Consumer engagement is a critical component of news publishers’ direct to consumer revenue strategies. According to the International News Media Association’s (INMA) new report, Unpacking the Reader-Subscriber Lifetime Customer Journey, every publisher component from content to membership programs and e-newsletters, must reflect a strong and unified value proposition to consumers in order to be habit-forming.
The report includes highlights of Charles Duhigg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of Power of Habit, explanation of the science behind a habit formation. Scientists refer to this as “the habit loop” and it can easily apply to reader engagement. Every habit has a cue, routine, and reward. Duhigg explains that people stop “thinking” when they perform habitual activities. In fact, about 40 to 45% of what people do every day are routine based decisions (habits) rather than conscious decisions. Publishers should aspire to their content being habit forming.
However, to create a new habit, there needs to be a clear and distinct reward. It’s even better if the reward is immediate. Interestingly, Duhigg believes educating people about the “habit loop” helps to change their behavior. If the reward is clear, consumers understand the payback of their actions and accept them more easily. Rewards don’t just need to be monetary or transactional; they can also be emotional.
The report also identifies the importance in shifting focus from top of the funnel acquisition metrics to the consumer lifecycle and conversion metrics. The Wall Street Journal did just this and now trains its journalists to think about three key metrics:
Reach: How many consumers are reached by WSJ content at any given moment? Consumers are identified in two distinct groups a) subscribers and b) potential subscribers.
Quality: Are the consumers reached the ones who will return to consume more content? Will they promote WSJ content to friends and family?
Habit: Is the routine habit forming? When you build a reading habit, the consumption cycle continues.
The INMA report also features Matt Skibinski, from The Lenfest Institute, and cites his definition of engagement: “when readers find your content, products, and brands valuable enough that they are willing to pay for it.” Skibiniki believes publishers should look at the occasional reader, the regular reader and the one-time reader to classes of readers will help identify the different signals of engagement.
The INMA report finds consumer engagement to be the most important outcome of direct to consumer revenue strategies. It’s when habits and emotions create a pattern of repetition. It’s also when retention trumps acquisition in a publisher’s relationship with its audience. And INMA concludes that the greater the engagement, the greater the consumer revenue.
Ten years into the iPhone and global App Economy and all the rules have changed. For nearly a decade, app makers focused on app downloads and installs, the lower-funnel activity that powered staggering growth in the early days of the app store. Now, this focus has shifted due to a dawning realization that sustainable success is the result of a strategy that drives engagement and activity deeper in the funnel. The focus has rightly shifted to app retention.
A defining moment was the observation by mobile measurement company Adjust, which found that on average users delete apps 5.8 days after they used them last. Significantly, Entertainment apps have the shortest lifespan, with users deleting this app category less than one day following their last session.
What’s worse, the average app loses its entire user base within a few months. Media apps may offer fresh content to nurture engagement, but even that appeal can grow stale. A recent report that provides an overview of Media and Entertainment engagement and retention metrics reveals 43% abandon the app a week after they install it and 67% of users churn within two weeks.
Indeed, 2018 will go on record as the year our fascination with the hockey-stick growth of the global App Economy as measured in app downloads (pegged to grow globally from 205 billion in 2018 to 258 billion in 2022) was replaced by the sober realization that the average retention rate for mobile apps plummets after just the first three days.
It follows that 2019 will be the year we see an avalanche of interest and activity aimed at finding new and better ways to encourage app engagement, app retention, and drive lasting loyalty.
It’s a given that effective marketing is personal and relevant, aligned with who your consumer is and understanding of their individual needs. However, apps introduce a new dynamic: activity. To deliver marketing and messaging users will accept and appreciate, marketers must also segment audiences according to what they have or haven’t done in-app.
If you want users to keep coming back to your app, you need to understand user profiles (age, gender, geography). But you also need to grasp user behaviors and the patterns that point to churn. (Have they launched the app in the last 3-5 days? Where did they drop out before committing to a subscription? What did they choose as news preferences and how often would they prefer updates?)
Unfortunately, the work required to segment audiences and – more importantly – market to each user segment differently has moved beyond human capacity. It requires marketers to sift through billions of data points (trillions if you count the input from the smartphone sensors).
In a recent interview Anand Jain, Co-Founder at CleverTap, a mobile marketing platform company sharply focused on the science of app engagement, told me marketers typically tend to use “less than 5% of the data available to them to make decisions.” However, it’s not just because marketers are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of data. Marketers, he said, also increasingly struggle with bias. “Preconceived notions about what the data is ‘telling’ them about how users should – and must – act in their app or react to marketing messaging is blinding marketers to the smart ways they could be prioritizing and personalizing campaigns to match every user’s unique engagement preferences.”
Removing bias to deepen engagement
That’s where machine learning can play a major role. It has the capacity to weed out human bias and help marketers open the aperture of how they view and engage their audiences.
Right now, marketers tend to operate according to rules. If users haven’t done x in the app for a certain period of time, reach out with y message via the channel that makes the most sense (push, in-app messaging, text, email, social). But without a deep understanding of who the audience is and what will bring them back (insights that emerge when marketers wield all the data, not just 5% of it), the outcome—even if it is personalized to address the user by first name—has many similarities to one-size-fits-all marketing.
Good marketers are clearly customer focused and likely have a strong intuitive sense of their customers’ behaviors. However, they will undoubtedly achieve greater success by understanding the vast amount of customer information that digital makes possible. This is the first step to architect strategies that will allow them to achieve customer intimacy at scale.
Engagement is emerging as “the” performance metric that matters across the every stage of the marketing funnel and every step of the user journey. But keeping users active and interested remains the biggest puzzle marketers have yet to crack. That’s where machine learning shines. It gives marketers a much greater ability to tailor engagement approaches to specific audiences, even specific customers, based on the probability that they are very likely, likely and even less likely to churn. The opportunity and ever-present challenge of mobile is its intimacy. To retain customers, every offer, incentive, “nudge” in the desired direction must strike a personal note.
You thought marketing to Millennials was tricky? Meet Gen Z. They’re not only digital natives, they’re social and mobile natives too. To gain insight into this generation, MNI Targeted Media Inc. commissioned a study of Gen Z behavior, surveying students at major universities about their media consumption habits. And we learned a lot.
This generation, born between 1995 and 2012, are mobile-first, and rarely seen without their phones in-hand. But don’t put them down just because they’re constantly staring at their smartphones: Gen Z-ers are socially fluid change agents with tremendous purchase influence.
They may be young, but they’ll be voting soon – and they’re more fiscally savvy than you think. Gen Z is entrepreneurial, saving up for and buying the things they want. Their purchase decisions are partly influenced by their peers and personalities they admire. But take note: These influencers also need to align with Gen Z values and marketers will want to recognize that Gen Z are influencers and entrepreneurs unto themselves.
It’s equally important for marketers to keep messaging relevant and authentic. Interestingly enough for Gen Z, celebrities aren’t their “go to” source. For a generation that lives on social media, their influencers can be their fashion forward friends, political influencers or even fellow Gen Z members who have already gained notoriety on their own terms. In this regard, context matters and the platform on which they engage with influencers will be as important to marketers as their messaging. Businesses that take the time to understand how this generation consumes media, how they grow to trust and how they shop and make purchases stand to benefit.
This generation is smart, and they’ll see right through attempts to “buy” them. But if you approach them with authenticity and engage them on the channels and platforms where they’re most receptive, you may just win them over. Publishers need to adhere to these same insights, with an appropriate responsiveness when there is urgency from their audience. We can look to the recent news of ABC canceling its #1 ranked comedy Roseanne after the star’s bizarre Twitter rant. In this case, we saw the network put authenticity and value before revenue – which in the end I suspect will pay off in spades.
The key to making a connection with them is to make sure you know and understand all the channels in which they consume media – that means podcasts, YouTube, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, for starters. There’s more to it than just advertising or posting on these channels: you have to speak their language. You will want to have subject matter experts who really understand how Gen Z communicates on each channel so that your content is authentic. The language across channels varies, and the nuances will be important. Getting it wrong could mean losing this audience’s confidence for the long term.
With this in mind, here are six laws of marketing to Gen Z:
1. Keep your content platform-specific
This generation moves through social channels seamlessly, and they understand the value of the storytelling within each platform. They expect the brands they follow to do the same. You need to know the rules of engagement for each social network, and map custom content for each in a unique way. Here’s what they expect across channels:
Snapchat – A way to share real-life moments
Instagram – How they showcase their aspirational selves
Twitter – Their top news source
Facebook – A source of general information
2. Keep your prices competitive and your quality high
This is a generation of savvy shoppers. They like to save money and they know how to compare prices. If a competitor is selling a product for less, they will buy it for less. That said, they respect good quality, and will pay more for a better product.
3. Let them tell the story with their own original content
If you give Gen Z customers an opportunity to create user-generated content related to your product or brand, they’re likely to do it. There are big payoffs to relinquishing control of your branded content:
They like seeing their peers using products – and it will create a positive ripple effect.
They like posting content to their own channels.
They like getting noticed, and your brand benefits from going along for the ride. You get to enjoy the dividends by driving engagement and reinforcing your brand identity.
4. Be authentic
Millennials had a reputation for insisting that brands be “real,” but Gen Z takes it a step further. They want to feel like they know the people behind the brand, and they like brands that care about the issues that are important to them. Brands like Tom’s and Bob’s that donate to charity do well. Mattel’s support of same-sex marriage and Dick’s Sporting Goods halting sales of assault rifles were both Gen Z-friendly moves.
5. Want to capture them in-store? Consider testing AI
6. Ask them for feedback, and then listen to their responses
As digital, social and mobile natives, Gen Z is comfortable engaging in discourse with brands they care about. If you’re unsure about how a particular campaign or message you’re working on will resonate, solicit their opinion. They’ll respond, and they’ll be honest.
Adding Gen Z employees to your organization is the best approach to engaging them as consumers. These young adults have a language and a style of their own that is hard to replicate. So, bring in the real deal, and integrate them in with your older team members. Not only will this help your organization better understand how Gen Z moves through the world, it will ensure you’re not embarrassing yourself by posting three-month-old memes to your social channels. Gen Z team members will make sure you’re always authentic, and that your messaging is always current and on fleek.
I mean, on trend.
Vicki Brakl is Vice President, Marketing of MNI Targeted Media Inc., and its three business units, Targeted Media Health, MNI, and Harpoon Digital. A 16-year multi-channel marketing veteran with a rich background that spans executive management, strategy, branding, positioning, promotion, experiential and event planning, public relations and internal communications, Vicki has extensive experience developing innovative multi-platform brand plans and media strategies. Her previous roles include client and agency-side positions at PepsiCo, several below-the-line Omnicom agencies and a few startups in the CPG, Publishing and private-public partnership sectors. She has crafted and executed high-impact marketing plans for Pepsi brands, Walmart, Bank of America, TD Ameritrade, Citibank, Skinny Water, and countless others.
Our lives and devices have become inextricably intertwined. Five years ago, mobile devices eclipsed desktops to become the platform that defines our daily routine. Mobile is our go-to for advice, assistance, and access to content and experiences. This attachment to mobile and apps turns up the pressure on brands and content companies to engage with consumers in ways (and contexts) that demonstrate a deep understanding of their needs and a genuine desire to put people first.
Fulfilling consumer demand for content that is relevant, valuable, and in no way intrusive is not a mere courtesy; it’s a business imperative. Mobile has created a strong sense of entitlement among consumers — particularly Millennials and younger generations, which are accustomed to instant gratification with a swipe or click. The outcome is an audience of empowered consumers who want what they want, when and how they want it.
Mobile also forces companies to obsess around what I’ll call the “appropriateness” of the how, what and when of their side of this two-way conversation taking place on mobile. In a sense, mobile has rewritten the rules of engagement. Mobile is a fiercely personal device that requires companies to ask for consent and earn trust. A major trust factor is showing that they understand and appreciate what consumers want and value most. Missing a step and delivering inappropriate experiences has negative consequences.
Recent research from Forrester suggests that companies lack the skill set- mindset required to meet customer expectations. Despite “skyrocketing” mobile adoption rates globally, the analyst firm observes that most companies “struggle to engage with consumers via mobile.” Specifically, only 32% say they have systematically integrated mobile into their marketing approach, and less than 56% say they use mobile to transform the customer experience.
Underestimating the pivotal role of mobile is everyday life represents a dangerous disconnect with business best practice. After all, mobile is not another screen. It is the screen. The 2017 Mobile Maturity study, conducted by digital media and digital marketing solutions company Adobe and based on a survey of 4,000 consumers across the U.S. and Europe, reveals that over 90% of respondents consider mobile to be their “primary device.”
The Age of Empathy
People are more connected that ever. And they also demand to be heard. They hunger for experiences that are genuine. Companies must show they listen and care, and cultivating these capabilities is at the center of Empathy Marketing.
In daily life, empathy is all about the ability to take a walk in someone else’s shoes. It’s the action of understanding and being sensitive to the feelings and thoughts of another human being. In a company-to-consumer scenario, empathy is an approach fueled by hard data and soft skills to deliver people content and experiences that are amazing, appropriate and deeply engaging.
Empathy Marketing is mobile-first and consumer-centric, wielding the unique ability of the mobile channel to deliver personally- and contextually-relevant content and experiences that move the needle. But it’s not about technology. Companies must also move our hearts, with approaches that show they listen and care. Based on nearly two decades of research and writing about engagement marketing examples and best practice, I have identified 3 approaches (the 3Cs) that demonstrate empathy and drive results.
The 3Cs of Empathetic Marketing
Content, context, and, now, cognitive. It’s the capabilities mix that allows companies to move from acting mobile-first (table stakes at this point, by the way) to being people-first. At its core, this approach builds on a deep understanding of the consumer to anticipate needs and requirements and pinpoint proper moments in the mobile journey to interject with meaningful and useful suggestions or assistance – or simply show presence. The input is data, but not just from mobile.
Companies that have a broad range of content assets should connect the dots in the online, offline, mobile, social, and digital ‘sessions’ that define our daily routine. These insights will allow them to deliver what consumers want (when and how they want it and on their preferred platform) even before they want it. The output is a clear flow of content and experiences that feels as if it has been designed specifically to satisfy the individual’s need-state. Algorithms help. But companies should also act human, asking questions and responding in ways that indicate they are genuinely interested in listening and, above all, learning. Communications (notifications, text and email) are careful and crafted to show companies are there for their audience and dedicated to making their lives better.
Companies can blame the new breed of on-demand apps, such as Uber, for setting the bar high. Apps and experiences that have succeeded in reducing time, friction, and frustration have created the consumer expectation that everything should be so simple. Avoid complexity at all cost. Start with a design that reduces clicks to content and keeps what’s important in “thumb’s reach.”
However, it’s not enough to embrace design that reduces friction. Fuel interactions with deep customer connection and automation where it counts. Avoid making consumers repeat actions or input information, particularly if they already provided at an earlier stage of the journey. Build in features and functions allowing consumers to save settings, store what they have read (or want to read later), make lists, and share with their communities. Think about the actions your content is likely to inspire plan to make sure their individual path-to-action is hassle-free. This starts with a review of your landscape to identify options and partners (for example, complementary content companies and apps) essential to delivering consumers a one-stop experience.
Borrow a page from the Ubers of the world — companies that offer services from the source down the last mile to the customer — and position your content within a tight-knit ecosystem with you at the helm. For example, if you have travel content, pair it with sites or apps that allow consumers to book a hotel or trip directly from the same page in the app or on the website in the all-important moment of inspiration. Remove the wait, reduce the friction or just enable an impulse action. Whatever you do, demonstrate a laser-focus on making experiences easy and enjoyable and consumers will reward your efforts with intense loyalty.
Effective approaches move the needle, creatives move the heart. Acquire and retain audiences with the help of authentic marketing creative that shows you understand and uphold what is important to them. The right creative resonates with your audience. Making that match requires a firm grasp of data that goes beyond demographics and location. Do your research, starting with consumer studies and surveys to open the aperture of how you see your audience. Harness psychographics to understand where your audience is coming from and help you map a journey that is aligned with their lifestyles and life stages (not just the stages in the funnel). There are no blueprints. But there are valuable lessons and guidelines if you have the vision to look outside your vertical.
A great example is finance, which has seen a massive decline in consumer trust and brand love. Mobile fintech apps and startups are gaining traction with the help of approaches that show they understand what their audience want and are sincere about helping them to achieve life goals. It starts with something as simple as imagery that is inclusive. For example: showcasing women in campaigns creatives and empowering them with the feeling they can take control of their financial future. Effective assets and advertising demonstrate traits women value most (trustworthiness, dependability, and accessibility). Companies can adapt these key takeaways to power approaches that drive consumer connection and deepen trust.
As the saying goes: Actions speak louder than words. This is a connected age where consumer crave authenticity. So, companies must use everything they know about their audience to deliver experiences that address needs, anticipate interests, or simply go the distance to make their life better. Anything less shows disregard for the individual and tells consumers you’re not listening, or worse, you simply don’t care.
Defining audience engagement can feel daunting at times. In our work at Harvard Business Review, we’re looking at engagement – and experimenting to understand that engagement better – through several different lenses: What is most valuable to current subscribers or potential subscribers or social audiences? And what formats hold the most growth potential across social, text, audio, video, bots, and so on.
Here are a few things we’ve learned from some of our recent projects and experiments:
1. When doing something brand new, get (at least a few) true believers in the mix.
Like others, we barreled into doing Facebook Live videos in early 2016. We weren’t doing much live video on the editorial side at the time, but we had a few ideas about what would work and what wouldn’t. We were especially eager to try videos that allowed the experts who write for HBR to explain their ideas to the audience directly. These videos, called whiteboard sessions, put a professor or business leader or other expert in front of a camera (or, early on, in front of a phone) to talk about their idea or concept for up to 40 minutes.
We knew this format would be fairly natural to the presenters because they know how to lecture or give presentations. That gave us a constant point of quality and allowed us to focus on the engagement side: questions, comments, visuals, takeaways.
However, while we had confidence in the format, we needed to work on getting the audience to engage. We discovered the importance of enthusiastic presenters. We had a few early on on who really believed in the opportunities that live, social video offered. One of those early whiteboard experts was entrepreneur and author Evan Baehr. He immediately understood the challenges: a live audience, a social platform, and a lot of competition for your attention from other content. But his enthusiasm got the audience’s attention right away and gave us a glimpse of what was possible with this format.
That confidence in the whiteboard format has been part of what has led us produce and experiment with more than 100 live whiteboards with experts from all over the world. We’re now working on creating a larger video strategy for them.
But without the enthusiasm of people like Evan and others early in the process, we might have assumed whiteboards were a nice-to-have and not invested our time as purposefully. So, keep in mind that, when you’re trying something new, you need to make sure you have some enthusiasts in the mix. The audience can feel it when you’re not enthusiastic about a medium (especially when it comes to video and audio), which will be reflected in popularity and engagement.
2. Text interactions can be tricky.
While we often seen hundreds of comments and shares on live videos, our results have been somewhat mixed when it’s come to text-based chats.
We write about a lot of work advice that’s very personal and a lot of business trends that are important to understand. We know that connecting our audience – and specifically our subscribers – to the experts who write for us helps people go even deeper in applying and sharing these ideas.
We’ve tried text-based engagement experiments around this premise in a couple of ways. In one open-to-all experiment around an important feature piece (an article series we call the Big Idea) on inequality between firms, we invited readers to a Slack channel where the author of the main piece was going to be available for questions and conversation about his research and work. We thought this had the right combination of platform plus deep, important topic and timely relevance.
The results were mixed. While we had more than 150 readers join the Slack channel, they mostly lurked. It’s tough to diagnose why. Was the text format intimidating? Too much work? Do people really want to listen to an expert first and foremost?
We’ve also tried this type of experiment in subscriber-only settings. We’ve invited authors of HBR pieces to answer questions in a closed Facebook group for subscribers, for example. The results have often been similar. Most people lurk and don’t contribute much. We’ll keep experimenting with this type of engagement. But we may need to pair text chat with something else – like video or audio – to really stir interaction. And we need to keep considering the right platform, as well as how much people want to interact with each other instead of an editor or author from HBR.
3. Constantly test your assumptions.
A central tenet of HBR’s experimentation and innovation practice is to write down our assumptions, goals, and hypotheses. This document is shared between product, editorial, and other teams involved in the project. We then check back on those assumptions at planned intervals to understand what we should do differently, what we’ve learned, and to help gauge whether the experiment should continue.
We’ve done two bot projects, one on Slack and one on Facebook Messenger, that help illustrate how this works. When we started the HBR bot on Slack, we assumed that people would love to see our big beautiful images in their conversations with our bot. However, our UX research proved that was wrong. People just wanted to get to work advice we were offering.
We also hypothesized that we wouldn’t drive any trackable subscriptions through the bot. That was right. But we also believed in driving frequent interactions through the bot should lead them to engage more deeply with us, even if we can’t draw a straight line back to their bot experience. That engagement could take a lot of shapes: Signing up for a newsletter, following a social channel, sharing an article with a friend.
It helps to write down even your most basic assumptions. For our recent Women at Work pop-up podcast, we documented the assumption that people wanted to engage with HBR about this topic in an audio experience. For the bots, we had to test our assumptions that people wanted to consume our content in bot form (and we’re still testing whether that’s true). It seems basic, but doing these things helps your build up a store of observations that can inform your future experiment plans and pitches.
4. Be clear on asks to your audience.
Don’t take this one for granted. When you ask your audience to do something, have a purpose and follow through. HBR has had a subscriber-only Facebook group for about a year now. The editor who runs it, my colleague Laura Amico, is clear that when editors post to that group, there’s a purpose and a plan. We’re not just throwing out a “What do you think?” to that community and walking away. Instead, we’re asking that community to join us in testing advice or sharing ideas on how they’ve solved tough work problems.
We’re also opening up new channels to listen to our audience and incorporate their feedback. Our new Dear HBR: podcast answers questions from the audience about tough workplace dilemmas. It’s our newest foray into the advice space, and we’re already seeing steady growth in the number of questions being posed.
And we’re taking a fresh look at the role of article comments in this space. Laura is working on this too, and I thought I’d share part of an internal report she’s developing to help push our thinking in this area:
Comments are about so much more than what is typed into a text box. Commenters need to know how to succeed in what we’re asking them to do and they need to be rewarded for doing it. That’s true on the other side, too; editors and others working with audience development also need to know how they and the business benefit from engagement. Developing use cases for comments, promoting good comments, and sharing engagement results internally and externally are all key to maintaining the relationships.
As we move into new areas of experimentation around engagement – involving everything from email to comments to visual storytelling to machine learning – we’ll keep testing our assumptions. We’ll keep pushing ourselves to think dynamically about our audience and how we ask for their time. And hopefully we’ll make their day at work a little better, too.
Maureen Hoch is Editor of HBR.org. Hoch leads Harvard Business Review’s digital newsroom and oversees the team working on HBR’s Facebook Live videos. She played an instrumental role in the redesign of HBR.org, which has since garnered three Webbys, and she helped lead the team that created HBR’s bots on Slack and Facebook Messenger. Hoch joined HBR as Senior Editor in 2013. She has previously worked for the PBS NewsHour, the World Bank, and The Washington Post Express.
Digital media offers publishers new opportunities to better understand audience engagement. Using post-click measures within an article page of the client-side logging system provides insights into audience preferences and retention. Nir Grinberg, a research fellow at the Harvard Institute for Quantitative Social Science together with the Northeastern’s Lazer Lab, reports on new post-click user engagement measures. His report, Identifying Modes of User Engagement with Online News and Their Relationship to Information Gain in Text, identifies metrics that will help publishers anticipate how long a reader will stay with an article and improve the recommendation process for new content.
Grinberg’s analyzes 7.7 million-page views from Chartbeat data on seven different news publications with articles across finance, how to, magazine (longer-form), science, sports, technology, and women.
Grinberg enlists three core metrics in his study:
dwell time (an estimate of the total time a user spends on a page)
scroll depth (the furthest position the user reaches on the page)
page interaction (the amount of interaction with the page through any form of input such as touch, mouse move, etc.).
His first step is to project the modes of behavior present in the individual page views. Then, he uses this information to predict the common behaviors of a larger audience. Identifying the modes can enable publishers and recommendation system to distinguish between different forms of reading, scanning and other lighter forms of engagement.
While Grinberg valued the original three metrics, he finds the information they provide limiting. His next step combines and correlates the original metrics with new measures. For example, he analyzes the proportion of an article that is visible on a user’s screen (relative depth) with how quickly a user scrolls through the visible part of the page (average scrolling speed).
Combining these two measures provides information about an overall navigation experience throughout an article. This information also allows recommendations systems to distinguish between audiences reading, scanning and other lighter forms of engagement. Based on these findings, Grinberg’s classifies reading behavior into five types: “Scan,” “Read,” “Read (long),” “Idle,” and “Shallow” (plus bounce backs for users who get to a page and almost immediately leave). This offers insight into the variety of reading behaviors and the level of engagement present when a user is consuming content.
As an example, the chart above reflects the relationship between different reading behaviors and their levels of engagement. The top right panel shows that the median article on a sports site has about 28% of page views that are scanning the article. The percentage is considerably higher than the rate of scanning in the other content categories. This suggests that people consume sports articles with a different intent, perhaps simply looking for quick games scores and/or result of a sporting event. This data helps characterize the likely user behaviors and intent of the page view and factors into content recommendations.
In addition to user behaviors, Grinberg identifies a measure that he calls “Semantic Information Gain” (SIG), the flow of information on a page. SIG captures how quickly an article moves toward its final point, It can be very helpful for publishers to use to see if or where a reader gets lost in an article. SIG can be highly predictive of audience engagement.
Practical and informative measures of post-click user engagement can improve recommendations of news content and enable more informed editorial decisions. Distinguishing between different modes of engagement with an article, such as scan, skim, or in-depth reading, can enable recommendation systems to better match articles with potential readers based on their engagement profile.
The digital media business is finally making the shift from attention to user engagement. We see users as individuals rather than sets of eyeballs and focus on winning hearts and minds. This is a huge, ultimately positive change that will produce a much healthier media ecosystem. But it’s not going to be easy. It requires new technology, new marketing and product skills, and most importantly a change in mindset from content-first to customer-first. That means moving away from some very entrenched habits.
The first 20 years of the consumer internet, especially in media, have been almost entirely about aggregating audience. Sites seek to attract millions, often tens of millions, occasionally hundreds of millions of people, with all those eyeballs “looking” at billions of banner ads. That focus on big, unidentified, often undifferentiated audiences made it possible for media companies to take the existing ad models—based mostly on audience size—and adapt them pretty easily to digital. Yes, there were significant creative and technical challenges in making that shift—learning to create digital stories and to sell and serve digital ads. But fundamentally the model itself didn’t change much.
The relationship with the audience was still largely a one-way, anonymous relationship, despite the new ability to engage directly, to measure behavior and to learn more about that audience. Most media companies were shortsighted, opting to avoid friction-inducing roadblocks like registration in order to maximize unique visitors, pageviews and ad impressions, missing a chance to develop a direct relationship with readers.
The end result: massive harvesting of user data, ad-cluttered sites powered by the ad tech Lumascape, “recommended for you” widgets, ad fraud, and ultimately unhappy, ad blocking users.
But simply launching a paywall, adding affiliate links or announcing an event series isn’t enough (hello, Buzzfeed). That’s just throwing new revenue streams up against the digital wall like spaghetti. There are four essential elements required for success in the new user-engagement era of digital media: customer knowledge, product strategy, enabling technology and marketing skill.
Let’s dig into each in turn.
In the attention era, media companies didn’t need to change their fundamental model. We could still follow an editor-first content strategy—writing about what editors thought was important or interesting. And the ad tech revenue stream didn’t require any understanding of who was reading beyond some basic demographics. Yes, there were audience analytics, paying attention to SEO trends and later social traffic. But the starting point was always what WE thought was interesting. We didn’t truly know our customers. In the user engagement era, understanding the reader (or viewer) has to come first. Whom are we serving? What can we learn about them? What do they need to live their lives, do their jobs or be entertained? Then we can apply editorial and product creativity to serve, surprise and delight them with great products and stories they didn’t know they wanted.
Once you know your customer, developing the right product to serve them takes more than creativity. It also requires focus, experimentation and iteration. In product management terms, it’s “finding product-market fit.” Focus means keeping your eye on the customer you’ve identified when deciding what product ideas to pursue and rejecting ideas that aren’t a fit for those customers. Experimentation and iteration go hand-in-hand. Buildenough of the product to test it with your customers (or at least a few of them), see what works and what doesn’t, and iterate to make changes and improve the product. This method will apply across multiple dimensions of product and business decisions—from editorial and product focus, to features, to pricing. It’s also an ongoing process, continuing even after achieving success.
While there has been a massive investment over the past 20 years in ad tech, there’s been relatively little investment in software and services to understand and engage with users as individuals, to measure behaviors like loyalty and conversion to repeat usage. Driving user engagement and powering consumer-paid content requires a robust technology platform that provides measurement and reporting, customer messaging, content gating rules, entitlements, and payment processing. Moving forward, machine learning will be a powerful tool for anticipating which users are most likely to become loyal and ultimately willing to pay.
It’s become conventional wisdom among media business observers that—through his often disparaging tweets—President Donald Trump deserves a lot of credit for the recent success driving subscriptions at The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other media companies. The follow-up question is often “What happens when the ‘Trump bump’ fades?” Piano’s CEO, Trevor Kaufman, points out that’s a pretty limiting way to look at it. No one asks, “Will consumers pay for Nike shoes?” the way media pundits ask “Will people pay for journalism?”
The problem is that most media companies don’t know how to think like product marketers. They generally don’t have the skills in house, haven’t got the tools available and aren’t building marketing into their business plans and P&Ls. So, once you understand your customer, create a compelling product they’re willing to pay for and have the technology support. The last element to put in place is the ongoing marketing plan to drive customers through the engagement funnel. Then Google and Facebook transform from behemoths with the power to slash your audience and destroy your business into just another channel for marketing your product.
The ultimate vision is a healthy media market based on true relationships with known customers. For publishers, creating products that meaningfully connect with a loyal audience will unlock multiple revenue opportunities—whether consumer-paid products, events, merchandise sales or even advertising based on that real customer connection.
Strategies for differentiating their premium news and entertainment companies in an environment of disruption, trust issues, and monetization challenges were the focus of the annual closed-door members-only Digital Content Next (DCN) Summit held Feb. 8-9 in Miami, Florida.
DCN CEO Jason Kint updated attendees on consumer privacy, net neutrality, and press freedom policy initiatives. He said that pressure on platforms will increase this year and that advertisers will seek greater transparency. Kint cited findings from DCN’s new Distributed Content Revenue Benchmark Report, which found that publishers only garner 5% of their revenue from social platforms. However, he also touched upon the growth in paid content, on-demand video, and promising signs of sustainable advertising models.
For the digital media industry, Trust has reached a crisis level, Kint said. He and other speakers throughout the event pointed to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, which reveals a low consumer perception of the media, platforms, and advertisers—particularly around digital.
An absence of trust has been a driving factor toward regulatory scrutiny in the U.S. and abroad. It has also profoundly affected digital advertising, one of the mainstays of the industry. Kint applauded DCN members for embracing DCN’s new tool for rebuilding trust: TrustX. The cooperative private programmatic marketplace serves as a collaboration platform for marketers and publishers to create innovative advertising solutions that drive measurable value and improve the consumer experience with confidence and safety at scale.
Kint was far from alone in extolling the importance of trust in the digital content marketplace, however. Fatemeh Khatibloo, principal analyst at Forrester Research cited the building blocks for trust, which include integrity, competence, transparency, privacy, and data security.
David Sable, Global Chief Executive Officer, Y&R, noted that trusted brands employ honesty, environmental sustainability, and kindness. He also pointed out that millennials are keen to identify trusted news sources. Building trust starts early, according to Sean Cohen, president, International and Digital Media, A+E Networks, citing how brands such as the History Channel have become a trusted source for students.
While Edelman’s barometer noted a five-point jump in trust of journalists, a social media-weaponized world has given way to readers and viewers expressing anger, often anonymously and without consequences, as vividly reported by a panel of journalists— Arianna Davis of Refinery29, Jorge Ramos of Noticiero Univision, CNN’s Brian Stelter, and Katy Tur of MSNBC Live.
Brand Quality and Context
People won’t pay for brands that don’t focus on quality, noted Andrew Essex, former CEO of Tribeca Enterprises and Droga5 [pictured, top]. Quartz President and Publisher Jay Lauf also emphasized value-based selling over commodified volume selling.
Context is critical, he said, adding that marketers “are terrified” about ads appearing on an exploitive YouTube video or inadvertently funding fake news on Facebook. And Hearts & Science research on negative reach confirms advertising appearing next to content a consumer finds offensive does more harm than good according to the agency’s president Zak Treuhaft.
And, in a world dominated by memes and disembodied news delivered via social platforms, “Context is king,” according to Sean Cohan, President, International and Digital Media, A+E Networks. For example, he pointed to the History brand’s increased emphasis on providing a larger historical context for today’s news, such as the history of sports figures’ involvement in political protests.
Disruption and Opportunity
Disruption has led to a competitive marketplace imbalance as DCN member companies try to transform their business models, as Kint noted. At the same time, disruptive technologies, such as voice assistants, can create significant opportunities.
Loren Mayor, COO, NPR, spoke of the station’s mission to connect with people through storytelling journalism and is using on-demand audio and podcasting to enhance audience growth and engagement.
Smarter use of data and respectful personalization were subjects that came up in a number of conversations and presentations. More-informed data will help drive value, according to Lou Paskalis, SVP, Enterprise Media Planning, Investment and Measurement Executive, Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
Marcus East, EVP, Product & Technology/CTO, National Geographic, said that successful brands create personalized experiences and help consumers save time and money, create emotional connections, offer life-changing elements, and promote positive social impact.
That said, in today’s uncertain digital environment, the hallmarks of reputable journalism have reemerged as critical for consumer trust and attention. Michael Anastasi, VP News, USA Today Network, Tennessee pointed to importance of the Indianapolis Star’s investigative coverage of U.S. Olympic gymnastics doctor Dr. Larry Nassar, which stands out in a time of local news outlets’ survival uncertainties.
Anastasi said that USA Today leverages its local/national symbiosis on to inform some of its stories. He cited the brand’s coverage of the opioid crisis across all platforms—and with national, local, and individual ramifications. The comprehensive coverage was made possible through a sponsorship from BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.
In addressing financial sustainability in non-profit journalism, ProPublica President Richard Tofel noted significant growth in donation-based revenues since the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The non-profit model seems to be working for ProPublica as Tofel said that they launched with a staff of 25 nine and a half years ago and now number more than 100.
Diversification and Monetization
Unsurprisingly, revenue was a key topic at the Summit. And while advertising remains a critical focus, diversification was a dominant theme. In all aspects of monetization, good consumer experience and engagement were essential. As Ed Davis, EVP & CPO Advertising Products, Fox Networks Group put it: “Attention is currency.”
Maggie McLean Suniewick, President, NBCUniversal Digital Enterprises, showed off the many ways the company’s Olympic coverage is tapping into a wide range of platforms to engage target audiences wherever they might be. Bloomberg Media’s initiatives include global partnerships that help it transcend the competitive U.S. market according to Scott Havens, Global Head of Digital, Bloomberg Media. And The Washington Post has launched 15 products specifically designed to engage consumer interaction according to Jarrod Dicker, The Post’s VP of Innovation and Commercial.
The History Channel is leaning into new platforms and partners with The New York Times on stories and photo spreads. Sean Cohan, President, International and Digital Media, A+E Networks said that the company is seeing doubled social engagement, significant newsletter interest, and substantial boosts in YouTube video revenues.
Marty Moe, Vox Media President, said his company focuses on finding ways to grow quality, scale, and audience across its eight brands while retaining relevancy on each platform. However, diversification brings challenges such as tracking and measuring performance on multiple platforms, noted Christy Tanner, EVP & GM, CBS News Digital CBS interactive.
Dr. Jens Mueffelmann, CEO, Axel Springer Digital Ventures GmbH, President, Axel Springer USA, said his company’s success in global acquisitions is based on later-stage investment, development and partnership. While its successful classified ad profits have stunned critics, Mueffelmann urged companies to “stay paranoid” and continue to keep a close eye on emerging digital technologies and players.
On the heels of the news that The New York Times added 157,000 digital subscriptions in the 2017 fourth quarter, pushing its subscription revenues – which comprise 60% of overall revenues – to more than $1 billion, COO Meredith Kopit Levien encouraged everyone to get into the subscription business. It’s important to understand what drives subscribers, she said. For The New York Times, it’s the resources to create better original content, including 250 daily stories, a popular crossword puzzle and a cooking app, she said, noting “our strength is as a brand.”
While challenges in trust, brand quality, disruption and diversification continue to throw roadblocks up in the news and entertainment industry, Kint emphasized that for DCN members, there is strength in numbers, citing The New York Times’ subscription victory as a victory for all DCN members because of what it symbolizes for the industry.
At the core, DCN members are focusing on what they do best and continue to innovate and experiment in order to best serve audiences.
“All of our members have a direct and trusted relationship with your audience and with your advertisers,” Kint told the packed conference room. “They come to your brands because they know what they’re going to get when they give you their valued attention or valued advertising dollars.”
What makes a great headline, and why? How can headlines make the casual skimmer stop and read? While much has changed in media’s shift from print to digital, these fundamental questions haven’t. Editors and writers correctly describe headline writing as an art — but with all the technology out there, there is a scientific way to put evidence behind that art, and help publishers grow their engaged readership as a result.
Reading, scanning, skipping, sharing – our reading behaviors have changed dramatically in recent years. Chartbeat data shows that on average, only around half (55%) of readers who click through to content actually read what they land on.
The context of headline writing has changed as well. Media objectivity, which involves writing factually true and balanced content, is sometimes at odds with the goals of social media marketing, which values metrics like shares, likes and clicks. Increasing readers’ engagement with content can align objectivity and editorial integrity with the need to grow audience in a world where more than half of traffic to publisher sites is driven by platforms like Facebook.
However, publishers can support those better reading behaviors. Recent Chartbeat research shows that despite our changing reading and writing habits, there are scientific ways to improve the likelihood that something will get read.
The role of language and technology
In an analysis of around 100,000 headline tests and 250,000 individual headlines, we examined linguistic traits of successful and unsuccessful headlines and found that language really does matter.
What we see is that words like “what” and “where,” as well as numbers, quotations and superlatives (like best and worst) lead to more readership, whereas using question marks or time references can actually hurt. Interestingly, short headlines actually have a negative effect on readership of content as well, whereas notably longer headlines have no effect.
In a separate study, we also looked at the impact of headline testing technology and its ability to improve the number of visitors who read for more than 15 seconds. What we found surprised us. In a comprehensive evaluation of headline tests that use Chartbeat’s multi-armed bandit testing model, we discovered that alternative headlines – ones that, without testing, would never have seen the light of day – outperform the original roughly two-thirds, or 62% of the time. That means most headline writers only get headlines right the first time for 38% of stories. But technology can vastly improve these results.
A headline should not only entice readers to click and see more; it should drive consumption of a story. Of those 62% of stories, the alternate headline saw on average a 78% lift in traffic. It also led to a 71% lift in readership, measured by quality clicks: visitors who spend more than 15 seconds or more of engaged time with an article.
The bottom line
While gut instinct around language matters, technology can enhance that ability to find the right fit between content and audience. This, in turn, can dramatically improve engagement with content.
These days, publishers wear many hats. They have to write, edit, promote, monetize, optimize and grow quality audiences. The good news is that science — both in terms of predictive modeling and engagement-focused technologies — can help us improve the imperfect art of writing so we can better connect with readers and, ultimately, with each other.
If 2016 was the year of the platform, 2017 is the year of the subscriber.
Amid a backdrop of political change, wavering trust in government and media, and the rise of fake news, subscriptions are up among the largest U.S. publishers, proving that consumers value high quality journalism. According to Pew Research, the numbers show that in 2016, The New York Times added more than 500,000 digital subscriptions – a 47% year-over-year rise, and The Wall Street Journal added more than 150,000 digital subscriptions, a 23% rise. Even Facebook recently announced that it’s building a feature that would encourage readers to subscribe to news publications, in response to publisher interest.
And this trend isn’t going away. According to WAN-IFRA’s 2017 World Press Trends report, understanding paying commercial models is the number one priority of publishers this year, particularly as audience revenues surpass advertising revenues among global newspapers.
While the industry rightfully focuses on growing new subscribers and experimenting with business models, the discussion should not end there. What we’re not talking enough about is that subscribers are a distinct audience. They engage with your content in a different way and are loyalists in a different way. Understanding these differences is where publishers will build their revenue strategies to take their businesses to the next level.
Subscribers are Unique
No one will pay for content that doesn’t repeatedly engage them.
And what is that link between loyalty and subscriptions? Active engagement. A recent report by the MIT School of Management, Turning Content Viewers Into Subscribers, presented the Subscriber Ladder of Participation as an illustration of reader lifecycle. Rather than thinking of your reader journey in a passive way, it encourages you to build your strategy around action: moving readers from Anonymous to Subscriber by encouraging them to act.
And this active participation is central to Chartbeat as well – our research has shown that analyzing and optimizing the reader experience around engagement patterns as opposed to just empty pageviews drives returning visitors, motivating users to proverbially ascend the ladder towards subscriptions. Subscribers are loyalists who engage with your content in a unique way, and understanding that engagement is key to driving more loyalty.
As Kritsanarat Khunkham from Die Welt put it, “Our whole subscription model is based on returning visitors—they’re essential. You can only turn users to subscribers when they’re returning. I’d rather have 500 returning visitors than 5,000 one-time users. They’re [the ones] who appreciate my work, who trust my brand.”
Besides the simple fact that returning visitors increase ad impressions, they also represent a crucial point in a publisher’s subscription funnel. Every new visitor is a potential subscriber, but — to put it bluntly — no one will pay for content that doesn’t engage them.
Subscribers are Ideal
Once you’ve engaged your subscribing audience, you need to focus on keeping them and getting more. To do this, you need to study how they engage and drive like-behaviors in your loyal/returning audience to turn them into subscribers.
Khunkham notes that often, their consistent eye on data uncovers what topics their audience is truly interested in. This justifies expanding coverage in those areas, often areas they might not have expected. “Sometimes [our audience is] more interested in political news than we expected, and we have such potential for [an audience] who reads seriously,” he says. “When we can prove to [journalists] that readers engage with their meaningful work, it motivates them.”
In other words, publishers need to start thinking about taking their data past the point of conversion. Once a reader has subscribed, are you continuing to dig deeper into their behaviors and deliver the content that they have demonstrated a complex interest in? Discover not only what content your subscriber communities engage with, but think of subscription status as another lens to evaluate all of your editorial strategies — from social media channels and platforms, to devices and portals, and even relationship-building campaigns.
At the end of the day, understanding new visitors and their journey to return is important, but garnering deeper insights around how subscribers engage with your content differently can unlock durable retention and growth strategies for publishers across the board.
Terri Walter, the Chief Marketing Officer of Chartbeat, works every day to ensure that publishers and newsrooms have the tools and insights they need for quality content to thrive. A digital marketing veteran of 20 years, Terri has worked over the course of her career to position high potential brands and spearhead thought leadership in media and analytics at companies including DoubleClick, Razorfish and Microsoft Advertising.
According to PwC’s annual report, Perspectives from the Global Entertainment and Media Outlook, today’s entertainment and media companies must be “fan-centric.” And to remain competitive, they must use technology and data to attract, retain, and engage consumers. Content and distribution remain important factors in monetization and healthy survival rests on a positive user experience. Businesses built on occasional and noncommittal visitors are not likely to succeed.
PwC’s guide to a fan-centric approach:
Know your fans Understand what drives fan loyalty for your brand. Analyze and know the value of different audience or user segments.
Increase your business agility and flexibility Ensure business flexibility to respond faster to new user preferences, new business models, and new technologies
Monetize your fan relationship Build brand extensions to create new revenue opportunities among your passionate fan base.
Adopt a user-/fan-centric focus Super-serve fans and compete in the direct-to-consumer marketplace. Build an end-to-end user experience that includes customer acquisition and retention, personalization, customer service and billing.
PwC also reports that most of the traditional entertainment and media industry, TV advertising, B2B content, and cinema, will decline as a share of the global economy in the next five years. And while digital video and advertising show growth opportunity, it’s at a decelerating rate. In addition, several new content and entertainment businesses — music streaming, e-sports and virtual reality — are just ramping up of which the latter two are not yet mainstream. Therefore, consumer consumption and spending on media and entertainment will not outpace the GDP.
Today’s marketplace presents numerous challenges for media and entertainment businesses. They must manage their current delivery platforms and experiment with new distribution platforms and revenue streams all while remaining consumer-focused across all platforms.
Does improving page load time positively impact readership?
Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) project was launched in February 2016 to address both the increasing bloat of web pages and the subsequent consequences of a diminished user experience for readers, publishers, and advertisers. By creating a platform from which media companies could publish clean, streamlined versions of their articles, AMP promised to speed up the average page load time and make it easier for visitors to stick around and read their content.
But how does it deliver on this promise, and what is the impact on consumer engagement?
The Effect on Publisher Traffic
Chartbeat pulled actual consumer behavior data across 360 sites using AMP and FIA from June 2016 to May 2017. Our research shows that, while usage rates and the subsequent number of articles consumed on each platform differs, it turns out that both AMP and FIA content have been receiving larger and larger shares of publishers’ mobile traffic, and at fairly equal rates. As of mid-May 2017, a typical publisher who implemented AMP saw 16% of all mobile traffic on their AMP content. Comparatively, publishers with FIA saw 14.8% of all mobile traffic on FIA content.
The Need for Speed
These days, web experiences are all about speed. Almost half (47%) of consumers expect a web page to load in 2 seconds or less. Even more significantly, 40% of people abandon a website that takes more than 3 seconds to load, meaning they never reach the published content at all. So how are AMP and IA optimizing page load times?
Chartbeat analysis shows that AMP loads roughly four times faster than the standard mobile site experience, and Instant Articles load even more quickly. In fact, 88% of Instant Articles load too quickly for us to even register a load time. Now that’s fast.
This is a big deal, and proves that both initiatives are delivering on the promise of providing a much quicker load time to improve reader experience. And publishers are seeing the effects — with less time spent waiting for pages to load, consumers have more time freed up for engaging with content.
Better User Experience, More Engaged Readers
With so many distributed ways of finding content and such short consumer attention spans, every second counts. So how does AMP stack up?
Chartbeat’s data shows that readers engage with AMP content for 35% longer than standard mobile web content. They spend an average of 48 seconds with AMP content vs. 36 seconds with mobile web content when coming from search. The fact that readers are engaging for so much longer than they normally would suggests that user experience really does matter in catching and holding attention.
The Future of High Speed Mobile
One big question still remains: Will publishers continue to scale their efforts and should these high speed platforms become the mobile industry norm?
While the increase in engaged time for publishers who have adopted both AMP and FIA are compelling, the jury is still out on whether the end justifies the means. The numbers here demonstrate that consumers clearly value these optimized mobile experiences and this may just be the evidence we need to validate their potential. However, larger questions still remain around each on both publisher value and quality.
As publishers continue to use these platforms and readers continue to react, it will be interesting to see how AMP and Facebook IA evolve in the future – possibly in two completely different directions.
At the end of the day, visitors deserve a fast, clean, enjoyable reading experience where they spend most of their time – on mobile. And publishers can benefit from a more effective mobile environment where they can distribute and monetize content and scale their success. But at what cost? How can we make this win-win?
John Saroff is Chief Executive Officer of Chartbeat, a leading content intelligence platform used by more than 50,000 of the world’s top media properties in over 60 countries. He has worked on the cutting-edge of media and technology for 17+ years, setting the daily operations and business development agendas of companies as diverse as Google, NBC-Universal and vente-privee. John received his undergraduate degree in History from Haverford College and a joint degree in Law and Business from Columbia University.