15 steps to getting digital transformation done

SUMMARY: During a mid-week workshop at INMA’s Media Subscriptions Week 3.0 in New York, the founder and CEO at Institute for Media Strategies shared his digital transformation checklist for news media companies.


This article is part of the INMA conference blog and was written by Dawn McMullan, Senior Editor at INMA.


Dietmar Schantin shared his first-hand experiences with assisting reader revenue transformations from news media companies throughout the world at a Wednesday workshop in the middle of INMA Media Subscriptions Week 3.0 in New York. 

Schantin, founder and CEO at Institute for Media Strategies, shared 15 practical and actionable steps to help news media companies ditch print-rooted culture and grow digital business.

“The thing about change is it’s always about not what you do, but mainly about why,” Schantin said. “If you want to change the culture of a company or a project, it always starts with the why. And in our case, the why is the customer.”

With that in mind, here are his 15 tips.

1. Understand the customers really well

Schantin used the demographic profiles of two English gentlemen with much in common:

Both born in England in 1948. Both divorced and with a new partner. Both have two adult children, impressive professional careers, are wealthy, enjoy holidays in the Alps, and are well known globally.

These two men are Prince Charles and Ozzy Osborn.

“Demographically, these are the same person,” he said to chuckling workshop attendees. “If we don’t consider parameters or characters beyond demographics, we would address these guys in exactly the same way.”

He gave examples of a few news media companies:

Deseret News in the United States segmented readers into “like-minded believers,” helping journalists focus on content related to family, faith, care for the poor, etc. A regional UK newspaper approached research by asking audiences what they like to read, not identifying the questions were coming from a news media company. The company then asked how important certain content was and how competent the newspaper was at covering that content.

“Fitness is important, but they were not very competent,” Schantin said. “Regional/local sports: very competent but not important to my life. If it’s not really important, will I pay for it?”

Most journalists don’t value such research unless they are told the why, he said. “You have two stories, but only the resources to write one. This one is hitting the spot for this target group, and this one is not. If they [journalists] can see it, it makes sense.”

2. Understand the current products and impact

Schantin shared a few interesting statistics from researching a national news publication in Germany: 

  • 82% of content is reporting and 1% is analysis — so why subscribe to this particular brand?
  • Long and intermediate length stories are the most common, yet readers say news articles are too long.
  • 73% of articles had no graphics; 23% had one photo.

He did the same with a regional Austrian newspaper:

  • The most common articles were about families, parties/events, culture, the economy, and politics.
  • Why the first two categories? Because most of the journalists had families and went to a lot of parties and events.

Schantin likes the approach Amedia shared with him: “If there is a story that doesn’t have a purpose either attracting customers or retaining them, we don’t do it.” 

Schantin asked workshop attendee Espen Egil Hansen, director of news media concepts at Schibsted and INMA international board member, what he knew about the readers of Aftenposten, where he most recently led as editor-in-chief:

  • How content is read.
  • If content is read.
  • Whether the reader is a subscriber.
  • Story depth.
  • Many things about the reader, especially if she is a subscriber.
  • When the reader visited last.
  • Reader frequency.
  • What kind of content the reader reads.
  • What content builds habits. 

“Data helps you to become a better journalist,” Schantin said. “You’re not dictated by data, but it can help your daily work. Then we have open ears.”

3. Understand customer behaviour

There is not one path to becoming a subscriber. Maybe one reader starts with a subscription then subscribes to a newsletter. Maybe it’s the other way around. That brings up a key point: News companies need at least two newsletters: one to retain subscribers and one to acquire them. 

4. Manage the entire user journey

“Everyone in the newsroom needs to understand the user journey — not only the marketing team or the science team,” Schantin said. “A journalist needs to understand, because then everything makes sense. A newsroom should be part of this discussion because they produce the content. Everyone has a sales funnel, but everyone has different sales funnel: the newsroom has one, marketing has one, sales has one. Everyone needs to be aligned from the different teams.”

5. Collect the right data points and think hard about KPIs

Many companies don’t have strong data fundamentals, Schantin said. The biggest danger: “Collecting everything and then seeing what happens,” he said. 

“Journalists are looking for facts, not opinions. Data gives you the facts. Paid content is brilliant. First, it brings in money. Secondly, we know more about the customer. Thirdly, all this discussion about I don’t want to give my story away for free is over.” 

INMA Researcher-in-Residence Grzegorz Piechota offered his insights on this topic from a survey he conducted of potential subscribers in Germany and Austria. Piechota found 90% of news media companies do not score their articles read and 90% don’t score their customer. Of these, the latter is vital to making the pivot to reader revenue success.

“There are tools that are mostly free [to score articles read] because the digital platforms want you to focus on increasing reach on articles because it makes them money,” Piechota said. “They won’t share information on who likes your stories, who shared your stories. Only this kind of data helps you decide this person has a propensity to churn or purpose. This user wasn’t on the site since last Friday or this user visited five times in a month.

“If you want to be successful, you need to focus on the data of the individual and not just the performance of the content.” 

6. Focus on the right users

Here’s a jarring statistic: 73% of users are flybys. And you are doing your newsroom no favours by including those flybys in your data analytics.

“If you make decisions on what should be on your home page based on those flybys [who do not come to your home page], you are destroying your home page,” Piechota said.

“That data includes all the users, including those coming from social media. But only loyal users read the home page.”

7. Make data available for everyone — in an easy way

Data needs to get to journalists — not just section heads — and needs to be easy to digest, Schantin said.

Dagens Nyheter tracks the traffic arc of story and includes events along the way, including when it was locked and when there is some promotion of it via social media. The company also uses heat maps that show the dwell time and CTR of each article.

8. Make your storytelling fit for digital

“To change this attitude [from print to digital] in the newsroom is not difficult,” Schantin said. “A natural flow with more than one photo is how you transition print content to digital. To change this attitude is crucial for the user experience.”

9. Align the workflows to the customer behaviour

If the editorial team knows when readers are plugged in, the content flow should match that timing.

“It sounds obvious: When people come to a Web site, match that with publishing times,” Schantin said. “They don’t always mix. They could.” 

10. Get the right editorial organisation

 Schantin described four newsroom models: 

  • Newsroom 1.0: Multiple media newsroom: Includes print, mobile, tablet. Someone creates content for print, someone selects it, someone packages it — then it gets pushed out to other platforms. There are general sections, editors, an organisation for each platform. Most news companies started off like this.
  • Newsroom 2.0: Crossmedia newsroom: This popular model includes sections for all platforms with different people deciding what gets published and taking the content for whatever section/platform they need.
  • Newsroom 3.0: Media-integrated newsroom: The head of different sections is responsible for publishing on different platforms, deciding this is for online, this for print, etc. The weakness: This is a lot of work on the head people.
  • Newsroom 4.0: Digital-first newsroom: Print is the last consideration. There is a sections and channel editor for mobile and then the content gets pushed out to other platforms. “This is the only way how it works to really digitise a newsroom,” Schantin said. “As long as the section head or reporters are still thinking of print, you’ll never get the right performance.”

Note that model 1.0 is the same as 4.0 but with a digital focus instead of a print focus.

11. Bring different disciplines and skills together

“All of this only works in collaboration between different departments,” Schantin said. 

Dagens Nyheter has a “war room” meeting for 15 minutes every day, including teams from reader revenue, the newsrooms, developers, and analytics on how to improve the entire company — not just editorial. Espressen placed product development and analytics in the middle of the newsroom.

“Bringing people together is hugely important,” he said.

12. Put the responsibilities and resources in the right place

Schantin shared another study from European newspaper, asking who is responsible for certain things:

  • Product and user experience.
  • Content.
  • Marketing.

Then, what are key success factors for growing digital reader revenue?

  • Product and user experience.
  • Content.
  • Marketing. 

Then, which department is responsible for acquisition and retention: 

  • Product and user experience: 10% responsible.
  • Content: 10% responsible.
  • Marketing. 80% responsible.

Then, how many team members do you have there?

  • Product and user experience: 22%.
  • Content: 29%.
  • Marketing: 17%.

“Aligning importance and resources and responsibility were completely out of alignment,” Schantin said. “This is old thinking.”

13. Take a holistic approach to transformation and change

Digital transformation must be multi-departmental and include these six components, Schantin said:

  • Customer and marketing.
  • Workflows and structure.
  • Content and product.
  • People.
  • Technology and tools.
  • Architecture.

In the middle of all that: company culture.

14. Manage the change in a structured way

This is the path to change in the newsroom: 

  • Awareness of change.
  • Understanding the change.
  • Positive perception to the change.
  • Implementation (most transformation starts here, which leaves out three vital steps).
  • Adoption.
  • Institutionalisation.
  • Internalisation.

“If you screw up the first things, the others have never worked,” Schantin said.” 

15. Learn from others, but don’t copy them

Look to the leaders. If you’re in Europe, Schantin, pay attention to what Nordic companies are doing.

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