What has the industry learned about loyalty and engagement in 2018?

There has been no shortage of newsworthy news this year. In Europe, the prospect of Brexit continued to loom large, simultaneously horrifying, perplexing and rallying various swathes of the continent. Over in the States, stories emanating from the political arena seemed no less indistinguishable from an episode of Veep or In the Thick of It. We had the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the ongoing (and subsequent) fallout at Facebook. Me Too continued apace. There was a lot going on.

Now, most years end with a summation of top headlines. What’s notable about 2018 is that these types of stories (polarizing, ideological, scandal-ridden) are being served to a readership already overwhelmed by information, opinions and the sheer volume of content, by a publishing industry that knows it desperately needs to engage with its readership in order to stay afloat and – critically – get them to pay for the very news that’s polarizing and overwhelming them.

What’s this all got to do with loyalty and engagement, you ask? Well, everything, actually.

Not all publications are switching to paid content models, but many are considering it, and many are already along that path. This shift doesn’t just represent a change in monetization strategy – it goes much deeper than that.

High levels of reader loyalty and engagement are vital for subscriptions or membership to be viable, and so it follows that publishers need to focus on things which drive and nurture higher levels of both. If readers habitually use a site or resource, it follows they’re more likely to at least be open to the possibility of subscribing to it.

The ramifications for content itself are significant. Where the focus is on reader acquisition and retention, rather than on articles that generate high levels of fleeting traffic, publishers must necessarily approach how they produce and monitor that content – and those readers – very differently.

More than before, it’s now essential that content serves its readership. There needs to be a clear understanding of what genuinely resonates with readers. Simple page views and measures of success are too superficial to be of much use in this brave new world.

We’ve spoken to lots of industry experts during the course of the year, and as it draws to a close, we got back in touch to ask some of them to ask what they’ve learned about loyalty and engagement over the course of the year.

New business models, new opportunities

First up, we asked Christopher Pramstaller and Paul O’Mahony (of Sueddeutsche Zeitung and The Local respectively) what effects a change of business model has had on the way they view their readership. First up, Christopher.

“For years and years the feeling of content super-saturation has been growing. Yet just when you feel as if peak content has finally been reached, the stream of information starts flowing with even more current. There are two ways to deal with this situation: on the one hand you can start producing huge amounts of content for a more or less anonymous audience, trying to outgrow all of your competitors. On the other hand you can start focusing on highly engaged and loyal readers, get to know their interests, habits and daily routines in order to attain higher retention, stickiness and – under ideal circumstances – subscribers. It’s a question of either or. And on that path, tools providing the right KPIs regarding our audience can help us reach our goals.“

Over at The Local, the switch to subscriptions has been a successful one, and they’ve closed out the year with the successful conversion of 5 of their titles to a paid model.

“2018 was all about engagement and loyalty for The Local as it coincided with the first full year of our membership programme. It was important for us to look beyond one-dimensional metrics like page views and unique browsers to see what content was keeping readers glued to their screens.

For instance, we looked much more closely than before at average attention time and read depth, and kept a close eye on Content Insights’ loyalty CPI as an indicator of how invested readers were in our content. We tried not to be slaves to the news cycle and instead to listen more attentively to our readers and ensure their particular information needs were met.

Given all we’ve learned over the past year, we’re determined to forge an even closer relationship with our readers in 2019.”

Is your readership reading?

That closer relationship is something which has been playing on the minds of the team at NewsMavens, the women-edited publication based in Warsaw. We spoke to Managing Editor, Lea Berriault at the Newsroom Summit in the Fall, after they had been using the Content Insights tool to monitor their site for a few short months. Theirs is a publication with a very clear remit: to demonstrate the effects on the front page that having a team of female editors has. With a clearly outlined mission, and an equally defined demographic, how have they found their readers’ engagement and loyalty?

“NewsMavens being a niche news site, we were initially concerned about user loyalty, thinking that readers might visit us once or twice and then go back to traditional media as a source of news. However, we found that we were able to achieve an excellent returning visitor rate for 2018.

Typically, our content with the highest loyalty and engagement CPI explores how women are portrayed in the media, which leads me to believe our readers come to rely on us as a trusted source of meta-analysis, one where they will find a feminist perspective on mainstream news as a complement to legacy media.”

Out of the newsroom, and into your community

Over at IDN Times in Indonesia, editor Yogie Fadila reminded us that engagement and loyalty is not something which restricted to the monitoring post-publication. His team have found that nurturing audiences is something worth exploring outside column inches. This kind of community engagement – something we’ve heard done with success at places like Zetland and through community engagement initiatives like Hearken – is worth noting.

“Speaking specifically about digital media in Indonesia, I think we have taken the engagement/loyalty metric for granted for too long. There’s no guarantee that average time spent on the web matches the actual time spent on content because we’ve found there’s a great chance that content is being read off-platform. The audience can read them in messaging apps, homepage of a browser, or news apps – and they do.

Over the past 12 months, we shifted our approach to nurturing offline engagement. Each month we held a mini-gathering with our loyal UGC writer (and their audiences, too) in various cities to keep in touch and listen to their feedback. Yummy– our Buzzfeed’s Tasty-like video recipe series – threw a cook-out with followers and celebrity chef.

It takes time and a lot of resources but this meaningful engagements have been receiving a positive response, and people keep coming both to our events and content.”

Speaking of engagement journalism, the European Journalism Centre’s Accelerator also chimed in on the question. Ben Whitelaw, newly installed after his tenure at The Times, had this to say about the program’s first year:

“I would say that Loyalty and Engagement come in different sizes, and it’s not always financial in scope. That’s something that opened my eyes since I left The Times, where they had a very clear business model with an obvious subscriptions value proposition. There are ways and means of having a relationship with your community and I think we haven’t really got to know exactly what those inputs are, but they certainly don’t have to be financial. These mixed revenue models are becoming much more popular, and one of the things we at The Accelerator want to do is to see what tends to work the best in different contexts as well. We’ll see much more of that in 2019.”

Personalization & optimization

And what from some of the people who are providing the technical backdrop to this shift? Just as personalization from a content-centric perspective is critical, so too does it need the means to implement it from the backend. An effective means of doing so is key, says Blaize’s James Henderson.

“What I’m seeing within the loyalty and membership arena this year is that gradually businesses are seeing that they need to be able to deliver personalization, optimization, and scale, and the majority of products out there cannot simply do that.

What we’re building at Blaize is the ability to create a one-to-one map between quite a customized product to a customized individual. So, as you understand who someone is, you can serve them with something that’s very, very specific to them, which you can automate.”

Learnings from relative newcomers are fascinating. At Agate, a startup which has produced a payment wallet for paying for news (not, stresses founder Dominic Young, something which should necessarily be confused with micropayments) have had learnings which Young says are both “mundane and startling”. Intrigued, we asked him to elaborate:

“Well, it’s mundane because it seems obvious; startling because it goes against the grain of what the internet has told us to believe.

For example, charging the right price matters. Being too cheap actually cheapens peoples’ perception of your product. When one of our publishers increased their per-article price from 10p to 30p they got higher engagement and also a higher sign-up rate for subscriptions. It is a quality product and the price needed to reflect their perception. When it went up they liked it more.

Equally, great products matter. One of our publishers specializes in entertainment. A single, really appealing story can drive hundreds of sign-ups and thousands of return visits. People love the brand and the right content drives response and revenue. Increasing the investment in product pays back.

In other words, in a world where users are paying for your product, the product really can deliver massive results. Which is as it should be. It’s heartening and exciting, investment can drive results. Publishers need to have confidence in their ability to create great and valuable products, even on an internet which relentlessly tells them that everything other than data is worthless. The internet is wrong, and the customers prove it.”

Over at State of Digital Publishing, Vahe Arabian has spent the year in conversation with people at the forefront of just this kind of innovation and says that there are clear benefits to publications of all sizes starting to utilize AI technologies for things like content moderation and audio storytelling:

“What’s great is that as the bigger players take on more of these things, they’re sharing their mistakes and lessons with others in the industry, helping many others to start on similar paths.

AI is going to be the key for content moderation, engagement and personalization, and we’ve already seen lots of case studies in the past year who are proving this approach is working. There are already tools and solutions out there which encourage people to take more actions, and I think this is where it’s going to become more mainstream.”

Engagement doesn’t begin and end with Facebook

And, finally, it wouldn’t be a discussion about engagement without someone reiterating something we can’t stress enough. ‘Engagement’ doesn’t mean likes and clicks on Facebook. Sure, those things represent great engagement for Facebook, but for publishers? Well, not so much. That’s not to say that social media isn’t important for news outlets – of course it is, but as Tom Felle at City University in London reminds us, social media is just one part of the puzzle.

“We’re much clearer now about what ‘meaningful social engagement’ means from Facebook. Old ways of reaching audiences simply don’t work anymore, as Facebook’s algorithm changes has turned off the traffic tap. Newsrooms that were heavily reliant on Facebook for traffic have suffered greatly in 2018 as a result. But there are some chinks of light. Media organizations have been innovating on Instagram, for example. The Trump effect on Twitter (with 280 characters to express our views) has seen audience engagement on Twitter continue to grow. News media are finding business models to make digital news pay – paywalls and membership models are working, and news organizations looking at new ways to engage audiences with podcasts, for example, growing exponentially. Audiences are prepared to pay for news, and are loyal.”

And into 2019…

We think this emphasis on highly engaged users is set to continue, with publishers looking for more ways to identify how their content is performing, and – critically – who their ‘loyal’ readers actually are in the first place.

After all, it’s humans who are paying for subscriptions and memberships.

This much we know: engagement cannot be measured by likes on Facebook or retweets on Twitter. Loyalty isn’t just about how recently a reader read an article. They’re human behaviors and demand a human-centered approach to measurement. What we’re hearing from those

above – and elsewhere in the industry – is that nuance, and paying attention to audience behavior pays dividends.

Happy New Year from all of us at Content Insights. We look forward to seeing you in 2019!

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