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Word of Mouth, Relevancy, Transparency and ‘Endings’ Resonate Even More Now

In December 2019, The New York Times Open Team released a list of 10 Themes for News that they had come up with after “traveling the world to better understand people’s needs and behaviors.” In looking at that list now—almost a year-and-a-half and a changed world later—it’s amazing that most of these themes have not lessened in importance. If anything, they have amplified.

Take this one—time of day influences content selection. The NYT Open team wrote that, “Rarely do media organizations take time of day and the cognitive load of their users into account when publishing content… People’s daily lives demand a lot of them.” That was before the pandemic. How much are we dealing with now between schooling, childcare, pets, housework, errands, technology, etc? Survey your audience—ask when a podcast or webinar might be best for them. You might be surprised. I like to get the Washington Post headlines email at 4 pm but not in the morning when I’m focused on work. And I grimace at some good events in the evening when I’m zoomed out.

Here are five more of those themes—with our own AMPlification:

People want stories with a clear beginning, middle and, most importantly, end.
“Through our research, we heard that people flock to true crime stories for just this very reason,” they write. “When it comes to news, people want that feeling of accomplishment, as well.” “I feel like there just has to be an end… and it has to be definitive, and you need to indicate to the audience that eventually you’ll get there,” said actor and storyteller Mike Birbiglia. “Because if it doesn’t end, people will be furious.” We know how much storytelling—and our attention span—matters today. So be sure to think about what result(s) you want?

Try this. FT Live has put together five “hour-long, live panel debates in the week of April 26-30, to coincide with the publication of a series of opinion pieces.” The last one is titled, “Can Young People Save the Planet?” Now that’s an ending. Think shorter pieces of connected content.

Scheduled programming fosters ritual and connection.
Shared experiences still resonate. How many of us have paid more attention to the Chat during a talk than the actual talk? We want to connect—thus the trouble with virtual events so far. “When people watch or engage with scheduled content, the experience becomes a ritual and the content becomes a cultural touchpoint,” NYT Open wrote. “…The conversations about the content often feel as valuable as the content itself. Consistent programming facilitates these conversations—and ultimately fosters a sense of connection—by turning that scheduled content into an event.”

Try this. A weekly or bi-weekly participatory feature. Examples are Rob Ristagno’s Campfire Chats and Joanne Persico’s Bold Minds Virtual Mixer, NYU’s Salon Series—next up a talk with NPR’s Maria Hinajosa and Meetings Professional International Academy’s #RealTalk Dialogue Series | Still We Rise.

Word of mouth is still the ultimate recommendation engine.
My real estate agent friend Nya Alemayhu has been successful the last 12 months because of the personalized service she offers, a monthly newsletter called Keeping It Real based on conversations with clients, and her collaborations with other pros like loan officers and home inspectors. The result? She gets referrals and recommendations. “While algorithms can offer interesting suggestions, nothing beats the recommendations from co-workers, family and friends,” NYT Open wrote. “Personal recommendations, which are the product of ongoing personal conversations, allow for the discovery of new content to feel seamless and nuanced.”

Try this. Instagram. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) generates word of mouth and publicizes events through their popular Instagram page.

The most recent information is not always the most relevant.
This one is huge. It’s basically that relevant content may trump today’s news. “News organizations tend to surface the most recent content, but that often gets people only some of the information they’re looking for,” they write. In a recent conversation I had with a publisher, he expressed the success they’ve had repurposing their best content. “Not everyone sees it the first or even the second time around,” he said. “It’s been a huge plus for us.”

Try this. Take the top 10 most popular content pieces that you’ve done over the last couple years and schedule their repurposing in a weekly or monthly series. Call it something like Doing Our Best or Our All-Star Content.

People crave transparency.
“The public hears claims of ‘fake news’ just as often as people who work in media. When people understand the process and people involved in telling a story, they are more likely to trust it,” NYT Open wrote. When Sam Yagan, vice chairman of Match.com and co-founder of OkCupid, Tinder and SparkNotes, spoke on one of those Campfire Chats, he was believable because he told us the process that he went through after taking over Match and the mistakes they made. “I compare never failing with not having ambition,” Yagan said. “[So the question became,] how do we let ourselves test out our intuition? The intuition has to inform what data you get.”

Try this. Let your audience see—and discuss—how one of your best publications or podcasts or webinars gets done. “Come behind the scenes with us today.”

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‘Figuring Out a Happy Medium’; Finding a Balance of Value and Price for Events

In an article last month on the Eventbrite blogAdriana Gascoigne of Girls in Tech was asked the most compelling element to get attendees to attend their virtual events? “…the speakers: high-caliber speakers and content that’s difficult for attendees to access if it weren’t for [us].”

In a normal year, a Girls in Tech Conference costs $300 and maybe their Global Classrooms anywhere from $35 to $150. When the pandemic began, they went to free. “But as the year moves on,” Gascoigne says, “we’re figuring out a happy medium for next year’s event to offer up a fee that keeps them signing up and actually attending the event. We’re trying to figure out what that number is.”

There is nothing trickier than event pricing right now. We’ve seen prices run the gamut from free to $600, and no one seems sure about their strategy—at least until after the fact. Gascoigne looks at the bright side, however. “We’re able to produce more and reach a lot more people globally through digital programming and it’s also less expensive overall to produce.”

That Eventbrite article listed these three foundational strategies to price your event:

  • Create demand with discounted prices for new events.
  • Cover your business costs.
  • Play up your value to attendees.

Let’s focus on that third one: value. The Financial Times put their value on special access and on-demand networking. For their FT Live event in October, they offered three tiers: The Knowledge Pass ($299) gave you access to the live talks and the Q&A and polls. The Professional Pass ($599) added meet-the-journalist sessions and that networking—and video—on demand. The Group Pass ($3,000) multiplied everything by six people.

On the lower end, Christine Weiser, content/brand director, Tech & Learning, a Future plc division, said they charged just $25 for a big virtual event they put on—with good value—and more than 1,300 people signed on! “We had no idea,” she said. “Will they pay more? For education they do have professional development budgets.” She said if you do price low be ready for late signups. I’ll bet they charge a little more next time.

“We feel that people are getting a lot more value [this year],” Jared Waters, training director for Business Valuation Resources, said about their recent Virtual Divorce Conference. “We can do a lot of things to add value to an event. So we figure a price point—[they are charging about half of what they charged last year]—and then throw a lot of value on it. It really is a great deal for our attendees.” That value included pre- and post-conference bonus sessions and a $200 credit on their registration to a future in-person event.

“Consider the value [of] what people are getting in exchange for what they’re paying,” said Darrah Brustein, lifestyle designer and founder of Network Under 40, a series of networking events for professionals in Atlanta, Nashville, and Baltimore. Brustein only charges $10-$25 for her networking events but $97-$297 for her summit because she knows it provides in-depth value.

The National Association of Broadcasters broke pricing down for their big October event, offering a $75 Marketplace Pass, and then content passes that varied in number of days and in pricing—$149 to $499.

“We started off at a lower number when we first offered our classes,” Susie Martin, co-founder, It’s for Charity! Events, said. “Once we saw the popularity, we slowly raised our prices until we found a good spot. It was experimental.”

Experimental is a good word for these times. Your audience is unique so what works for you in pricing may be as well.

Then there’s the Bloody Mary Festival. “The normal in-person festival costs $50 (general admission) and you get two-and-a-half hours sampling Bloody Marys from 10-15 different vendors,” Evan Weiss said. “The virtual event ticket costs $75 and includes five bottles of artisanal Bloody Mary mix from around the country shipped direct to the ticket holder. Then on October 10th, each ticket holder can tune into the virtual Bloody Mary Festival.”

Whether attendees make it that far after getting their swag boxes is a story for another day.

 

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The Crisis Editorial Strategy That the FT and Northwestern Agree on

“It may seem to be verging on madness to make this move during such unusual times, but we have found this new currency, properly communicated, has given everyone involved a new sense of purpose at a strange time.”
That quote comes from Tim Part, a manager at FT (Financial Times) Strategies in London, in an article on the INMA website yesterday.
The new currency he is talking about is the introduction of a reader lifetime value (LTV) into their editorial lexicon. “Long ago we realized the story of reader engagement was a better one to tell to the newsroom compared to a simple volumetric yarn about pageviews,” Part wrote. “Quality reads and RFV (revenue, frequency, volume) scores have long been embedded in the newsroom, but it was important to move toward LTV as a key metric.”
Interestingly, I looked up reader lifetime value and came across pre-pandemic research from Northwestern University’s Spiegel Research Center that also pushes retention and individual subscriber value over the effort and expense of attracting new subscribers—though with different initials: CLV.
“Being able to move a reader to a subscriber, while important, has much less leverage and value than growing the long-term value of that subscriber,” said Tom Collinger, Spiegel’s executive director. “Understanding and then working to grow [customer] lifetime value (CLV) is a well-known goal and measure in the retail and e-commerce space. [CLV is a] far newer and less familiar goal” in American news organizations, but it’s one they should embrace as customer revenue becomes more of a priority and advertising dollars become less of one.
Here are key takeaways from Northwestern’s research and FT Strategies’ “new currency”:
Add dedicated Slack channels. While Zoom meetings can work internally, FT’s Part said it’s the “informal chatter around the main news desk” at events that needs to be created virtually. “Dedicated Slack channels were set up to replicate this as much as possible.”
Look at new technology. A new tool, Spark, “enables our journalists to collaborate more on articles. It means the messaging platform is less cluttered,” Part wrote.
Keep your audience informed. “The [FT Strategies] audience engagement team also beefed up its existing daily e-mail communications to ensure this remained the place to keep track of the many new initiatives the FT has launched during these unprecedented times.”
Keep your newsletters strong. “The newsletter is one of those things that is going to bump you from 97 to 98 [retention rate],” said Ed Malthouse, Spiegel’s research director. “The way someone running a newsroom should think is as follows: ‘I’m going to need to devote a reporter to create that newsletter. What’s that worth?’ There are costs associated with having that reporter. Everybody who subscribes to the newsletter—let’s say they go from having 25 to 40 future payments. You can then do the math to determine whether it is a smart thing to do.’“
Monitor engagement, even more now. “Many news organizations, understandably, have been laser focused on acquiring new digital subscribers,” said Medill Senior Associate Dean Tim Franklin. “But what this research shows is that isn’t nearly enough, and is not even the most important thing. News organizations need strategies to build long-term loyalty with the subscribers they already have. Otherwise, they’re just pouring water into a leaking bucket.”
Take into account the patterns of the new normal. I wrote a column about this last week when a dryer vent cleaning company targeted Saturday as the best day to schedule everyone, even though so many people are home during the week now. FT’s Part said they see their audience’s new behavior and hours in their metrics and reminds us that “the commute has disappeared, leading to a flatter level of consumption, but one which starts an hour earlier and finishes an hour later. Journalists need to understand these new patterns and be able to produce content tailored to them.”
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In Challenging Times, Quizzes Seem to Be a Challenge People Like Taking on

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about the successful quizzes that Lessiter Media is doing—an initiative they started well before the pandemic hit. For one, they received a few thousand submissions with almost 2,000 new email addresses; more than 120 new subscribers emerged from the list of quiz takers.
This week I came across a quiz from a publisher in the UK that ties into the pandemic. The Investment Week Virtual Quiz 2020 was designed to help “heroic frontline NHS [National Health Service] staff tackling the coronavirus crisis.” Today at 4 pm their time they held the live quiz “hosted by a special industry guest.” Participants were sent a link and also could dial in to a video/audio call. They would even show a leaderboard in real-time so the winner can be revealed instantly.
To take part they asked people to choose a donation fee with all proceeds going to CASCAID’s NHS fundraising campaign (minimum donation was £15).
Coincidentally, the Washington Post ran an article this week titled, The Pubs Are Closed, But Brits Won’t Give Up Their Quizzes, so the tradition is even stronger there. But still, given the success of quizzes here—I’ve read that Jeopardy is once again soaring in the ratings—this might be a good time to try one, especially if you can work in the goodwill.
Goodwill was one theme in the SIPA UK discussion last week. “What we’ve done this week is a special white paper on COVID-19,” said Victoria Mellor, who with Robin Crumby built Melcrum up from the ground floor and now runs Kademy. “The view I’m talking on subscriptions is that you need to sell by helping people. Cold calling in this environment is difficult; being helpful is the way to go. We have a coaching offering in our membership suite of online training modules… What we’re doing is for prospects in our pipeline, offering free coaching sessions [and it is] being well received. People need short-term help… Be helpful and thoughtful about how you’re positioning yourselves.”
If there can be some type of quiz or gamification involved, all the better. People are looking for any kind of escape, and quizzes, jigsaw puzzles and games can supply that.
In their 100 event trends for 2020—before the pandemic—the Event MB Studio team found that 10% of the apps they analyzed listed gamification features as part of the app. “…let people win rewards for acing a quiz on the keynote [speaker]. Leaderboards and awards have proven particularly effective, as attendees compete against one another for more recognition as well.”
Other publishers I know doing quizzes include:
Financial Times. They are still doing an FT Weekend Quiz that seems to be gated to subscribers (must be popular). They are centered around popular culture with this subhead: “Our ‘Round on the Links’ quiz tests your ability to draw connections. Thinking caps on!” Last year’s quiz focused on “The Week in News.”
Education Week. Although it looks like they put a temporary stop to their quizzes after Feb. 24. They would regularly achieve nearly 90% quiz completions and around 60% of people completing the quiz filling out the registration form for lead generation.
Kiplinger. The UK-owned publisher features an entire gallery of quizzes on varying topics. Although most of them seem evergreen—The Couples and Money Quiz; The Personal Finance Quiz—a click on the Recession Quiz leads to 10 Facts You Must Know About Recessions, updated on March 27.
PR News. On Access Intelligence’s PR News grammar quiz,  a Scrabble-like image of “G R A M M A R” emerges with the headline, “How Good Is Your Grammar?” “Do you correct others on their grammar? Or do you get corrected? See how you stack up…”
Lastly, I always hark back to a quiz that OPIS did. The questions were tough, so that when you got one wrong, the answer led you to an upcoming webinar where the correct answers would be discussed. The email with this quiz drew the most sign-ups for that webinar.