Now more than ever: 6 tips for successful digital reader revenue strategies

Digital Revenue Strategies: The coronavirus pandemic has underscored the essential role newspapers continue to play in their communities, by providing life-saving, credible news and information while social media have become platforms for dangerous rumors and unconfirmed and unsubstantiated reports.

But when they are needed the most, newspapers are also facing an acceleration in the long-term decline of their advertising revenues, as the widespread forced closing of restaurants and other small community businesses have diminished or even eliminated this revenue stream.

With readers stuck in their homes, digital becomes the main source of news. Digital habits are strengthening and are likely to remain after the pandemic is gone. Now, more than ever, newspapers need to ramp up their digital reader revenue strategies, building a business model in which digital users provide the primary financial support.

The core strength for regional and local newspapers has always been their place in their communities, which has amply been demonstrated during the coronavirus pandemic as residents turn to local news sources for crucial health information. This is simply of extension of how they’ve always used local media to find information relevant to them. But this strength has to be leveraged even more to turn occasional users into subscribers, and to keep them loyal.

Content is the absolute king for any successful media strategy, but creating compelling content is only half the battle. In the digital universe, getting the content to the right platform, in the right format, at the right time is just as crucial – even the best stories are wasted if nobody sees them, or if the consumer doesn’t need them when he/she receives it. 

But traditional skills and expertise don’t often respond to this reality. A modern newsroom therefore needs to include new jobs, skills and non-traditional personnel right alongside the journalists and editors:  data analysts, communication specialists, and technology and platform experts.  And they all have to work closely together.

This new way of working, far more complex than in the past, poses new challenges and new responsibilities for management and newsroom leadership. If you want to change the culture within a company, it isn’t so much about what to do first, but about why. And it is up to the leaders to make the case for why change is needed, before embarking on how to go about it.

At a workshop on reader revenue strategies conducted by the Institute for Media Strategies at the INMA Media Subscriptions Summit in New York in February (please find the summary here), some of these challenges were addressed and a number of a number of key topics emerged. These topics, which always come up in any newsroom transformation include:

  • Understand the customer really well. The traditional demographic information newspapers have used for decades are no longer sufficient to define audiences. Age, income, marital status, and gender are far too broad.
    There are different degrees of knowledge, and, thanks to new data and analytical capabilities, the audience can be broken down into more specific groups by factors such as their ambitions and life styles and leisure activities and even dreams for the future. Before you talk about changes to the organization, before you talk about new systems, you need to talk about the customer.
  • Understand the current products and impact. Most journalists think they understand what they are producing, but often they are surprised when the content is examined with a content audit. If for instance you tell them that often 70 per cent of their content is produced or based on news agency content and other sources, they won’t believe you. But if you actually analyse the stories, the numbers don’t lie. If a story doesn’t have the purpose of either attracting customers or retaining them, what are you doing it for? How deep does your knowledge go?
  • Understand customer behaviour. Going to work and coming home produce completely different mindsets and different information needs. The advertising industry has known this for decades and it is called ‘day parting’. Likewise, these needs change over the course of the day. Knowing what people are doing and where they are is essential to getting them the right content at the right time. And there are far more data points that can be used to understand their behavior.
  • Collect the right data and think hard about key performance indicators. Everyone talks about data, but what is the right data? Most media companies still don’t score their articles, or score their customers (in terms of frequency of use and other factors). A focus on the data of the individual is just as important as the performance of the content.
  • Focus on the right users. Even generalist newspapers can no longer be everything to everybody. By focusing on the audience groups who are likely to be most attracted to your product, and willing to pay for it, is a key strategy toward building subscription revenue.
  • Make data available for everyone in the organization – in an easy way. 
    If not presented well, data has a tendency to be seen as boring and can be misunderstood. Presenting it very visually and simple, in real time, where everyone in the newsroom can see it and grasps very quickly, is the first step to ensuring it is integrated into the decision making process.

In fact, what all these points have in common is the need for data, and a deeper analysis of that data. Nowadays newsrooms can easily track and analyse users’ preferences on their sites and make editorial decisions based on this data. This is especially valuable when editorial resources are limited and you have to decide where to concentrate the newsroom’s attention. 

The coronavirus demonstrates that newspapers are still needed. Now, more than ever, they need to speed up their search for sustainable revenue.♦︎