platform. He joined Piano in 2018 after 10 years building the digital media business at New York magazine, and earlier, as one of the top editors launching and growing MSNBC.com in the early days of the consumer Internet.
Reading Kate Lewis’s list of responsibilities as Chief Content Officer of Hearst Magazines boggles the mind. She oversees content strategy, which includes managing all of the company’s editors-in-chief and digital directors in the U.S., while working with its international network to coordinate global content.
Keep in mind that Hearst is a sprawling global publishing empire with 300 print editions and 240 digital brands. Lewis in charge of the 25 print and 25 digital publications in the U.S. The former has an audience of 89 million, the latter 108 million.
As though that weren’t enough for any single human, she also works closely with the product and technology teams, consumer marketing, and the division’s branded content unit, HearstMade – just in case she has some spare time.
Lewis is in constant motion. One thing is clear, to monitor this network of brands, she has become keenly aware of the value of data, which drives strategy across both print and digital. It also provides her with critical insights into the audience’s needs, desires, and expectations.
It’s all about that audience
Given her broad purview, Lewis has developed a core guiding philosophy (and great communications skills), which allows her to maintain a consistent approach while also considering each publication’s unique audience.
“Our approach is driven by our audience. What do they want from us, brand-by-brand, on every platform where we deliver content. We create and design content differently depending on the platform. And, of course, print is a huge platform for us. It’s where this all started! So, the thinking first will always be: ‘What does the audience want from us in this encounter?’ And yes, that is always evolving,” she explained.
As an example of that evolution, she points out that when she started at Hearst, they were very focused on Facebook to drive traffic. Now, they think about it as a way to get video views, among other things. “This kind of persistent change is something that feels digital in nature, but I think will be meaningful in the print world,” she said.
Digging the data
Back in the days before digital, it was hard to know much about your audience beyond subscriber numbers and some basic demographics. However, Lewis points out that today, print publications have access to the same data as the digital properties so that both can take advantage of it.
That means arming editors with as much information as possible. Hearst has a dedicated data operation called Hearst Data Studios, which feeds data across the brands. “This comes down to the efforts of our Hearst Data Studio, as well as an openness to sharing the data, the insights we have across our many, many brands.”
Beyond that, Lewis said that employees need transparency about how she is using the data internally to measure success or failure. “Sharing and being honest about wins and fails will be key. And truly defining, clearly, what a win and a loss is. My feeling is that content can rise from access to data, collaborative editors, and clear goals. We have established all the above amongst the digital team and I hope to add to what’s already being done on print.”
The future is now
Lewis believes that the biggest challenge on the content side of things remains distribution. And, she says that it’s getting harder to know your audience when it comes from many different sources. “People still hunger for content, big and small, but our direct connection to them has been somewhat obfuscated. It can be challenging to get in their face these days whether because of the decreasing number of newsstands or the increasing presence of social media. Our audience is huge but comes to us in many ways, not necessarily directly,” she said.
One way that media companies have tried to keep their audience front and center is through newsletters. Lewis acknowledges newsletters provide a kind of direct connection. However, she worries that consumer inboxes are becoming overloaded, which may sever that direct link. She sees chat as one way to fill the gap. “Chat is pervasive from grandmas to 10-year-olds,” she said. She also sees voice-driven media like Alexa and Siri also coming into play once they mature.
Ultimately, though, Lewis feels that everything boils down to audience engagement. It’s up to brands to figure out how best to keep the audience coming back as technology continually changes the way consumers interact with content creators. “Brands evolve based on generations and trends and the measure of good, and as the caretakers of the brands we’ll push them to be relevant and worth engaging with.”