What’s your digital strategy?

Chances are you’ve heard that question a thousand times. There are hundreds of smart people in our industry doing amazing things. You could ask 10 people and get 10 different answers.

I believe we’re doing some interesting work here, too. Recently our work was submitted to the Local Media Association’s Digital Media Contest.

I was equally honoured and humbled in Philadelphia earlier this month with the Digital Innovator of the Year award. 

Following is an interview Local Media Today conducted with me. It goes into the nuts and bolts of our strategy, our struggles, and what lies ahead.

Question: You were recently selected as the Digital Innovator of the Year in LMA’s 2014 Digital Media Contest. Congrats! I want to dig into your work that led to this distinction but first, can you give us some insight into your career roadmap that has led to your position as vice president of digital and circulation for Bliss Communications?

Answer:
Bliss is a fabulous company. Over the last 18 years, I’ve done a number of things.

In 1997, I started with the company selling retail advertising to a zero book of business. It was 100% new business development. A year and a half later, I accepted an outside classified display position, selling print advertising within real estate and automotive verticals.

A few years after that, I was promoted to general manager of The Jotter, one of Bliss’ two-day-a-week shoppers. Three years later, I was beamed up to the mother ship and worked with outside ad teams selling digital, co-op programmes, and top-of-mind awareness programmes.

My first stint in circulation started in 2004, when I became sales and marketing manager. A few years later, I was promoted to circulation director. Eventually, digital media was added to my plate. Late in 2013, I was named vice president of digital media and circulation. Eighteen years goes by quickly.

Question: And, a thumbnail of your media company and market characteristics?

Answer: Bliss Communications owns and operates newspapers in Janesville (Gazette), Monroe (Times), and Marinette (Eagle Herald), Wisconsin.

The Gazette is the flagship business, with a total circulation of 21,000 on Sunday. GazetteXtra.com hosts 1.5 million page views monthly. We have a nice franchise in the Janesville area with an AM and FM radio station.

Regionally, we operate Community Shoppers, Inc, which publishes three area shoppers, two days a week. Our digital agency brand, Local Matters Digital, is the latest business within our franchise. It delivers Web, digital, social media, search, and targeting services.

Janesville is situated between Madison and Milwaukee. We maintain an aggressive local brand. This has been our best defense against metro competitors. The Gazette’s brand promise is, “Local matters.” It has served our customers and us well.

The Gazette’s product value and quality is second to none. We are a three-time Wisconsin Newspaper Association “Best Newspaper” award winner. Our newsroom is full of veteran and rookie reporters, and editors who love their jobs. And it shows. I’d put our newspaper up against anyone’s.

Question: In nominating you for the LMA award, your general manager, Mary Jo Villa, talked about your implementation of an enterprise-wide new content management system that included many components. Tell us about that system and its various aspects.

Answer: The system has two nerve centers: the audience database and the content management system (CMS). This has served our mission well — greater monetisation of audience and content.

The audience database is also the circulation database. It integrates with the user database within our CMS, primarily for the purpose of controlling activations and authenticated users. The CMS labels content as premium or non-premium. The sharing of data between the two systems determines which users get which kind of content.

Within the CMS, profiles and taxonomy exist for every bit of content. While helpful for building pages and sections, it serves another purpose. We have built tags on our content that are ingested by a powerful user behaviour database. Those tags become important when we assign behaviours to users within the database. We’ll discuss this in more detail.

The CMS also integrates with our print pagination system. Our news team first creates the content in the online CMS. Later, it moves to the print system for production of the print newspaper.

Content goes online first. Editors fulfill a day part budget, so that fresh items appear online throughout the day.

The audience database backfills related databases with customer and transactional data. We’re running data warehouses for commercial e-mail marketing, as well as circulation transaction analytics. Speaking of analytics, our sites run Adobe Site Catalyst and Google Analytics.

Finally, we are working to develop a circulation API that works in tandem with our ad targeting platform. This opens up a much more personal way to communicate with our customers, while on our sites. After all, this great ad targeting technology isn’t just for our ad customers.

Question: The new CMS takes full advantage of integrating advertising sales, circulation, and content development and presentation with an eye toward your All Access members. Can you give us some insight into your strategy and goals?

Answer: Our best product is local news and information. For way too long, we just gave it away. To make matters worse, the consumers of our free content were anonymous.

The strategy was simple: to monetise our two greatest assets – content and audience.

We started by labeling all content we produce into one of two buckets. Content types are either premium or free access. Generally speaking, locally bylined content is premium. So is news of the community, with the exception of obituaries and death notices.

All premium content is labeled with a conspicuous blue “G.” It tells the visitor that a specific piece of content requires membership. It’s an ongoing reminder of the value behind a digital membership.

It’s like saying, “We publish a lot of content online, but the really good stuff requires a membership.”

So today, we have a concentrated audience of loyal news consumers.

GazetteXtra.com does not feature a meter. Essentially, the meter is set at zero. With authentication data, the new Web audience is no longer anonymous.

Sure, not all users sign in every session, but that’s okay. We’re still tracking them. Once they do authenticate, we marry up their authenticated data with their formerly anonymous data.

Question: And how are you using the CMS tools to help advertising sales?

Answer: Primarily by building a preference and behaviour database that assigns our users to profiles.

Here’s how it works: Let’s say our algorithm scores a user and says they belong to our obituary profile. That means this user frequents our obituary content. That’s a given. But users don’t visit just one type of content. They go from obits, to local news, to prep sports, to weather, and finish up at movie listings.

Our platform follows that user around, no matter where they go on our sites. It gives our advertisers the ability to target users, not just content verticals. Small businesses want to target users.

When we first got into the Web business, our only option was to serve ads to specific pages or sections. Now we have all that, but so much more.

When our advertisers target the user, it allows them to stay in front of their very best customers and prospects, while keeping exposure on the area’s No. 1 news and information site.

Question: You’re at the one-year anniversary of your paid content execution. How did you arrive at your consumer pricing for content and how’s it going so far? Can you share results? The impact on revenue?

Answer: The very critical first step was to introduce a new bundled price point to certain home delivery subscribers. We targeted seven-day customers.

Historically, we’ve had our best success with rate increases with this group. It’s a segment of our market that was most likely to pay a higher rate – 30% higher – and produce minimal churn. The rate is US$22.95 on EASYPAY.

Kudos to my circulation and customer service staff for enduring hours of training and thousands of customer calls. They did a super job selling the changes.

We went to market with a digital-only subscription rate of US$29.95. The rationale is that consumers pay the difference. Preprint and ROP advertising dollars are missing from digital-only subscriptions. Essentially, the consumer covers the cost, not the publisher.

And since our news costs are fixed, we don’t really lower the cost of doing business via a digital-only subscription. In other words, distribution of digital-only subscriptions does not relieve the fixed costs of publishing a newspaper.

I realise the concept is somewhat counter to our industry. This approach helped us to stabilise our base. There is virtually no flight risk of my customers cutting seven-day delivery in favour of a deeply discounted digital-only subscription.

On the other hand, I have plenty of other less engaged segments that I’ll optimise with other packages and pricing. But the key was to shore up the base with seven-day customers, adopting them to a bundle that includes All Access.

The numbers prove it. Revenue is five times higher than projected. It represents a significant increase in publishing revenue. The increase is sustainable. As we develop new pricing options and bundles, we’ll only grow that number.

Question: Single-copy revenue is up almost 20% since you started your new approach. How have you accomplished this?

Answer: You can’t get our best content for free anymore. It is a fact that we asked folks to start paying for local content. It didn’t diminish the demand for local content, however. Putting a price tag on our best online content flowed through to our single-copy operations as well.

In order to provide a balance between home delivery and single-copy rates, it was necessary to raise single-copy price points by a significant margin. The daily cover price increased from US$0.75 to one dollar. The Sunday retail price jumped to US$2.50, up from US$2.00.

So a week’s worth of single-copy print editions costs US$8.50, whereas a week of seven-day print plus All Access is US$5.30.

Now, the new home delivery rates maintain a 37% discount from single copy. Had we launched without a simultaneous single-copy rate increase, our margin of discount would have been prohibitively low: just 18%. This tactic also reinforces the strong value of the print plus online bundle.

Now the single copy buyer makes a conscious decision. “Do I continue to buy single editions at a 25%-33% increase, or shall I try All Access at a 37% discount?”

Our single-copy inflows play a large role in the financial success of our paid content strategy. To launch without a large retail rate increase would have left money on the table.

Question: Another initiative is your 2014 foray into digital marketing services with Local Matters Digital. What services are you selling? Who is doing the selling and fulfillment? Market reception? Results so far?

Answer:
We’re selling Web and mobile design services, social media management, and content creation, video production with YouTube optimisation, local business listing services, search engine optimisation and marketing, as well as all forms of digital ad targeting, including e-mail marketing and SMS text marketing.

Services are sold by our team of print account executives and our team of digital-only account executives. A mix of in-house and outsourced talent fulfill the services we sell. We’ve been most successful selling new site design and marketing services designed to connect Web users to those sites. This is a growth initiative for us.

Beyond our top-100 print customers, our biggest objective is to grow our market share among non-advertisers. The race is on to build volume. We own quite a large client list. They are most happy with our work.

Question: How have you gotten staff onboard with these additional duties? Can you give us some insight into the manpower needed for this endeavour and the anticipated ROI?

Answer: Digital is here to stay. To ensure our success, we made several structural changes. The list includes compensation changes, investment in training certifications, ongoing continuing education, incentives, and contests specifically designed to motivate performance in the digital realm. Local Media Association trainings have been central in our education programmes.

Four-legged sales calls are good. However, once we’ve empowered each one of our sales staff to go out confidently – on their own – to prospect, pitch, and close digital services, we will be light years ahead. We’re not there.

I believe the key is to develop digital-only sales talent. These are who I like to call “digital rock stars.” They won’t have institutional print knowledge. That’s fine since they’re not selling legacy media.

Matching the best customer solutions is what it’s all about. I can develop within them targeted digital and media sales skills, but first I need the best of those who want to sell digital and only digital.

My rock stars love digital. They can tell an amazing story over and over again. They are passionate and that’s all they talk about. Their job is to go out and spread the good news about digital marketing.

The first step is to educate your prospects. That builds trust. Then match just the right solution to the business’ needs.

Question: Finally, as you look ahead in your digital realm, can you comment on some of the things you’re incubating or plan to experiment with?

Answer: Always look out to the horizon. I am focused on what’s developing, even in other industries. Our Web sites are constantly evolving.

We need to get better at connecting with less loyal segments. That includes content, bundles, and pricing. We’ve done a great job with the hyper-local, seven-day segment. We’ll be experimenting with articles passes, day passes, and week passes.

For certain segments, we actually need to lower the bar of commitment and market those price points to match. We’ll use data to build content programs that fill the needs of the occasional news consumer.

But most of all, we need to evolve our content. Video, databases, user-generated content, events, and lifestyle are areas we’re developing. We also want to make our sites as simple and intuitive as possible. Our interfaces are evolving to keep up with changing technology.

The future is inevitable. Our customers lead the way. They vote with page views, activations, and ad revenue. I believe if we do right by our customers, they will lead us into the future.