The first step of the customer lifecycle is to attract your target audience to your platform. Only then can you engage those audiences, convert them to customers, and retain them. In this blog we explore some of the key success factors used by publishers to acquire new audiences.
Step 1. Agree what traffic you’re optimising for. For the Financial Times, that meant striking a balance between reach and engagement
At FT Strategies, we’ve helped many publishers who are making the transition from an advertising-centric business model to digital subscriptions. When publishers optimise for advertising, they understandably focus on volume metrics (e.g. unique visitors, page views, etc). In the subscriptions world, we know that there is a balance to be struck between reach and loyalty. Subscription-focused publishers want to be more strategic about the audiences they are trying to bring onto their platform, and are encouraging behaviour that leads to repeat visits.
This insight is why the Financial Times has created engagement metrics that can sit alongside standard volume metrics. For example, ‘Returning Visits’ is used to give a clearer picture of the proportion of traffic that is engaged enough to visit multiple times. Depth of reading metrics like Quality Reads and Quality Visits can be used alongside this to measure depth of reading. Personas can then be created based on engagement patterns to help teams focus on attracting the right types of reader, and deepening their engagement.
As a result of this focus on engagement, the FT was able to create a traffic acquisition strategy that placed less importance in attracting casual visitors (i.e. those that visit the FT once, and are unlikely to return). Regardless of your industry, understanding the goal of traffic acquisition should be your first priority.
Step 2. Create the metrics and analytics tools that allow your teams to take a data-driven approach to traffic acquisition
Once you’ve got a goal, you need to ensure teams are able to measure their progress. In mature publishers, an Audience Engagement function will typically be embedded within the newsroom. Their focus will be to work alongside editorial to grow, engage and diversify traffic. Effective Audience Engagement is data-driven, so it’s important that team members are focused on appropriate metrics and have access to analytics tools.
As mentioned above, the Financial Times has created a content-focused engagement metric called Quality Reads. This allows individual pieces of content to be judged in terms of both volume of readers, and the proportion of people who have truly engaged with the content (defined as those who read most of the article). In order to make these metrics actionable by Audience Engagement and Editorial teams, the FT has invested in creating a user-friendly internal dashboard called Lantern. For a detailed explanation of the Financial Times approach, see our previous blog ‘How the Financial Times brought data into the Newsroom’).
Once your audience development team is empowered with the right tools, they can focus on testing tactics that have the potential to benefit your traffic acquisition strategy. That might mean headline writing, optimising stories for SEO, generating ideas for content, or identifying new channels (e.g. newsletters, social and aggregators).
Step 3. Build the capability to respond to changing SEO needs and context
As with all traffic acquisition techniques, search engine optimisation is not a straightforward one-off “fix”. Your approach will require tracking performance data, and acting upon what you learn over time. Changes in approach will be necessitated by a change in your own audience strategy. And at the same time, external conditions will necessitate new tactics – for example, your competitors will adapt their approach, while tech companies will make changes to search engine algorithms.
One interesting recent example of adjusting SEO tactics has come from a group of UK publishers that includes The Sun. This group is planning to establish a set of shared standards that have the potential to improve SEO for all. The initiative seeks to take advantage of one of the key ways Google determines the ‘authoritativeness’ of websites: by tracking links from ‘prominent websites’. Websites that are linked to from prominent sources will feature higher in the search ranking.
However, this approach doesn’t always work in a publisher’s favour. As Carly Steven, head of SEO at The Sun, told Digiday: ‘Despite Google’s best efforts to try and reward original content, there are inconsistencies in the way publishers have been linking to and identifying the original source of stories.’ For example, a publisher might name-check a source publication used in their own content, but may neglect to link back to the original story.
To address this issue, The Sun has come together with several other publishers via the Association of Online Publishers (AOP) to propose a standardised way to cite sources. The AOP Link Attribution Protocol is now public, and specifies how publications should link to their sources. It also requires members to create an attribution email address (e.g. [email protected]) to share with other members. It is hoped that this will provide accountability amongst publishers for adapting citations, and help reward the whole sector for creating original trusted content.
Step 4. To build an authentic voice on social media, make space for experimentation
Social media is an invaluable place to acquire traffic. It can be particularly rewarding to use these platforms to drive traffic among new audiences (e.g. younger audiences), but finding an authentic voice on platforms like TikTok can be tricky. We’ve seen that the most successful organisations take an agile and experimental approach.
One initiative we’re watching with interest is 404 by the LA Times. 404 is a team created within Audience Engagement that has the goal of ‘meeting new audiences where they are’. Unlike the rest of the LA Times’ Audience Engagement team, 404 does not create social content to amplify existing features and stories. Equally, 404 content is not shared on the LA Times website or apps. Instead, the team is empowered to create content specifically designed for social platforms in order to find a new and authentic voice.
Previously the group was known as the ‘meme team’, and is made up of creators, filmmakers, writers, makers and a puppeteer. So far, 404 has created puppet-hosted shows for TikTok, memes, and short-form documentaries. As Head of Creator Content Angie Jaime told Nieman Lab, the goal is to create content that will ‘live and breathe on social’.
Although the goal isn’t for these social posts to directly lead to traffic, the hope is that this approach will drive brand awareness for the LA Times among a new social-first audience. So far the results have been particularly impressive on TikTok, with the 404 account racking up 268.1k followers and nearly 4m Likes.
Step 5. Understand your audience to ensure that newsletters continue to to drive repeat visits
Once traffic has arrived on your website or app, there are several ways you can try to drive repeat visits. Perhaps the two most common within the publishing world are push notifications and newsletters.
Over the past few years, many publishers have been drawn to newsletters as a way of driving traffic. During the pandemic, many found success using free Coronavirus newsletters to capture and retain some of the influx of traffic experienced in 2020. As the pandemic became less central to the news agendas, these newsletters naturally reached the end of their natural shelf life. What publishers like The Economist and The Telegraph are taking from this is the importance of having a flexible and customer-centric approach to their newsletter portfolio.
The Economist, who offer a mixture of free and subscriber-only newsletters, believe that the best approach is to continually adapt based on evolving reader needs. As Sunnie Huang, former Newsletter Editor at The Economist, told the Innovation in Media 2022-23 World Report: ‘Take a step back from the product and reconnect with your audience and their needs. Once you know who your audience is, what needs they have and what pain points they have, it will become a lot easier to find the right products which fit those needs.’
Dan Silver, Director of Email and Newsroom Innovation at The Telegraph, explains that newsletters are a great place to take a flexible approach: ‘It’s fine to unsubscribe to one newsletter and sign up for another newsletter. We have a very fluid attitude to these editorial properties … [because they] are easy to get out, on the ground, and test new concepts’ (Innovation in Media 2022-23 World Report).
FT Strategies can help your business expand and diversify your audience
At FT Strategies we work together with you to exceed your ambitions by delivering a sustainable growth strategy built upon leading-edge capabilities that improve your customer engagement, retention, revenues and profit. We have developed a reputation for powering customer growth through creative and dynamic digital transformation strategies from conception to execution.
We would be delighted to hear about the traffic acquisition opportunity at your business. So please do get in touch with us if you’d like to continue the conversation.