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Content is king, but engagement reigns supreme




By Laura Graham

4 minute 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.

Those with paid-for content are taking steps to leverage this surge in demand; Tortoise Media has decided to put its COVID-19 content in front of the paywall, whereas Sloan Business Review has dropped it completely. These tactics are getting readers through the door, subscription news has grown 3x (using March 2020 figures), but to navigate the crisis they need to avoid a ‘hard landing’ with 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 who have seen their print and client sales fall through the floor and no way to monetise the demand for digital content. INMA estimates that news organisations with a reliance on advertising would normally have made US$80M from client sales, but this has dropped by 50%. Unsurprisingly, many are now accelerating plans to diversify their revenue streams.

The crisis may mean different things for different publishers, and 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 recent 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.

No matter how you measure it, simplicity is best so that it can be understood by everyone in your organisation; from the execs to the analysts. There also needs to be a clear alignment with business value across all of your revenue streams and Total Customer Value.

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

The next task is 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. 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, your content and your 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. Use orchestration to deliver more personalised content and experiences to encourage the habits most highly correlated with engagement

This is a team sport — everyone in your business needs to understand how it’s measured, and the role they play to move audiences up the value curve. It’s no longer just the job of Marketing to worry about how you interact with the readers, just as it’s no longer the job of Editorial to make sure your articles are resonating with audiences.

Optimising it

So you’ve got a measure in place and everyone understands how they influence it, now you want to optimise the investments you make and the experiences you offer. Use what you know about ‘good’ levels of engagement for different audience groups as a reference point for testing tweaks to your proposition, and learning from the results.

One such approach is known as ‘content economics’ that 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.

The Seattle Times (INMA, 2019) is a great example of how to use ‘content economics’; they established a content analytics dashboard that’s visible to all teams, created cross functional ‘mini publisher’ teams and 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’.