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Build Trust and Show the Breadth of What You Do to Keep Readership Bump

Not that they ever went out of style, but newsletters and subscriptions seem to be peaking again. Bloomberg Media’s Justin Smith has talked about their stickiness and comfort at a time like this. Industry Dive is up to about 22 different newsletters now in 19 industries. And Digiday ran an article last week titled How Substack Has Spawned a New Class of Newsletter Entrepreneurs.
“We’re coming in with an opportunity-focused mindset,’ said Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie [whom I interviewed three years ago], fresh off raising $15.3 million last summer. “‘During the first 20-30 years of the internet, in terms of information distribution and media, the innovation has mostly come around an ad-supported model. There’s a whole 20-30 years of innovation to come that more fully innovates around a subscription model.’”
Here are some ideas on keeping the new readership—newsletters and beyond—that many publishers have received during the pandemic:
Use this time to build trust. “We strongly believe that in 5 years there will be a very obvious critical mass of people who will pay for content from writers who they trust,” McKenzie told me three years ago. “And it will be a mainstream, accepted part of the ecosystem… People are learning how good an experience it is to be subscribed to an independent writer you love. We’re really focused on building that relationship.” Said a recent Inc. article: “Trust is the end result of having a lock on your customers’ desires.”
Expose your new audience to the other coverage and products you put out. “When you have those moments, when people are intensely interested in your content for a very specific reason, everything feels changed,” Jeremy Gilbert, director of strategic initiatives at The Washington Post, told us recently. “We need to think how we can make our news and information [continue to be] relevant, but especially how we can make people aware about the width and breadth of coverage we can do… We’re thinking very deeply about what are the things, the products, the tools that we can offer our audience and how can we bridge [new subscribers] from caring about the news in the time of the virus to caring about the news when things are going better.”
Look at what else your new readers are clicking on and spending time with. “What [is it] about the relationship that [feels] important,” Gilbert continued. “Why did the audience turn to you now so you could continue to make that valuable? Many of the people taking our subscription offers today are taking them on an annual plan. So by April of next year, we would have had to make the case to them that their subscription is still valuable, even if we are in a happier, healthier position by then. So how do we transition people? If you are one of the almost a million people who subscribed to our COVID-19 email newsletter, what are the other newsletters that may be valuable to you? What kinds of coverage did you click through from the email newsletter and how can we use those interactions with our site or native apps to get you to stay?”
Engage in dialogues. Use your social media and analytics to figure out places to increase healthy give-and-take between you and your new customers. Are there special tips you could be giving them? Wrote Inc.: “Check in with customers not just on a preset cadence but when users signal unhappiness or disinterest. The faster you can jump in when a user has stopped opening your emails, for example, the higher your chances to save a subscriber.”
Get them hooked on a podcast or blog. Wrote NiemanLab last month: “Podcasts are interesting for publishers because they are much more likely to attract younger audiences, since they can be accessed conveniently through smartphones and they offer a diversity of perspectives and voices. The deep connection that many podcasts seem to create could be opening up opportunities for paid podcasts, alongside public-service and advertising-driven models. In our data this year we find that almost four in 10 Americans (38%) said they would be prepared to pay for podcasts they liked.”
Meet your audience’s needs. “And so if we can keep the needs of our audience at the forefront and not just think of our audience as consumers who buy our products but also people who need our news, we’re going to have a better experience,” Gilbert said.
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Is Your Audience ‘Aware of the Breadth’ of Your Coverage? Engagement Lessons From The Washington Post.

When you can get someone to tell you a personal story about a meeting with Jeff Bezos and how to maintain and monetize the engagement from the COVID-19 coverage you’ve been putting out, then you have quite an interview.
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And so we did last week when Jeremy Gilbert, director of strategic initiatives for The Washington Post, spoke to my colleague Matt Kinsman of SIIA’s Connectiv division (who did a great job moderating). Members can watch this session along with the others from CES Deconstructed at this link. Here are some highlights:

The Jeff Bezos? Asked how to present stories that need to be told but are not sexy enough to reach the upper left quadrant, Gilbert gave us a “personal experience.”
“…It’s your job to make the important news interesting.” Three or four years ago, “our publisher had two teenage daughters and… was very keen on us being a part of Snapchat Discover…,” Gilbert began. “And when we were looking to join Discover, we were invited right before Snap was going public as a company. We had a call with Jeff Bezos [owner of The Washington Post and Amazon], a strategy call, and he said, ‘Do you have any concerns about going forward with this?’ And I said, ‘Yes I have this concern, I think Snap wants us to be the serious news and not necessarily the compelling news. And the audience will look at us as vegetables and not dessert.’
“And Jeff paused for a second”—and Gilbert paused in telling it—”and then he said to me, ‘Don’t you think it’s your job to make the important news interesting?’ I was stunned, and I said nothing because what do you to say to that. So what I would say is, ‘I don’t think it is a fair or reasonable thing to say we have stories that are important but are not interesting. If a story is important enough, it is our job to find a way to tell it in a way that’s sexy.’… Almost always you can find a way through animation, interactivity, audio or video or graphics to make important stories compelling and if we’re not doing that, it really is more the fault of the newsroom than it is a fault of the story.”
Most publishers have seen a jump in engagement since the pandemic began. How do they maintain that engagement post-COVID. “I think there are two important things about this,” Gilbert said. “One is when you have those moments, when people are intensely interested in your content for a very specific reason, everything feels changed. We need to think how we can make our news and information [continue to be] relevant, but especially how we can make people aware… about the width and breadth of coverage we can do. Not that I think all of you are general news publishers, but I have to think that even after COVID-19 that there are lots of reasons that your information will be relevant. So some of that is how do you attract people to products that can continue? Newsletters are a great example. People tune in now because maybe they have more time or because they’re in front of the computer more or feel more isolated, But if you can get them to subscribe to a newsletter, you have a way to reach them even when they go back to in-person offices and in-person meetings.
“The second thing is, you need to think, what it is about the relationship that felt important,” Gilbert continued. Why did the audience turn to you now so you could continue to make that valuable? Many of the people taking our subscription offers today are taking them on annual plan. So by April of next year, we would have had to make the case to them that their subscription is still valuable, even if we are in a happier, healthier position by then. So how do we transition people? If you are one of the almost a million people who subscribed to our COVID-19 email newsletter, what are the other newsletters that may be valuable to you? What kinds of coverage did you click through from the email newsletter and how can we use those interactions with our site or native apps to get you to stay?”

There will be other coverage that people will need. “So what we’re trying to do [is show that] our arts writers and critics, our sports writers and critics, our food writers and critics can feel relevant now but also signal to our audience that after the COVID crisis, we’ll have different kinds of coverage that they will still need,” Gilbert said. “So that’s really what we’re trying to do to combat that challenge. But I absolutely feel that imperative every bit as much as your members do, and we’re thinking very deeply about what are the things, the products, the tools that we can offer our audience and how can we bridge [new subscribers] from caring about the news in the time of the virus to caring about the news when things are going better.”

It’s all about audience needs. “And so if we can keep the needs of our audience at the forefront and not just think of our audience as consumers who buy our products but also people who need our news, we’re going to have a better experience,” Gilbert said.

Again there was much more to the interview that you can watch here.