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By Thomas Baekdal - February 2020

How publishers should think about personalization; and what is up with The Buffalo News?

This is an archived version of a Baekdal/Basic newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as news and trends about the media industry. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.

Welcome back to another edition of the Baekdal Plus newsletter. Today, I have two interesting things for you:

For publishers, the key to personalization isn't to filter

My latest Plus report is all about personalization. In this, I talk about the many different ways you can personalize, but also why publishers often struggle to do it in the first place.

The 'normal' way you personalize, by filtering what is available to people, only really works if you are a massive tech company or a very big newspaper. For most publishers, you just don't have a wide range of articles to use in order to make it valuable.

So, instead, smaller publishers need to think of personalization as more than just a filter, to focus on creating a service or new publishing products.

In this Plus report, I talk about all of this to give you a good understanding of the problems, and solutions for personalization.

But take a look at: For publishers, the key to personalization isn't to filter

Raising the level of digital knowledge

I got in trouble the other day on Twitter because I tweeted something some of my followers considered to be inconsiderate to the people who were just trying to do their best.

First of all, it was never my intention to do that, instead I was just reacting to a story.

But let me explain what happened:

I came across an article from Google talking about their latest effort in helping publishers get better at digital via the Google News Initiative. The article is called "How does a 140-year-old newspaper reinvent itself?"

It's written by Brian Connolly, Vice President, Innovation & Business Development from The Buffalo News, and it talks about the challenges they faced shifting from a print focus to digital.

He wrote:

In the GNI Subscriptions Lab, we immediately learned what metrics matter to convert readers into digital subscribers, and how we stack up against our publishing peers. We embraced the program's push to experiment-and have been rewarded with meaningful results. With each success, we become more confident that we are on the right path.

This is just great. And I'm all in favor if Google News Initiative can make this happen.

But then he starts to talk about what they did. He wrote:

The Lab encouraged us, for example, to launch a prompt on our homepage that asks readers to sign-up for our flagship newsletter, "Good Morning, Buffalo." As a result, we've added more than 60,000 newsletter subscribers over the past six months.

Our percentage of readers with an associated email address is six times larger now than before we began the Lab. We've learned that this metric is important, as known readers are not only more loyal, but also 10 times more likely to convert to digital subscribers than anonymous visitors. We've since focused on this audience to grow subscribers and boost engagement. More than 14 percent of our new digital subscribers since the Lab began have come from a newsletter subscriber.

We previously weren't tracking many of these data points; now, we're making decisions based on how they'll move these numbers. Most importantly, we've increased our number of digital subscribers by 49 percent since the start of the GNI Subscriptions Lab. Monthly digital subscription revenue is up 23 percent, while average revenue per user is up 14 percent during that same period. That growth has allowed us to invest more in consumer revenue expertise and technology.

It was at this point that I posted an inconsiderate tweet. Because I looked at this, and my brain just went: Really?! This is how the money from Google's News Initiative is being spent? To tell publishers to add a 'prompt' on their homepage to encourage people to sign up for their newsletter?"

And so I tweeted (with the link to the article):

This is just sad. I'm glad Google helped them, but all of this is really basic.

Yeah, I'm sorry. I can understand why people think this inconsiderate. As Nancy Lane, CEO Local Media Association wrote to me:

I think this is unfair. @GoogleNewsInit brought in @FTIConsulting to help our 10 publishers in the lab (at a considerable cost). 6 of the 10 publishers grew digital subs by more than 50%. Nothing about this is easy; none of these changes are 'really basic'.

Yeah, okay.

And when I look at The Buffalo News, they have implemented a lot of things that will help them drive more digital subscribers.

For starters, their newsletter prompt, which, as they told us, increased the signups by 49% ... and also helps them better convert people into subscribers.

We all know how important newsletters are, so, yes, this is great.

They have also implemented and focused on creating several other newsletters, to offer something more focused and personally relevant.

Again, this is great!

Another thing they have added is a call to action at the bottom of each article, asking people to support their local newspaper. This is also something that has proven to work for many newspapers.

Just look at the Guardian. This really works!

There is another prompt at the bottom of the page. Again, it's really important to do this.

We have seen from countless studies that the problem that most publishers have is that they are not telling people to subscribe.

We saw this, for instance, in a report last year from Shorenstein Center and Lenfest Institute, titled "Digital Pay-Meter Playbook". In this report, they talk about what they call the "Stop rate" ... as in, how often are people reminded to subscribe?

They found that the stop rate was a very important metric in determining how successful publishers are at converting people into subscribers.

Speaking of which, I also see that The Buffalo News has implemented a metered paywall (although, this might have happened before Google got involved?). And here, I am delighted that they have set a limit to only five articles!

And after that, you see this very easy to understand page.

Again, this is really important. In the past, one of the biggest mistakes publishers made was that they set their metered paywall too high. Some newspapers set it to 25 articles.

At 25 articles, people are unlikely to ever see the subscription prompt. Either because they don't actually visit that many times on a single device, per month, or simply the cookie is somehow lost or broken along the way.

So, for newspapers today, five is pretty much the maximum you should set. You might even want to consider setting it below that. Or more importantly, you might want to create a dynamic meter that adjusts itself to what people are doing, rather than using fixed numbers.

What I really like, though, is how The Buffalo News is focusing entirely on digital. Both in the screenshot above, and on the subscription page, you only see 'digital' as a subscription option.

This is wonderful. It sends a very clear message that the future is digital, and this is where everyone should be.

You can still technically subscribe to print. There is a tiny link underneath in light grey text that will take you to the print options. But the focus is very clearly on digital.

This is another important thing for publishers to do. For years, publishers have been handicapping themselves by trying to promote their print subscriptions, often choosing print as the "best option" and making print cheaper than digital.

What this does is that it prevents you from changing in a time where changing as fast as possible is the most important thing.

So, it's great that The Buffalo News has done this right.

And then, of course, are the metrics. As Brian Connolly told us:

We previously weren't tracking many of these data points; now, we're making decisions based on how they'll move these numbers.

So here again, they are very much on the right track. Shifting from just making your decisions based on your gut feeling or, worse, vanity metrics, to tracking things that directly drive value and loyalty is such an important change for any newsroom.

And finally, when I did a quick analysis of their articles, they seem to be above average in terms of local relevance.

I talked about this in my article called: "Redefining Relevance: The Circles of Media", but one of the problems that many local newspapers have is that you simply are not in tune with the local community. Many local newspapers keep writing stories that are targeted at a mass-audience, but have no real use to people locally.

Obviously, I don't live in Buffalo (in fact, I live in Europe), so I can't be sure. But their editorial focus seems to be far more locally tuned than what I often hear from other newspapers.

I don't know how much of this was the direct result of Google getting involved, but The Buffalo News has done all the right things.

This is not sad. This is great!

However, I do still feel we have a problem across the industry as a whole. Everything I have talked about here is what I would call 'step 1'. In other words, these are the things you start with. And if you are a publisher and you are still not doing this, get it done. Now!

The reason for my reaction on Twitter is that it's 2020. Publishers should already know all these things by heart. We shouldn't be talking about this anymore. We should be focusing on step 2, 3 or even 5. In other words, what are the next steps after this?

This is what we should really be focusing on, and this is where every publisher should be today.

This is an archived version of a Baekdal/Basic newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as news and trends about the media industry. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.


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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé


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