In a post-scale era, publishers reposition audience development to pursue loyalty and subs

Once upon a time, audience development was all about pursuing eyeballs, often on platforms. But with the scale era waning and increased focus on subscriber revenue, many publishers are taking a team-of-team approach to pursuing goals beyond pageviews and uniques, often zeroing in on loyalty and propensity to subscribe.

For example, six months ago, The Economist created three dedicated “tribes” — one each for its desktop site, its mobile app and its newsletters — comprising staffers from product, audience and editorial. Those five- to six-person tribes meet weekly to work together on product and strategy, with a goal of advancing KPIs like growing readers’ time on site or getting subscribers to open the mobile app more frequently. The Economist’s moves are part of a broader effort among some publishers to focus bigger portions of their workforce on growing consumer revenues and to align around shared metrics and goals, rather than pursuing different goals, which sometimes sit at cross-purposes to one another.

“There has been tension in the past [between these groups],” said Anna Rawling, evp of consumer experience and product strategy at The Economist. “People still have their own agendas, but this provides a very good steer.”

Creating units that merge multiple groups together has other advantages. At The Washington Post, for example, something as simple as figuring out a marketing newsletter strategy used to take weeks, as individual teams within the Post would work on projects or campaigns one at a time.

Today, thanks to a 15-person subscriptions team the Post established in May, those same projects can be knocked out in a matter of days. The team, which consists of staffers from the Post’s audience, product and design groups, not only allows publishers to seize opportunities more quickly but to enhance every facet of the Post’s experience to improve retention.

“We’ve just started to get a lot more efficient at how we’re making our overall experience better,” said Joey Marburger, the Post’s head of product.

For now, these teams are focused on improving experience in established channels, including email newsletters or on-site messaging and advertising. But over time, some expect that these groups will pay more attention to nascent ones such as mobile push notifications, a promising engagement tool for publishers that’s growing increasingly crowded.

At The Wall Street Journal, for example, mobile pushes are controlled entirely by an audience team that sits inside editorial. But its consumer marketing team has designs on using mobile pushes to reach subscribers or prospects with marketing messages, provided those messages are sent only to people that have opted in to receiving them, according to Greg Emerson, a mobile product manager at the Journal.

Those sorts of collaborations are scarce for now because there is no established playbook for how to market to people through a channel like mobile push notifications. (Several publishers are also reluctant to pursue them too aggressively because of the 15 percent cut that Apple or Google take from subscriptions that originate from pushes sent on one of their platforms.)

“Whoever does it would be smart to do it very carefully and slowly,” said Sasha Koren, the editor of the Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab.

Decisions about how and when to turn these channels into places for marketing messages will vary from publisher to publisher, as will the role that publishers play in the work. But in all cases, ironing out how — and when — to market to readers using push notifications is part of a larger challenge that publishers will be working through for the foreseeable future.

“If you’re really doing too much marketing and not enough product development, it’s like a pendulum,” Marburger said. “It’s finding that balance that we’re working through right now.”

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