At the end of an interview with WNIP at the Web Summit in Lisbon last year, Joy Robins, chief revenue officer of The Washington Post, offered publishers this advice: “You must pinpoint your true value proposition, ask what do you do better than any other publisher serving the same audience? Then you need to ask how else you can serve those readers.” That service begins with building better relationships.
“Increasingly, we’re seeing personalities matter—journalism was the original creator economy so how do you also ensure that you have journalists who are increasingly developing relationship with readers?” Robins asked. “Getting the right mix of personality and brand isn’t easy to achieve, but it’s worthwhile.”
Pre-pandemic, publishers were able to augment those writer-reader relationships at in-person events. That’s starting to come back now. It will be interesting to see if a company like Workweek or Substack enters the in-person events world, featuring their content creators. It’s almost like a great bookstore we have here in Washington, D.C. called Politics & Prose that has nightly readings. They bring people into the store, illuminate the relationships people have with authors, and increases loyalty.
Building a trusting and two-way relationship with your audience matters more than ever now. In a recent Association Benchmarking Report, only 38% of respondents said they are conducting communication-specific surveys at least once every 12–24 months to stay on top of audience/member needs. And only half believe they have a good understanding of their reader, member and advertiser needs. That’s not enough.
Here are some ways media organizations are talking more to their audiences:
Ask the right questions. National Journal president and BIMS 2023 speaker Kevin Turpin has spoken about the importance of asking the right questions. “We had a really deep dedication to getting to know our audience as best we could. Knowing what their top challenges are, how those challenges are changing? ‘What are the new things that are getting into your budget that wasn’t there five years ago? How are you managing the office differently?’ We spent a year with our customers, asking them a set of questions over and over. The most important one was, ‘What keeps you effective?’ …Let’s take the challenges of what we learned in spending time with top clients. This is where our transformation is going to go.”
Spend more time “outside” your own organization. Previously, Turpin had spoken more broadly about transformation. “When businesses are trying to recreate themselves and change, they spend too much time inside, in strategy meetings, batting around ideas that they think will work. We don’t spend enough time going around. How are [our customers’] jobs changing? What are they thinking about? What are they investing in this year? This will give you solutions.”
Go beyond the norm. Of course, “going around” means something different these days—phone, Zoom, social media, Slack. But the idea of asking important questions of your customers remains paramount. Sales consultant Ryan Dohrn once told us that “What keeps you up at night?” just isn’t good enough anymore. “Your questions simply have to be better. One of your main questions that makes me nuts and that I hear in my ad sales training is this: ‘Tell me more about your business.’ C’mon, you’re better than that… And then, ‘What’s your budget?’ You can do better than that. Those are three questions we do need to ask, but maybe ask them in a more vibrant kind of way so that we don’t sound like every other media salesperson that’s calling on that customer.”
Inspire connection and trust. Asked if Workweek’s content-creator concept worked as they expected, founder and CEO Becca Sherman said: “Yes, we believe our creator-first model is both the key to our growth and the future of media. Each creator is building a brand with an audience of fans who feel personally connected to and deeply trusting of them, which in turn enables rapid organic growth, lower-than-average CACs, higher-than-average CPMs—and, ultimately, a very high RPU and LTV.” That’s a lot of acronyms.
Determine audience needs. “Increasingly we are trying to ensure that our product focus follows what the audience needs, as ultimately this drives the business,” Robins said. “Our entire business strategy is rooted in our audience insights, and being able to better serve our readers will ultimately lead to a stronger business. So much can be missed by not focusing on the reader. We’re spending a lot more time understanding the user journey, the user story, where they come from, what experience they are having with our content, etc. By understanding this better, we can continue to evolve the product in a way that gives readers a better experience over time.”