In New England, we have a saying: “An ounce of experience is worth a pound of theory.” At The Boston Globe, New England’s largest news organization, the team is taking that saying to heart as they carefully launch and implement a video and larger marketing strategy designed to engage current subscribers and reach new, younger, more diverse audiences. Underpinned by an audience-centric mentality, the team focuses on understanding exactly what its users want and finding innovative ways to give it to them.
Engaging existing subscribers with video
The centerpiece of the 150-year-old publication’s video strategy is Boston Globe Today. Just celebrating its six-month anniversary, the 30-minute show is broadcast five days a week at 5 p.m. on Globe.com, NESN 360, and NESN’s linear channel. (NESN is the New England Sports Network.) The show focuses on mostly news topics Monday through Thursday, and on Friday, they switch to sports. Rather than just reporting the news, Boston Globe Today focuses on taking a closer look at the news, often from a journalist’s perspective. Host Segun Oduolowu talks to Globe journalists about their stories, sometimes even telling the story behind them.
“We know our readers watch television… but they weren’t doing it with us because we are traditionally a words-driven platform,” says Peggy Byrd, Chief Marketing Officer at The Boston Globe. The priority for this team is to engage current subscribers by meeting them where they are, no matter the channel.
“Conceptually, it was coming from who we are rather than what’s out there,” says Michelle Micone, Vice President, Innovation & Strategic Initiatives at The Boston Globe. Over a year in the making, The Globe hired a television producer and other industry pros to help bring this vision to life and ensure its quality is up to readers’ expectations. The TV team is constantly conversing with the newsroom, keeping an eye on interesting stories coming up and deciding which ones will translate well to the television format.
Boston Globe Today is available online for subscribers. However, a segment from each episode is available to all site visitors — potentially giving them a reason to subscribe. “We built this in segments as well as a full show,” says Micone. This allows viewers to engage with the content they are most interested in. Not only does this let audiences use their time wisely, but it also gives The Globe team an idea of what people are most interested in, which allows them to create an even better product moving forward.
While new subscribers are always nice, engagement of existing, loyal readers comes first. Byrd says the goal is to “expand a habit” and that the team wants to “expand the expectation and the experience and give people a new way of consuming.”
So far, Byrd says they are seeing traction when it comes to engaging existing subscribers, and they have just started to measure conversion for new subscribers.
Reaching audiences wherever they consume video
Giving your audience what it wants is always critical to building loyalty and retention, but no publication can grow without new audience members. As Byrd says, younger audiences and people of color “over-index” when it comes to video consumption, so The Globe knows that video is an essential part of finding those subscribers.
From topics to geographies to channels, The Globe tries to serve its broad audience in several ways. As Micone puts it, “We do feel like we have to do it all, and these are the ways we’re trying to service everyone in a modern way.” On TikTok, that means creating content specifically for the audience in ways that feel authentic to the platform.
“We’re definitely committed to video for the long term,” says Micone. “Part of the reason for even starting this conversation with the TV show is to become an organization that’s very skilled at video.”
Strategic approach to audience growth
YouTube has played a slightly different role at The Boston Globe and its many brands. It’s primarily been a marketing tool, which Byrd says provides valuable feedback, allowing the team to take the data they collect into its content rollout on YouTube. “This is a long road we’re on,” Micone adds. “The TV show, YouTube, TikTok, all these pieces are part of it.”
However, engaging younger audiences isn’t all about TikTok and video. The B-Side is an “email and social forward product,” according to Micone, the idea for which came from a Globe employee during the company’s biannual innovation weeks. After some massaging of the idea, the B-Side emerged, which the website describes as “a hyperlocal email- and social-only daily newsletter that provides authentic and relatable news to keep readers up-to-date and in the groove on local happenings in and around Boston.”
Up next, The Globe team is turning to SMS to expand the publication’s reach. As many mobile marketers know, getting users to opt-in is the biggest hurdle to messaging users on their phones. It’s “another way to meet people where they are,” says Byrd, and as is typical of The Globe’s methodical approach, “we’re taking our time with it.” It will be more of a marketing tool in its first iteration, eventually moving to the content distribution part of this puzzle. “The point of SMS is to learn what people want to get,” says Byrd, “and then once we discover what they want we can start to give it to them through their phones.”
Staying true to their New England roots, The Boston Globe team will continue to prioritize experience over theories as it experiments and innovates with ways to reach and serve audiences old and new.
Media Voices co-host Peter Houston is tired of hearing the same old industry buzzwords. The publishing platitudes are starting to wear a bit thin, and he’s decided to see if he can shake the conversation up a bit by speaking to some of the biggest characters in the business.
The latest episode of Media Voices’ Big Noises podcast features Michelle Manafy, Editorial Director at Digital Content Next (DCN).
Michelle started out as a journalist. The rise of digital media saw her embrace the changes and after working for a range of publications, from alt weeklies to B2B titles, she joined what was then the OPA to help premium publishers with their ongoing their digital evolution. She now manages online content and events for the group, which is known as DCN.
More than a decade in, Michelle still has hope for the media, but is frustrated by many of the publishing practices she sees. “Now we’re in a world where two thirds of our job is to rise above the noise. ‘Listen to me. Look at me’ right? Are we providing a value exchange? When people give us that gift of their attention, do we provide them with value… was it worth their time?”
Last week, over 400 attendees from 43 countries descended upon the Portuguese seaside town of Cascais for the 45th FIPP World Media Congress. They heard from more than 70 international speakers on a range of topics.
Here are three key themes that caught my eye from among the many insightful talks, demos, and individual conversations that I enjoyed over the course of the event.
1. It’s all about AI
Not surprisingly, it was impossible to ignore artificial intelligence. AI was mentioned in every session, reflecting AI’s dominance in shaping media strategies and operations, as well as the speed with which it is developing.
Despite universal interest, media companies and publishers are at different stages of their journey with this technology.
Bonnie Kintzer, president and CEO of TMB (Trusted Media Brands) explained how the company is “leaning into AI and Machine Learning.” They have set up an internal task force to help understand the risks of AI, as well as identify the best ways to use AI tools to grow their business.
For others, AI is already at the heart of what they do. Jan Thoresen, at Labrador CMS shared how AI was baked into their platform. With an emphasis on productivity and improving workflow, their content management system uses AI to create headlines, metadata, and tags, as well as produce story summaries.
“We try to make the tech disappear for the journalist,” he said. “Breaking news can´t wait,” he told us, “and you can´t wait for a developer or designer to deliver special effects. The tools have to be at the fingers of your reporters and editors.”
Juan Señor, President of Innovation Media Consulting, outlined what he sees as the transformative power of Generative AI. He predicts this technology will transform digital and create “AI-first” media companies. That may mean that “AI-first” becomes the new “digital-first,” essentially meaning companies prioritize–and seek to tackle challenges, opportunities and processes–with an AI solution at its heart. (FWIW: It’s an approach that Richard Heimann’s book Doing AIcautions against given concerns that companies may have with the solution, rather than the problem they are trying to solve.)
Aside from AI-generated content (images, text and videos), he anticipates other opportunities for publishers. “AI will never find the news, AI will never find the stories,” he told delegates. In fact, with this technology potentially ushering in a new era of fake news, Señor stressed the value of verification, trust and objectivity; areas he believes that publishers should lean into.
He also cautioned about some of the potential pitfalls.
“AI will supplant social and search,” he predicts. On that front, he emphasizes the importance of ensuring that publishers protect their IP, especially from scraping by AI tools. Others—such as the music industry—are already further advanced in tackling this issue.
Señor also recommended content creators learn from past mistakes. That means not getting into bed with tech companies on the promise that a revenue model will be worked out down the line. “We cannot rely on someone else’s platform to build our business,“ he cautioned.
2. Understanding your audience is paramount
Connecting with your audiences was another thread that ran throughout the event. This is essential not just for acquisition and retention, but also for revenue diversification.
Dr. Jens Mueffelmann, Executive Chairman of Bonnier, talked about how the company had developed its Marlin property to “move beyond a $10 magazine.” As part of this, he outlined the importance of their multichannel offering and the creation of new income streams under the “umbrella brand” of Marlin Expeditions.
This includes large-scale fishing tournaments, several of which featured participants with an average net worth of $10 million, as well as smaller expeditions. The success of these ventures is such that between 2020-2022, media accounted for just over a third (34%) of Marlin’s revenues. Tournaments, in contrast, generated 55% of their revenue.
As a result, earlier this year, the company created a new structure “built around brands and communities instead of products.” This includes the creation of a new “Marine Division” which oversees all print, digital and broadcast assets in this space, as well as relevant tournaments and expeditions. As Mueffelmann wrote on LinkedIn, when sharing these developments, “First the vision, then the strategy and now the structure…..as taught in business school.”
At TMB, revenue diversification comes in many forms including advertising, commerce, production and licensing. But the relationship with the audience is integral to many of these efforts.
The century-old company’s tagline is “Content. Inspired by You.” Many of its properties rely on audience-generated content. Therefore, it is integral to nurture and nourish those relationships.
For example, Taste of Home’s recipes are supplied by home cooks. And across their portfolio of brands, more than 350k people submit content ranging from videos to photographs, tips (e.g., Family Handyman) to jokes (Reader’s Digest), and more.
Relationship management also shapes revenue strategies as well as editorial. TMB’s affiliate revenues are up 72% year-on-year, but all of this content is written by their editors, not PRs or AI. “When you have the trust of your audience you must be careful to preserve that trust,” Kintzer said.
For Kerin O’Conner, Founder and CEO of the consultancy Atlas and a former CEO at Dennis Publishing, a focus on audience means the “customer must sit in the middle of your business model.”
Discussing recurring revenues, O’Conner pointed to the rise of the subscription economy and its implications for media companies. He observed that “subscription income is more consistent than other forms of monetization.”
Subsequently, media companies should focus on building long-term relationships with subscribers. “We need to be really good at relationships and understanding what we mean to our customers,” he advised.
3. Acquisitions can be integral for growth
There are multiple ways to grow your audiences and revenues. However, launching new products and verticals can be fraught with risk—and costs. One idea which emerged in multiple sessions was to reduce these potential pitfalls through partnerships and acquisitions.
This can take multiple forms. You can, for example, acquire an audience for a day, or even an article.
Juan Señor, noted the return of micropayments in the form of day passes. “We gave up on them [micropayments]. Now they’re coming back,” he says, outlining how this model can be a means to establish a relationship with audiences.
In turn, this has led to the creation of new FAST (Free Ad-Supported TV) offerings and expanded TMB’s footprint on different social media channels. And with much of this content also user-generated, it’s also created further revenue opportunities in the form of licensing, as well as ads on their new digital TV channels.
Acquisition goes beyond acquiring other companies and its online properties. It lies at the heart of growing this part of the business too. To help TMB continue to build their clips library, they have teams around the world (in LA, India and Romania) looking at—and then acquiring—social content.
Kintzer revealed that the company has paid out over $30 million over the last decade to clip owners. In turn, clips are being licensed by TMB for use in commercials for Cheerios, Huggies, Coca Cola, and others. Deepening this archive also creates more possibilities for streaming, video production and social video, too.
At FIPP, Lexie Kirkconnell-Kawana, the new chief executive of Impress UK, an independent press regulator, also emphasized the accuracy of generative AI (and the opportunity this may present for publishers). Alongside this, she also spoke to the challenges of determining copyright and “fair use” that we can expect to see play out in the near future. “We may see a wellspring of copyright regulators emerge in response to this,” she predicted.
Meanwhile, Madeleine White, co-editor-in-chief at B2b site The Audiencers and Head of International at the membership and subscription platform Poool, stressed the continued importance of registration strategies. This can help you get to know your audience and also increases the likelihood of converting visitors into subscribers. Using AI, in the form of a dynamic paywall, with the fashion magazine ELLE, White revealed that free registered members are up to 40x more likely to subscribe.
Lastly, Reid Deramus, Growth PM at Substack, noted how the leveling of the tech-stack had made it easier for small companies to do everything from collect payments (e.g. through Stripe), create good-looking content (with a good CMS) as well as reach audiences through channels like newsletters.
“It’s never been easier to pick up your iPhone and start your own media business,” he said. Because of this, it’s not just AI that’s a potential threat to publishers. You need to work hard to acquire, keep and develop talented staff.
“A lot of people who come to Substack felt like they couldn’t be themselves,” he said. To avoid hemorrhaging good people he encouraged companies “to find ways to motivate” some of their top performers. “Give them creative freedom,” he said, “keep them motivated financially… and let them have a seat at the table.”
The big picture
As we delve into the trends shaping the media landscape of Summer 2023, it becomes clearer than ever that media executives need solid strategies in three key areas: AI, audience, and acquisitions.
Artificial intelligence is revolutionizing workflows. However, it is also offering a number of IP challenges that we must address. Simultaneously, enhancing your knowledge—and relationship—with audiences is integral for growing subscriptions and reader revenues, including maximizing the relationships you already have. And the art of acquisition can encompass everything from other companies to UGC, as well as creative talent and new audiences.
Having strategies for these areas in place can help media organizations unlock areas of innovation and growth during a period that promises to be as transformative, and tumultuous, as any in recent memory.
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.