In an exclusive INMA Webinar on Wednesday, members tuned in to learn details about the South China Morning Post strategy for taking the 115-year-old newspaper into the modern digital age.

Mi Li, head of global marketing at SCMP, led Webinar attendees through the various stages and components of this move. Li’s presentation centred around sharing the stories of four major areas of transformation at SCMP.

Identity transformation

When it comes to identity, SCMP wanted to see how it was positioning in the Asian market place compared with other local or regional media players. “We have decent MAU and also good share of the overseas audience base,” Li said. “But as China and Asia become increasingly important in the global space, we feel there is a great opportunity and potential for SCMP taking on a new mission.”

That mission is taking the company from a regional newspaper covering the world to a global media company with regional expertise. To do that, SCMP needed a strong and clear brand identity.

“How we started this process is, we think about the legacy of Hong Kong,” Li said. SCMP took Hong Kong’s maritime heritage of being one of the most important seaports in the world when thinking about its brand identity. Ships from all over the world would raise their flags to communicate with each other. When one particular flag was raised, a combination of yellow and blue stripes, the meaning was, “I wish to communicate with you.” SCMP seized on this seafaring message for its identity.

Ancient seafaring traditions are brought into the new SCMP logo and brand.
Ancient seafaring traditions are brought into the new SCMP logo and brand.

“We want to become the communication bridge between China and the rest of the world,” Li explained. “We want to become the window for the rest of the world to see China.” This led to the new logo and brand guide for SCMP.

To introduce this new identity to a global audience, the company launched a large campaign in February 2018, called “New Page, New SCMP.” There was a double meaning in this: new page in the newspaper itself, and new page they were turning in a new chapter of the company.”

The company also unveiled a new Web site, with three distinct areas:

  • New page: the meaning behind the new logo.
  • New possibilities: digital capabilities.
  • New perspectives: editorial and journalism.

After two months of this campaign, SCMP saw numerous results:

  • 35 million online ad impressions.
  • 105,000 Web site visits.
  • 1.8 million audience members reached on Facebook.
  • 625,170 average daily traffic flow from two billboards.
  • 1,280,000 monthly outdoor ad views.
  • 526,000 print readership from bartered media.

“So after all that activity, we also did a brand reader survey to ask people what’s your brand perceptions,” Li said. “One of the things very encouraging to learn is we see that placing intention caused the younger demographic to want to come to SCMP more.”

Culture transformation

“This culture transformation really started with our CEO,” Li said. “Gary Liu is an Asian-American who grew up in the U.S. He brought a new vision of thinking to the business.”

The SCMP new vision was to elevate thought, while the mission became to lead the global conversation about China. The editorial model stayed the same: SCMP wanted to continue to be the news source trusted with its content. But it wanted to introduce more values that the company culture would be built around. Those six new values are:

  1. Passionate: the way we live.
  2. Curious and courageous: the way we try.
  3. Focused on those we serve: the way we act.
  4. Agile and dynamic: the way we respond.
  5. Together, transparent and trustworthy: the way we work.
  6. Diverse, vibrant and joyful: the way we are.
Six values underpin the internal identity of SCMP.
Six values underpin the internal identity of SCMP.

“One of the biggest catalysts for our culture transformation is the new office,” Li said. The team moved into that building in February, 2018, with six floors of open space concept with transparency between all the departments.

“Next to the editorial centre is our social hub.” This was built intentionally like a pub, as a place for the team to mingle and enjoy; every Friday afternoon, they have happy hour there.

The new office is designed to create opportunities for a variety of workplace activities, with a mix of standard and high work spaces, TV screens everywhere, staff laptops with Google Suite, and collaboration spaces with multi-function rooms and sprint hubs. Monthly social activities and a cohesive layout across the six floors improves inter-departmental collaboration, health, and creativity.

“The things we’re trying to do better is give people different kinds of opportunities to make the work space more viable,” Li said. “We want to create a joyful environment and an entertaining environment in the office as well.”

The five areas of digital transformation that SCMP focused on.
The five areas of digital transformation that SCMP focused on.

Digital transformation

“We have to make our content more accessible in different kinds of digital areas,” Li said. This transformation is across five major areas:

  1. Newsroom restructure: separated the print and digital teams.
  2. New definition of editorial product: not just read content, but also different platforms that it’s packaged for, including audio, video, and VR experiments.
  3. New product expertise: the product team tripled in size over the past year, constantly trying new experiments.
  4. Analytics enhancements: real-time reporting, centralised data warehouse, and democratising the data throughout the company.
  5. Technology enhancements: agile workforce, Web CMS, and making it easier for the team to communicate internally.

The new Web site that is currently in beta mode can be viewed by going to https://beta.scmp.com.

The results of this digital transformation can be seen in the numbers: the SCMP digital audience has grown by about 300%.

“Ninety percent of our total readership is digital, and that number is constantly growing,” Li said. More than 80% of readership is located outside Hong Kong, with 30% of that being in the United States. “Our [social media] followers have also grown 80% year after year.”

Market transformation

In early 2017, SCMP ran several focus groups, particularly focused on international growth. “After all the studies, we realised there is an underserved market, actually, in the U.S. and also potentially in the rest of the world as well,” Li said. “We define them as China-curious; I think those people have interest in China, have some curiosities, but they probably don’t know where to start.”

SCMP is trying to make its content more accessible and digestible, to enable these readers to more easily understand China. To that end, it launched three new products:

  1. AbacusThis is all about China tech, including social media and gaming. They also went deeper with the China Internet Report covering 27 industries in China.
  2. InkstoneThis is a daily multi-media digest on what’s happening in China. It’s focused on a younger audience and is meant to give context and let the readers know why these stories matter to them.
  3. Goldthread: This is a product targeted at Millennials and Gen Z, a very video-heavy a social-first product.
Inkstone is one of three new digital products offered by SCMP.
Inkstone is one of three new digital products offered by SCMP.

While these products are aimed mostly at the U.S. market, the other market that SCMP is focusing on is that of Southeast Asia. “This market also has very close interactions with China; a lot of people are looking for an authoritative news source to learn more about China,” Li said.

Just two weeks ago, SCMP held an international conference in Malaysia, inviting 70 high-profile speakers from government and business leaders. It attracted more than 1,000 delegates to hear the speakers, network, and engage the conversation.

Li concluded by saying, “This is something we are going to continue as a company flagship event and take to different regions of the world.” 

The China Internet Report was very successful, covering 27 industries.
The China Internet Report was very successful, covering 27 industries.

Q&A

INMA: Do your sales divisions sell all of your products, or do you have different sales teams?

Li: We have a centralised sales team. The biggest focus is digital SCMP. We’re still in the investment mode to grow the audience.

INMA: Where do all these products sit together?

Li: There is an architecture there; different products (SCMP, Abacus, Inkstone, etc) are serving different audiences. SCMP as a 115-year-old legacy newspaper has a very loyal readership. They already have a good level of knowledge about China. This product will serve a good purpose for people who already have a good understanding of China. The other three products are focused more on the “China-curious” audience who wants more information. We only give six stories a day on the Inkstone platform — that’s it, that’s all you need to know about China today. Abacus is different; I don’t think you even have to be China-curious for that platform because technology is very broad.

INMA: To what extent will you be driving traffic to your own product, and how much will you be driving traffic to other platforms such as Snapchat, Apple News, etc.?

Li: I think for different companies there will be different strategies. For SCMP, our key focus is to grow our international audience. It’s important for us to engage with all types of platforms. The goal is really to gain the different kind of reach through different kinds of platforms. We’re also experimenting with different types of formats. We also need to learn what’s the model for us to build engagement on each different platform.

INMA: Do you also have experience with paid content and paywalls?

Li: Personally, before SCMP I worked at Financial Times, one of the first companies to launch a metered paywall. I knew for certain publishing companies that would work really well. At SCMP, we used to have a digital paywall about two years ago. But then we tore it down because we actually want to grow our international audience reach. We’re still in the investment mode, though we are getting revenue from our advertising and partnerships. But for now, we’re not actually looking for revenue from digital subscriptions. We’re looking for more loyal users, and perhaps there will be opportunity to monetise that down the road.

INMA: What does success look like for SCMP in two years?

Li: In Hong Kong, it’s actually a saturated market. There’s not much more we can do here. We’re already the largest English newspaper here. That’s really not the focus for us with growth; that will come with digital and outside Hong Kong. We’re working very hard to make that readership growth one of the priorities for us. But I have to mention audience engagement. We’re actually doing all the things we can to improve the product experience and improve sticky content. That’s something that will actually pave the way for us to have better relationships with our audience and open up new revenue opportunities.

INMA: How are you utilising Google assistant in your newsroom?

Li: That is actually a new experiment; we are still in the early stage. Audio, video is something we are working on for down the road.

INMA: Can you add more about what you’re doing with VR and AI?

Li: Virtual Reality is something we experimented with Google. It’s a better way, more immersive storytelling. We haven’t really done beyond that at this point, but we’re putting more investment into the newsroom on this. I can see this is something we will do more with this year.

INMA: How has your newsroom changed in the last two years?

Li: Our newsroom is probably the largest in greater China. In order for the print team to concentrate on their schedule (night shift), we want people to focus on their product. When we relaunched our brand identity in February, we made it more modern and aligned with our best practices. But we don’t forget about our legacy broadsheet, we still work to make that stronger.