Digital Subscriptions, Data Warehouses & Personalizing Audience Segments

During a National Innovation Mission presentation, Spirited Media CEO Jim Brady left an indelible imprint with his warning to media companies: “don’t punch the user in the face.”

In other words, it’s long past time for the local media industry to get serious about elevating user experiences by putting consumer delight at the nexus of all key content and product decisions. On the recent Boston IM, attendees witnessed several examples of progressive media that are already acting on Brady’s message, leveraging data to build detailed customer profiles and deliver delightful

As LEAP Media Solutions CEO Daniel Williams remarked, “data is the new currency of exchange.”

The Boston Globe: Driving “Mid-Funnel” Conversions

At The Boston Globe, the strategic direction that CEO Doug Franklin has established is crystal clear: focus first on direct consumer revenue by growing digital subscriptions to 100,000 by the end of 2017, and 200,000 longer-term. “We’re putting our marker down. We’re saying the industry is going to survive on a subscription model.”

The approach to rapid audience expansion is really a data play: understanding different user journeys to and through The Globe site, and customizing those experiences accordingly to move those users through the funnel to subscription signup. Certainly perpetual experimentation with paywall flexibility and thresholds (“meter 5” versus “meter 2” approaches, for example) is important.

But equally critical, according to Chief Consumer Revenue Officer Peter Doucet, is understanding if a user is logged in or not, top-of-funnel or mid-funnel, and then tailoring their next steps. “We can customize the experience based on where you come from.”

For example, Doucet shared that newsletter subscribers are “much more likely to become paid digital subscribers,” and logged-in visitors also convert at a 10x multiple. Thus, getting users to log in is critical, and earning an email relationship is the next step. Today when a first-time visitor lands on the site, they see a modal asking them if they would like to subscribe to a daily newsletter. Increasingly, the newsletter options are customized based on the content that the user is reading. The Globe has expanded its newsletter offerings from 2 to 35 to boost personalization and increase signup rates.

Just as important as conversion is subscriber retention. According to Doucet, “the correlation between site usage and retention is a linear, 1:1 relationship.” This is evidenced in the numbers: subs who access the site 90-100 percent of possible days have an average one-year retention rate of 87 percent, 3 times higher than the least engaged audience segments. The challenge is closing the gap between most and least engaged. On an average day, 45% of digital subs visited the site, but 18 percent have not visited at all in the past month.

Building Consumer Data Warehouses and Robust Databases

Any data strategy is only as effective as the ability to gather, organize, analyze and activate the data itself. These are major ongoing initiatives at both GateHouse Media and Entercom.

At GateHouse, building a holistic consumer data warehouse serves as the underpinning of many of the pillars of its future revenue growth, namely live events and promotions, as well as improved meter strategies on its owned and operated sites.

“We have data repositories in so many places that aren’t being used strategically,” GateHouse Media Chief Revenue Officer Peter Newton said. Their goal is to unify both first and third party data from multiple sources – their DMP, Second Street contesting and promotions, newsletter and print/digital subscribers, event attendees, classifieds data, third party data enhancers – to create a single customer view, then append it with additional 3rd party data elements.

Ultimately, Newton envisions multiple applications for the data, from building out entirely new products to enhancing their overall consumer marketing strategy. GateHouse also aspires for its display and other on-site advertising to have “Facebook-level targeting.”

At Entercom, the data strategy all starts with creating what VP Digital Audience Development Kim Reis calls a “3D database.” Survey-gated contesting and promotions are a primary mechanism for acquiring and appending more data to each email address. They can also link IP addresses to email addresses to understand site behavior and patterns.

While building the database is paramount, ensuring that it’s active and clean is just as critical. “We consistently curate and scrub our database,” Reis said. “We remove someone if they haven’t engaged in 9 months.”

Putting a “Face” on Audience Segments

Building a single, unified customer view starts with harnessing data, but quickly expands to organizing and structuring data into distinct segments that correlate to customer personas.

Hubspot dissects the qualities of its most common and most engaged customers. According to VP Marketing Meghan Anderson, “we interview them, research them, and then turn that intelligence into personas that become our target audiences. We use these personas for the content we create, and our product team also uses it.”

Similarly, WGBH public radio and TV uses data-backed personas to define and represent both its audiences and potential “Giving” profiles (the non-profit has a multi-legged business model that includes private donations). VP Digital Services Bob Kempf noted that personas “help us achieve consensus, build products more effectively, and build empathy.” Content and product strategies are different for each persona.