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Growth Hacking: Journalism and Content Strategy – Part 2

Encouraging users, especially new users, to come back and actively engage in the conversion funnel requires a really sophisticated content strategy. By examining the conversion funnel and the key steps of Growth Hacking (see Part 1), we will review the key editorial levers for developing engagement and driving subscriptions. For a start you have to be confident you have identified your priority target audiences because it is their behaviors, no matter how much they may be at odds with each other, that define the shape of your content strategy. From this point on your newsroom is no longer about producing a newspaper to suit everyone but rather to precisely target the expectations of key audiences: audiences in search of novelties and already digitally adept. From first hand studies here is what works and what doesn’t when it comes to development strategy.

1/ Understand how specific target audiences engage

Over the past few years, I’ve been studying data from many media outlets to understand what their users like, in order to evolve products and better coordinate efforts between editorial and marketing. There are many ways data can inform our ability to adjust, fine tune, or reinvent a content strategy but for the sake of simplicity I’m going to focus on two segments of readers engaged in the conversion funnel. The structure of the funnel is the familiar AAARRR – Awareness, Acquisition, Activation, Retention, Revenue, and Referral but applied here to two groups.The first is loyal readers (Retention stage) and subscribers (Revenue stage). The second is the behavior of new users, i.e. those who discover the offer (Awareness stage) and who start to get involved in the content (Acquisition stage).  What characterizes their behavior? Are these two audiences similar or not?

Let’s start with the most loyal; the subscribers, i.e. the traditional customer (see chart below). In this particular case they are mostly men. They are older than the average population (60 years old) and consult their favorite media mainly through the desktop where their sessions are among the longest of the different reader segments. Secondly, their consumption is very particular: they like bad news! The more bad news you serve them, the more they will read it. This doesn’t mean that they don’t read content with a positive headline, but they are above all users who are fond of news for whom an umpteenth attack or bad news, near their home or on the other side of the world, doesn’t scare them. They will happily click on an alert to get informed. This type of reader is in line with the DNA of this media: the news, all the news. Following the local, national and international news is a good enough reason to convert to paying, they also appreciate being able to find the pdf version of the newspaper. Last but not least, they don’t particularly want to react and give their opinion.

However, at the top of the conversion funnel, the story is quite different. At the Awareness and Acquisition stages (see chart below), we find a new generation of users. These users are much younger, mostly female, already adept at digital because they connect mainly through their smartphone in short, sometimes very short sessions. This segment is above all interested in… content with “positive” headlines and words.

Unfortunately this is in direct contrast to the existing DNA of this media house, because of its focus on news and therefore unfortunately mainly on bad news. The conversion of this audience to paying customers is zero. Individual interviews with this younger, more female audience were conducted to understand the reasons for not subscribing. Three of them struck me in particular: firstly these people do not value the current offer based on local information and news. Secondly, they believe that the digital offer is not sufficiently mature. Finally, they expect to be able to interact and give their opinions with journalists, which is currently impossible. In this case, it is difficult to sell them anything.

The result of my work was something of a revelation in terms of the management of this media. This simple example shows that the media transformation entails detailed knowledge of the current and desired customers.  That then needs to drive changes in content strategy, and inform the joint efforts of the editorial staff, the marketing, and IT towards common and measurable objectives.

2/ A bit of context with Reuters Institute concerning the relationship between citizens and information.  

There are stark differences in expectations and behaviors across different audience segments. Part of the population actively flees in the face of hard news, believing that it has a negative effect on their mood; whilst at the other extreme we have the news addicts. In between them on the spectrum of news consumption there is a massive variety of attitudes mixing interest and rejection, depending on the subjects and/or the themes (source: Reuters Institute).  

It should be noted that even for those most passionate about news, we observe a decline in interest for news in many countries between 2016 and 2021. In a set of 24 countries, this decline in the population describing themselves as “Very or Extremely interested in news” went from 63% to 58%: a drop of 5 points. This decline in interest in news is more pronounced in Spain and the United Kingdom, with a drop of 17 points, 12 points in Italy, 8 points in France and only 4 points in Germany (Source Reuters Institute).

Thus, while the global Covid-19 pandemic initially boosted news site visits and subscriptions for a certain type of audience, this study shows that a growing proportion of the population has since turned away from information.

Another fact, measured this time by Statista in 2019: in each country, there is a significant proportion of the population that sometimes actively leaks information: in 2019, 41% of Americans and Britons, 33% of French, 25% of Germans. For its part, the Reuters Institute sought to understand the reasons for this active leakage (see graph below). When asked the question: “Why do you try to escape from information? People answer that the news has “a negative effect on my mood” at 48%, or that they cannot “rely on the veracity of the news” at 37%. In short, if the raison d’être of a media is obviously the treatment of news, a growing number of citizens turn away from it because they feel that it is not what they need in their lives. 

3/ The content strategy to target audiences and be useful to them

The challenge is to learn how to intelligently vary content, and better market it in order to respond to the shifting expectations of audiences, because obviously not everyone wants the same thing.

We know that negative words and illustrations boost the audience and clicks. However, this race for ever stronger, negative headlines that create a climate of anxiety for some is no longer a positive strategy for the future of an editorial office, and it will not bring in new audiences.

The content strategy therefore embodies the way a media intends to engage (throughout the conversion funnel and the AAARRR stages) its audiences through the choice of its topics, formats, publication rhythms, headlines, tone, depth, quality of sources, etc. Performance indicators will highlight what worked well and what didn’t. Here are some ideas for imagining your new, more engaging journalism:

  • What if your purpose was to help your reader make better decisions.
  • What if your raison d’être was to bring a variety of points of view to increase your reader’s acuity.
  • What if your raison d’être was to show Solutions to the problems your reader is facing
  • What if your raison d’être was to show how a solution was deployed and the degree of its success or failure.
  • What if your raison d’être was to give the whole picture and not just scattered facts?

Therefore, we should also :

  • Renounce the use of “clickbait” titles. Tempting as this is in the short term it doesn’t build a relationship of trust and such titles are quickly picked up on by that part of the public that considers this type of content as low-end.
  • Develop trust. To do this, you need to learn more about what exactly people are looking for in your content and what they think of it. You need to bring the “Readership Research” function closer to the newsroom and make this collaboration ongoing, to guide the editorial team. I will come back to this collaboration in a future “3 min R&D article”.
  • Bring out these more original angles in a way that reaches the readers. It is no longer news facts alone that allow a better understanding of the world… but rather the links that connect them and bring meaning to raw information.

In conclusion, the changes are far reaching but incremental and interlinked. Which means they must be brought in step by step in a coherent strategy. This is why it is important to closely follow the process of deploying a content strategy.

The particular regional media house I’m working with has chosen to adopt this new approach by targeting women of the 35-50 generation in a more proactive way. They have committed to updating their content DNA and their formats to better engage their audiences.

4/ Content strategy, an ongoing process

Below is a presentation of the content strategy applied to media, which completes the Growth Hacking approach and its key steps. The objective is to think about your raison d’être; why and for whom you are doing all this work on a daily basis. Let’s take an example: if news and the “alert” format are an integral part of your identity, what about “Prevention” and predictive information helping your readers to adapt when faced with challenge or a profound change? There are about 20 essential  raisons d’être that you need to think about in order to customize this Content Strategy Wheel.

Your raison d’être. Why are you useful to your customers today? How could you be useful to new customers tomorrow?

What are Your Key Targets? Who are you targeting? Who are your customers today? Who will be your customers tomorrow? Why would they prefer you? How can you make yourself indispensable to them?

SEO, Semantic cocoon and SMO. It’s not enough to produce the content your targets need, you also have to make sure that this content is well referenced and succeeds in raising awareness among potential readers on social networks.

Become a Leader on the Key Issues. You will need to become a leader on the topics that are most relevant to your audience. Becoming THE reference on these issues will help you attract other potential customers. That could mean topping the Google result rankings or gathering the highest number of engagements (shares, comments, likes) on social networks.

Innovate and adopt New Formats.  To increase engagement or involvement of your target audiences, you also need to surprise those audiences with innovative and mobile-first formats.

Performance Indicators. Set up quality indicators to ensure that content is opened more via newsletters, read more by subscribers, shared/commented more on social networks, engaged with more and results in more conversions to paid content.

For the regional media house that I am working with in its digital transformation, I convinced them to adopt a new approach to their users and with it to reconsider their core identity and purpose. We conducted a series of workshops to examine and modify their brand DNA through 8 new angles. To ensure that the deployment of this new strategy would meet the needs of women and younger generations, we conducted a survey of 1,000 readers to test the new editorial promises. The most interesting thing was comparing the differences between age groups and sexes. More on that later.  

5/ The key to success: orchestrating multidisciplinarity to deepen engagement

To regain the public’s trust in the media, it will be necessary to be much more transparent and seek to integrate the readers’ expectations, even before the publication of the first content. This approach is very different to that of traditional journalism, which does not aim to listen to, or actively co-construct content with its target audiences. This approach will therefore provide a lot of reasons for a new generation of readers connect with your content.

In fact, the media product should always be in tune with the needs and habits of its target readers. If what they want are solutions, interaction or more decoding, then media must be able to offer them.

But to be a growth driver, this offer will have to combine the best of your content, such as surveys, with creative storytelling approaches, integrating readers with new features, or innovative formats, and careful marketing actions.

It is not enough to get the editorial, marketing, IT, and design teams together in the same room and hope that somehow the magic will happen. The challenge will be to orchestrate editorial, marketing and IT/Design expertise, with a view to aligning their missions through the publication of content, the objectives of each so that the teams can accomplish their missions through a common objective: the improvement of the product (cf. graph, below)!

The advantages of this alignment of objectives are threefold:

  • Editorial intentions are known in advance and can take the form of a programme.
  • The programme integrates the expectations of the priority targets at all levels.
  • Finally, the promotion of content is not a task done if there is time, but is part of the structure. 

One of the most successful recent examples is that of the New York Times, which has set up a multidisciplinary team (editorial, product, design, marketing, research, etc.) the purpose of which is precisely to deepen engagement.

Without this alignment of missions, the optimisation of the conversion tunnel for a medium will be nothing but wishful thinking.

David is CEO and Founder of New World Encounters and Upgrade Media. He has over 15 years of experience as a digital strategies coach and consultant in organisations like WAN-IFRA or his own ventures. David is passionate in serving the media community and shares here his expertise with us. This is a first episode from a series of articles on R&D Product Development.