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The right Audience Development Strategy for Publishers – Insights from Independent Publishers in 2020

Juliana Mani

Juliana Mani

What is the status quo of audience development in specialised and niche media? In our roundtable talk at the PPA Independent Publisher Conference, we exchanged views and experiences with leaders from various media organisations and gained a number of valuable insights. Here are the most important ones. 


Why strategic data collection is vital 

The participants of the roundtable agreed: Publishers must change their business model to a data-driven one and leave the haphazard approach if they want to succeed in the future. However, it is not about generating as much traffic as possible but rather establishing a loyal audience and achieving high reader engagement. 

To achieve this, the independent publishers participating in the PPA Independent Publisher Conference roundtable aim to know their readers better and collect data strategically. However, participants do not follow one common best practice approach. They all apply different strategies. Several media companies use, for example, the metered access model where users can read three to five articles free of charge, and then must register to continue reading. Some organisations work with free and paid subscriptions. ‘However, only a minority are actively developing their audience – as editors lack knowledge and resources in this field. 

A common concern is Google’s announcement that it will stop the use of third-party cookies before 2022. This increases the necessity for companies to get their own data collection approach to a professional level and use first-party cookies onsite.  

For media companies, data analytics is not only important to be able to offer more relevant content and products but also to remain attractive as an advertising space. The participants were well aware of the fact that companies nowadays want to target very specific user segments – as Facebook has shaped their expectations with its ad options. Only if other media offer similarly low spreading loss do they stand a chance against the social media giant.


Using the right tools for data collection  

Top level managers are often hesitant to grant big budgets for data analytics because they have not yet quite seen the return on their investment. Publishers struggle to convert data into sales and are currently experimenting to find strategies which yield better results.  

So far, Google Analytics has been used by many publishers, but the interest in specialised tools is growing. Be it because of (plans around) suppressed cookies or concerns about privacy regulations. Professional analytics applications allow editors to target users more effectively at all different touchpoints while complying with privacy policies. In short, they are necessary for publishers to execute an effective and compliant audience development strategy. 

Providers such as Outbrain and Taboola were mentioned in the discussion as alternatives for proprietary analytics applications. While companies track all user activity, not just that of their “recommended posts”, media companies receive only a fraction of the data insights while paying significant sums.  


Audience development strategy for publishers: Measure and monetise 

Publishers are succeeding to varying degrees in using and monetising the collected data for their editorial work.  

A publisher of specialist hospitality titles reported that his company experimented a lot with premium content, but users were not very willing to pay. Now the publisher has switched to the metered model. But only 10 percent of users currently register. This is low. 90 percent of all users remain anonymous. To compare: An unknown user is worth around five pence, a known user 78 pence. And for good reason. A known user can be monetised much more easily than an anonymous user. He can, for example, be targeted via email, by lead magnets or at a paywall. The publisher is sure: Anyone who does not build up a solid database will be out of business within ten years.  

An online literary magazine also works with the metered model. When users register, they receive a series of emails with helpful content and to motivate them to purchase a paid subscription. However, the success rate is only moderate. The editors noticed that users more often subscribe via their own website than through the emails. A possible explanation: When users rush through their flooded inbox, they might not be in the mindset to buy. However, when they are reading an article online they might be more willing to respond to information such as: “This is your last free article. Keep reading with our monthly subscription.” 

A free newsletter also plays a central role in the strategy of another niche publisher participating in the roundtable. Readers can subscribe on their website. They receive recommendations with links to some free articles, but also to articles behind a paywall. According to this publisher, the newsletter is successful and gains traction. However, the editorial team lacks the know-how to analyse the data and therefore to deduce smart further actions.  

In general, participants had little experience with data segmentation and advanced user targeting. Furthermore, none of the media companies used artificial intelligence in their audience development strategy.  


360 degree perspective replacing data silos 

All participants are far from having a 360-degree view of their users. That’s also due to the fact that apps and website data is often not connected.  

Some media organisations still use replica apps. Participants agreed that providing an epaper app to their readers is practical from a publisher’s perspective but may not be enough to fully cater to all reader types and expectations. App and print editions appeal to different target groups and meet different information and entertainment needs. App users, for example, are often much younger than the average buyer of print titles. 

Even if the specialised media have apps with tailored content, they often make the same mistake: They set high hurdles for users who want to try out their app. After they have downloaded the app, readers must register immediately otherwise they can’t use the app. Why not make at least a few articles freely accessible and only then ask for registration when the user has got to know its potential value? 

A decisive factor for an effective audience development strategy for publishers is data integration. If publishers are able to integrate data from apps, newsletters and websites they can get deep insights into the behaviour and interests of recurring readers. As for now, many participants use individual tools but they do realise that their results are lacking and that a 360-degree database is needed. Building this up is at the top of their agenda. 

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