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How Tribune increased digital subscriptions fivefold in 3 years

By Dawn McMullan


Dallas, Texas, United States


Tribune (which was tronc and is now Tribune again) is always an interesting company. And in the past three years, it has increased digital subscriptions 400%, making it even more interesting.

I recently caught up with Susan Jacobs, senior vice president of revenue strategy at Tribune Publishing, who shared that her late night reflections keep her asking how news media companies focused on becoming digital-first organisations can shift the mindsets of consumers and advertisers to understand the evolving and unique value proposition offered by digitally focused media companies.

That focus equals those impressive gains in digital subscribers I just mentioned, which Jacobs credits to Chief Marketing Officer Mark Campbell. Campbell’s 20 years of industry experience includes a previous role as the vice president of consumer marketing at The New York Times, where he oversaw the growth of its global digital subscriptions. (Sounds like we need to do a Q&A with him sometime!)

Let’s dig a little deeper into this digital transformation from audience and advertising perspectives.

Jacobs, who serves on INMA’s North American Division Board of Directors, believes that by understanding clients’ businesses and creating solutions that deliver on their KPIs — and by investing in employee potential and rewarding achievement — news media companies can deliver differentiating ideas and achievable results to clients.

One project that gives Jacobs the most pride is Tribune’s Studio 1847, a marketing solutions agency where data and insights are leveraged to drive strategy that will drive tactics that in turn drive results. Its Groupon native ad campaign is a 2019 INMA Global Media Awards finalist increased awareness of the breadth of Groupon’s offerings and raised significant indicators impressively.

Jacobs also sees as a significant achievement Tribune’s strategy of launching a series of new acquisitions, including BestReviews, an in-depth consumer products reviews site incubated in the Harvard Innovation Lab that has its own consumer testing facilities and that partner with Tribune brands.

I was curious about her philosophy of leadership, Tribune’s progress in its quest to become digital first, and what she is most proud of at the company. Here’s what she shared. 

Tribune Publishing has invested in becoming a marketing solutions provider and in strategic acquisitions to continue its digital transformation.
Tribune Publishing has invested in becoming a marketing solutions provider and in strategic acquisitions to continue its digital transformation.

INMA: What did you learn in 2018 that will shape your leadership in 2019?

Jacobs: First and foremost, your strategies are only as good as your people. Your people are what differentiate you from your competition. 

We need to keep retraining, growing, and developing our team to keep them knowledgeable in this rapidly evolving industry. It’s not an activity that ever stops or something you can afford to take your eye off of.

We also need to do a better job of rewarding and recognising our top contributors. They are the lifeblood of our company.

INMA: What do you see as the big opportunities in 2019 and how are you taking advantage of them?

Jacobs: We accomplished quite a bit last year with our digital transformation and laser focus on adopting a customer-first mindset across the organisation. To continue this transformation in 2019, we need to continue to pivot our organisational structure to support our digital focus. 

We have to also reassess how we’re operationally structured and make sure it’s effectively supporting our digital strategies and platforms. I’m talking about everything from the infrastructure that supports our mobile applications and Web sites to our newsroom, sales, and sales support teams.

INMA: What is Tribune Publishing’s biggest idea/initiative for the coming year?

Jacobs: We have two areas we’re focusing on to become a digital-first organisation: growing and monetising our online audience through digital subscriptions and accelerating our digital advertising revenue. Obviously, these two goals are closely intertwined. Our marketing team, led Mark Campbell, has been working closely with our newrooms to grow our digital audiences and subscriptions. 

We’ve been laser focused on growing digital subscriptions for the past three years and are at 250,000 paid subscriptions as of 2018 end of year — a 5x increase in that three-year span. To continue that subscription growth trajectory, our major 2019 initiatives advance us from one-size-fits-all approaches to data-driven, user-oriented experiences.  

In new subscriber acquisition, this will take the form of a dynamic meter that tailors paywall timing and the offer to a reader’s propensity to convert. And among existing subscribers, we are building retention/churn models that help us identify loyalists vs. at-risk segments to inform our messaging and pricing.

In our eight newspaper markets across the company, we have transformed our go-to market strategy and sales teams to offer much more than ad placement in our newspapers and on our digital platforms.

Tribune Publishing's nine major newspapers.
Tribune Publishing's nine major newspapers.

Today, we are a marketing solutions provider that strives to understand our clients’ businesses and create solutions that deliver on their KPIs. We leverage our local brands, audience, and Studio 1847 agency tools and insights to deliver differentiating ideas and achievable results. We achieve this by leveraging data and insights to drive strategy, this strategy drives tactics, and the tactics drive results. 

Additionally, we are continuing to make strategic acquisitions of digital properties such as leading consumer reviews site, BestReviews, which we acquired a majority ownership stake in last year.

INMA: What success within your company are you most proud of at this moment?

Jacobs: I’m enormously proud of Studio 1847, the marketing solutions agency we launched last year to support all of our newspaper properties. Look, advertisers are overwhelmed by media choices. We are experts in our eight local markets across the country so we’re ideally suited to partner with advertisers to help them tell their stories through advertising, custom content, and experiences.

In addition to driving results for our clients, we’ve already produced some award-winning creative, including a 2018 INMA Global Media Award for a native ad execution we did for the FX programme Snowfall and a native ad for Groupon that was just named as a finalist for a 2019 INMA Global Media Award.

INMA: What keeps you up at night?

Jacobs: I keep a list of these.

One big one: How can we shift the mindsets of our consumers and advertisers to understand how our unique value proposition has evolved as we become a digitally focused media company?

We have to do a better job of helping consumers see the importance of investing in quality journalism in their communities. Our award-winning journalism plays a critical role in informing and improving the lives of our readers and being a watchdog in their community that keeps officials and institutions accountable. Without us, there would be a big gap.

On the advertiser side, we need brands to view us as more than a company that places an ad for them in a newspaper. Ultimately, we want to navigate our clients through this confusing, scattered marketplace with a world-class client experience and data-rich methodology that achieves results.

About Dawn McMullan

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