Content is king, but engagement reigns supreme

By Laura Graham

4 min read

Content is king, but engagement reigns supreme

By Laura Graham

4 min read

On the face of it, the COVID-19 crisis shouldn’t be a bad thing for publishers. INMA figures show a 50% increase in global demand for digital content. As readers seek the latest updates or a light diversion away from it.


Understanding it


Those with paid-for content are taking steps to leverage this surge in demand. Tortoise Media has put its COVID-19 content in front of the paywall. The Sloan Business Review has dropped its paywall completely. These tactics are getting readers through the door. With subscription news growing 3x (using March 2020 figures). To navigate the crisis publishers need to avoid a ‘hard landing’. Which could result in the churning of casual or irregular users at a later date.


On the other side of the equation are the publishers with an advertising-orientated model. Consequently, they have seen their print and client sales fall through the floor. With no way to monetise the demand for digital content. INMA estimates that news companies with a reliance on advertising would normally have made US$80M from client sales. But due to the pandemic, this has dropped by 50%. Therefore, many are driving plans to diversify their revenue streams.


At first, the crisis may mean different things for different publishers. They’re riding the wave in different ways, but they share one challenge…driving audience engagement to maximise retention. Based on the insights we gained from interviewing 50+ media professionals for our Membership Economics report, and a raft of conversations with our clients. Here’s what you need to know about driving engagement to sustain and grow your business.



Measuring it


Recency, Frequency, Volume (RFV) is a widely used KP to measure engagement. We favour focusing on the Frequency component as it tracks reading habits; the volume of articles read can be misleading, and recency just tells you there’s short term interest.



Indeed, no matter how you measure it, simplicity is best. In order to, be understood by everyone in your organisation, from the execs to the analysts. There needs to be a clear alignment with business value across all your revenue streams and Total Customer Value.



Also, use your common measure to set stable habit benchmarks for different audience types so that you can identify shifts (both upwards and downwards), and react quickly to it.


Managing it


Next, you need to find ways to move audience groups up to their highest level of potential value, and engagement is a key lever for achieving this;


  • Turn anonymous users into known ones: you can’t do anything with readers if you don’t know who they are. Likewise, find opportunities in your customer journey to encourage readers to tell you more about themselves, such as signing up for newsletters.

  • Convert known users into paid customers: showcase your value by giving audiences an opportunity to sample your offering, without giving away the best bits for free. Test and learn to find the approach that works for you, content and audiences. Whether it be discounted offers, dynamic paywalls, or a mixture.

  • Nurture paying customers: once converted, you’ve got a finite period of time to establish reading habits. Which is more than just on-boarding. Given this, use orchestration to deliver more personalised content and experiences. In order to encourage the habits most highly correlated with engagement.


A good strategy requires everyone’s participation-this is a team sport. Understanding how to measure the success of your business and the role everyone plays in it is vital. Every department from marketing to editorial must consider how their efforts interact with readers. No longer can one team alone be responsible for ensuring that articles, campaigns, and other initiatives are resonating.



Optimising it


You have a measure in place and everyone is aware of their impact on it. Now, you want to make the best investments and provide the best experiences. Use the ‘good’ levels of engagement for different audience groups as a reference point for making changes to your offer and learning from the results. By doing this, you can optimise the investments you make and the experiences you offer.


One such approach is known as ‘content economics’ which identifies how to drive engagement from content. To do this categorise your content types, then track how audiences engage with it and what they do next. This will surface which value levers increase Total Customer Value, what content you need more of, and how you monetise it.



For example, The Seattle Times (INMA, 2019) illustrates how to use ‘content economics’. They established a content analytics dashboard that’s visible to all teams and created cross-functional ‘mini publisher’ teams. They implemented set subscription-influencing targets for their newsroom. All of this resulted in their subscriber base increasing by ~40%.


One last thing…


There is no doubting that the current crisis offers both opportunities as well as challenges for publishers. The former will only be long lasting though if brands not only capture the demand but make sure that they’re ‘sticky’ in the lives of their readers. Someone once said that ‘content was king’, which we agree with but in our minds ‘engagement reigns supreme’.


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