Jed Williams: Engagement has become critical to attract customers, keep them coming back, and maximizing their value

By Jed Williams, Chief Innovation Officer, LMA

Engagement: it’s a dicey word to define, not to mention actually foster with consumers. There are a gaggle of metrics that can be applied to measure success: average session length, total time spent, number of sessions, social engagement, and many more. Different companies utilize different “North Stars” to assess the engagement levels of their content. But they all share this in common: engagement has become the coin of the realm to acquire customers, keep them coming back, and maximize the value captured from them.

On LMA’s recent San Francisco Innovation Mission, attendees were exposed to a wide variety of companies with different delivery mechanisms, all of whom are focused on achieving a similar endgame: deepening user engagement.

The Hustle: Owning the Inbox, Owning the Millennial Male Demographic

At The Hustle, the millennial media brand targeting urban male entrepreneurs (with more than 500,000 active subscribers in their database), engagement resides entirely in its daily newsletter, sent every morning at the same time: 9 a.m. PT. “We do this strategically because so many people are on their desktop computers at that time, and it allows us to position as a B2B media company, The Hustle’s VP of Media Adam Ryan said. We like to say that ‘we’re here to influence water cooler conversations.’”

At the outset, “why email,” you may be asking?

Because of its scale, Ryan emphasized. “We all live in our email. It’s one of the few channels that we thought had mass scale and little barrier to entry. And we believe we can create a super-profitable business with a small team. Plus, we’re looking for customer lifetime value, and page views on the web isn’t a predictable model. It also doesn’t take loyalty into consideration.”

The daily email is simple (typically four stories each day), with consistent, authentic voice. Custom native sponsorships are sold into the newsletters, but consumer trust is always the paramount force in editorial decisions. Special sections in addition to flagship content drive even higher engagement, with an average open rate of 41 percent, and often eclipsing 50 percent.

Aside from the unique voice of the content, there are other triggers spurring The Hustle’s robust audience engagement:

  • Ambassador Program: This simple referral program is yielding big results. For every referral, the Ambassador gets something (typically “swag” from The Hustle). Currently more than 30 percent of total email subscribers are the byproduct of an Ambassador referral. The Ambassador program has also become fertile ground for recruitment, with The Hustle’s last four hires being Ambassadors that were already brand promoters.
  • Events: In less than two years, The Hustle has built a live events business that turns enough profit to cover all company expenses. Its flagship event, HustleCon, attracted 2800+ attendees and grew revenue 10x year-over-year. And a primary driver of attendance? Yep, Ambassadors. Meanwhile, The Hustle squeezes lots of value from the stage content, gathering snippets that can be pulled into emails in what Ryan calls the offline-to-online loop.

SmartNews: Standing Out in the Sea of News Apps

SmartNews takes an entirely different approach with a completely different audience, but with a shared focus on perpetual user engagement. The news aggregator delivers its curated experience exclusively through a mobile app, targeting a much wider base of news consumers (both national and local). The app has more than 25 million downloads worldwide, with its biggest user base in Japan but U.S. growth continuing to rise.

In a crowded news aggregation environment, with strong competition for attention in the app store and with social platforms, SmartNews has utilized several triggers to keep its brand top-of-mind:

  • Machine learning: Its technology crawls 10 million URLs every day to pull in high volumes of content, then analyzes and parses numerous signals within the content to determine what content should surface, and in what format. These include (but aren’t limited to) timeliness, reputation of the publisher, social performance of the content, and more. The goal is an intuitive experience that keeps the reader effortlessly coming back.
  • Mobile Push Alerts: For SmartNews, and many mobile app publishers, push notifications are a vital means of motivating user engagement after the initial download. “For many, the only time they see your app is through notifications,” SmartNews Director of Media and Technology Partnerships Ian Kennedy said.

SmartNews sends four standard alerts per day, at regimented times, and can send critical breaking news alerts as needed.  The key engagement metric that it monitors is “FQ14” – how frequently someone comes into the app during a 14-day window. “Push alerts matter the most in the first 14 days to get someone using the app.”

  • Offline engagement: Though SmartNews doesn’t operate an events business unit like The Hustle, it does leverage community connections that translate into engagement with its app. Vincent Chang, its Senior Manager of Communications, noted that the company hosts meet-ups on key media topics.

Valuing Engagement

For all of the strategies and mechanisms and metrics, how much is an engaged user actually worth? And what is the value of specific types of engagement (i.e. publishing a social post vs. writing a review vs. downloading a branded app)? That’s the conundrum that Northwestern’s Spiegel Research Center is tackling. It plans to construct an Engagement Index that can benchmark the relative value of different behaviors, and their financial impact.

In its early case study work with B2B brands, Spiegel categorized engagement data across four dimensions and then studied the effect of each on sales opportunities, noting the varying influence of content types, industries and topical relevance. Initial findings include:

  • Relevance is key. The content must be tied closely to the industry. This “gets at the heart of why someone participates with the content,” Spiegel Research Center Executive Director Tom Collinger said.
  • Negative engagement can have beneficial business outcomes. In one study with an airline, those posting a negative comment or review still spent 58 percent more on average than non-commenters.
  • Local media should think about “dual objective recommender systems.” Rather than optimizing views for advertisers or optimizing customer value, how can a media company instead optimize for enterprise value?

The Bottom Line: User engagement is absolutely the common currency of exchange for digital pure plays – and local media should adopt a similar mentality. However, the methods used to drive engagement and the metrics used to evaluate it vary widely. Ultimately, creating daily habits with users is essential! Does your content pass “the toothbrush test?” In a sea of options, is it something that users have affinity for and seek out on a continuous basis?