3 data drivers are key to understanding news audiences

By Sarah Schmidt


Brooklyn, New York, United States


News media companies can use data to understand what readers want in ways that help them build trust and personalise their experience while maintaining privacy.

Three drivers are in play, according to Smita Salgaonkar, country manager for data and digital media at Media.Monks in India, are:

  • Reader understanding.
  • Value exchange.
  • Data maturity. 

During the INMA South Asia News Media Summit this week, sponsored by the Google News InitiativeStibo DX, and the Indian Newspaper Society, Salgaonkar explained each of the three in detail.

1. Reader understanding

Digital content attracts readers who engage at a range of different levels. Audiences can be divided into segments based on how deeply they engage and how frequently they visit, with casual readers at one end of the spectrum and subscribers at the other.

“We know we can understand a little bit more about the reader we are catering to,” Salgaonkar said.

The more casual readers tend to be a much bigger portion of the audience, while brand-lovers and subscribers tend to be smaller but highly-valued segments. Publishers can use data to develop strategies that encourage their less-engaged segments to become more engaged. Content performance can also be measured using metrics tied to the growth of high-value reader segments. 

In publishing, audiences are commonly broken down into segments along these lines:

  • Casual (or “flyby”) users: These readers may only make a single visit and not more than three views per month. They’re low engagement and high in quantity.

  • Engaged readers: They may visit every few days and may even read more than one article per day.

  • Brand lovers: These readers consider the site their go-to brand for consuming content and news. They typically don’t make up more than 2% of the audience, Salgaonkar said, but they’re very valuable since they’re most likely to become subscribers. Moving readers from the less engaged categories into this one is key to tapping into subscription revenue.

“All of these user segments are on different journeys,” Salgaonkar said. They have different mindsets, different interests, and different amounts of time on their hands. So there is no single approach that works across the spectrum. 

When readers agree to offer data, they allow media companies to see their consumption and engagement patterns, which helps measure editorial performance and optimise content, she said. This brings editorial and analytics teams together to create a sophisticated data-informed content strategy with the goal of moving readers along to become more engaged (from casual, to loyal, to brand-lovers, to subscribers.). 

Smita Salgaonkar, country manager for data and digital media at Media.Monks, explains the different readers and how they engage with media.
Smita Salgaonkar, country manager for data and digital media at Media.Monks, explains the different readers and how they engage with media.

Subscribers are, of course, the hardest audiences to win over. 

“Trust levels are so high that they’re willing to part with their money,” Salgaonkar said. Media companies need to cater to the large audiences of casual users much differently than they do to the smaller segments of would-be subscribers. It can be a balancing act that involves taking advantage of potential advertising revenue from this large audience segment while still building the kind of trust and good user experience needed to convert the most frequent and engaged users to subscribers. 

“It’s possible to overcrowd the pages with advertising, which can affect brand trust, for example,” she said.

2. Value exchange

Readers expect publishers to surface content they actually want to see, Salgaonkar said. In return, media companies expect them to offer easy, consented access to their demographics and interests. This can involve using cues the reader gives. For example, was their experience search-led? Were certain keywords used?

News readers will give their data if they are receiving content they want.
News readers will give their data if they are receiving content they want.

Media companies need to find the right ways to generate content that will entice readers to lend their data. Effective approaches vary with the brand and with different segments of their audience. Examples include shopping discounts, music unlocks (stretches of ad-free listening), game rewards (like a “bonus life”), editorial unlock (offering 10 free articles), data profile unlock (access more members), and research surveys (which can offer fewer ads). 

Publishers can use these enticements to create a variety of strategies, Salgaonkar said. For example, a flyby user might respond to shopping discounts, whereas a brand lover might not. Having these in place can help publishers understand what kind of value exchange would work for different users.

To do this successfully, media companies also need to establish trust: Users are twice as likely to give their data to brands they trust. Trusting the brand also encourages readers to become more engaged and move along in their journey. 

When doing audience research, Salgaonkar advised companies to focus more on what the user needs, not who they are, and to find new things they value. For example, users may come to read an article, but stay for the notifications. 

Salgaonkar emphasised that technology must be compliant with privacy standards while still having the ability to personalise content offerings for readers: “Privacy compliance is a bare minimum.” (Media.Monks has a privacy report available here.)

Data privacy also allows the user to feel secure and builds trust with the brand. The more users trust your brand, the more they will allow access to their data, and the more insights you are able to unlock — which then allows you to deliver an even more personalised experience. Eventually this helps companies move from ad monetisation to subscription-based revenue as they get more users past the paywall. Along the way, it’s still important to ensure good user experience, Salgaonkar said.

She pointed out that news publishers now have a dual role: “We play a role of being a publisher, but also being a brand.” Giving the reader the news and content they want involves collecting enough information to keep learning what that is.

3. Data maturity for publishers

To take the best advantage of the data publishers have available to them, it helps to take a pause and consider the different avenues and establish a framework. “What’s more pertinent as an issue at this point in time?” Salgaonkar asked.

Media.Monks accesses a company's data maturity as they advise steps forward.
Media.Monks accesses a company's data maturity as they advise steps forward.

Potential issues include reader engagement, reader revenue, advertising revenue, and technology. Data adoption is also important and involves fostering a data-driven mindset where data is part of everyone’s job, including the news and editorial teams. Reporting and measurement should also be seamless, and privacy policies should be future-proof and able to handle the data of users.

Salgaonkar shared a few examples of clients Media.Monks worked with doing maturity audits. For one client, they found they needed to use more opportunities for reader engagement. The newsletter content they were sending wasn’t based on user behaviour, and they weren’t segmenting audiences to make sure they were getting the most relevant content. When users were given the right e-mail content at the right time, they engaged more with on-site content. Another client needed help crafting different dashboards so they could use the data more effectively and promptly.

In the case of The Guardian, Media.Monks found the media company’s contributions banners weren’t personalised based on the users' steps in their engagement journey, which was a missed opportunity. To get readers to subscribe at the time when they would be most likely to, they developed more advanced audience targeting, she said: “When should we show them that little nudge that they should subscribe?”

Salgaonkar emphasized there is no single approach that will work for all brands in developing an effective data strategy. But data should be a part of every function and all teams, including editorial, should be participating in using data effectively. The biggest mistake publishers can make is not listening to what readers are telling them.

The INMA South Asia News Media Summit continues on Friday. Complete coverage can be found here.

About Sarah Schmidt

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