Data can grow readership in a post-crisis environment

By Paula Felps


Nashville, Tennessee, United States


News publishers around the world experienced a boost in subscriptions and readership during crisis events including the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But finding a way to parlay that readership bump into lasting success is the universal challenge, and one that Wojciech Ehrenfeld says can be solved by data.

Ehrenfeld, who is head of IT services for Ring Publishing, presented his case for using data to drive readership during the INMA members-only Webinar Translating peak readership during crisis into long-term growth with Ring Publishing.

In the past, media companies have had difficulty capitalising on the uptick in readership and converting it into a lasting relationship. However, the rollout of data and analytics has been a game-changer, allowing publishers to see what readers are most interested in and to personalise the experience for each individual to increase overall engagement.  

“Time is the most valuable currency in the world,” Ehrenfeld said. “The good news is, people will spend an average of eight hours, 14 minutes, on digital services [in 2022],” he said, referencing a new study released by eMarketer last week.

But the bad news is, it appears that usage has peaked and media companies can’t expect users to spend more time than that on digital services and products: “People still need time to rest and work, so it looks like this is the maximum.”

He also pointed out that this doesn’t mean users spend eight hours consuming news, but that media companies are sharing that time with other digital services.  

The time consumers are spending consuming digital is up, but isn't expected to continue growing significantly.
The time consumers are spending consuming digital is up, but isn't expected to continue growing significantly.

The desire to capture a larger share of that time spent using digital is a driving force behind many of Ring’s clients seeking its help. Time spent is a primary KPI and has three components:

  • Number of users.
  • Time per session.
  • Number of sessions per user.

The key to boosting time spent is personalisation.

He used Ring’s client Onet to illustrate how it used data to improve personalisation and engage readers for longer periods of time. Personalisation depends on automation for efficiency and accuracy. 

Personalisation can help newsrooms identify what's working and provide content their audiences are interested in.
Personalisation can help newsrooms identify what's working and provide content their audiences are interested in.

While the idea of automation can raise the hackles of editorial, Ehrenfeld said the tool they use lets the newsroom decide which sections are automated. It also chooses which KPIs it would like to use, such as the number of clicks, pageviews, or time spent. Editors maintain the ability to override the automation and can also use the technology to experiment with different teasers to see what is most effective in attracting readers.

“Onet has achieved a lot of results [using personalisation],” Ehrenfeld said, noting that one year after implementing automation, the diversity of content has increased by 400%, and the total time spent with stories increased by 30%.

 “What Onet realised is that the personalisation loves diverse content,” he said. Having more content has attracted more readers and encouraged deeper engagement.

What this means in a post-COVID world

Ehrenfeld shared graphs on Onet readership that would look familiar to most publishers; they reflected a spike in readership in March 2020 and a similar reaction when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. Onet was able to adjust its content to what readers were looking for. For example, it stopped publishing tech-related stories during the first days of the war as readers’ attention turned to breaking news for updates. Onet also introduced a live ticker on the homepage to provide the latest news and headlines to readers as soon as they visited the Web site.

However, there were also other opportunities to leverage the crisis content. Its health and medical vertical, MedOnet, became “the centre of knowledge about the pandemic in Poland,” Ehrenfeld said. Thanks to strategic positioning on the front page and the constant addition of informed medical content, it went from being a rather small vertical to becoming one of Poland’s top 20 Web domains.

The product department also has played a role in keeping readers engaged. Working with editorial, it has introduced dedicated long-form multimedia stories. These stories bring together the written word with audio and video to create a single article that has been successful in attracting readers.

This has been done for both COVID-19 and the Russian invasion, and Onet editors were able to assemble, format, and publish the stories without help from developers.

Technology brings it together

In addition to editorial and product, technology plays a central role in translating reader growth into lasting relationships. First and foremost, it must work to be able to capture new users and engage existing ones.

“[A crisis] is the best moment to have new users and the worst moment to lose the loyal users,” he said. “What we found is that data is so important right now that … availability of the data is as important as the product.”

Technology plays a central role in attracting and retaining users.
Technology plays a central role in attracting and retaining users.

That means being able to access the data and make decisions in real-time to inform publications as to what readers want now — and next. It also requires taking rapid action and jumping in when the early signs of reader fatigue or disinterest appear to switch out the type of content being provided. “It’s crucial to find the moment when we should stop promoting certain content,” he said.

Those answers can be found with help from the data, but also require a human touch: “The decision about leaving crisis mode is always more dependent on the brand and the journalists’ mission than data and gut feelings. They are important, but they are not the only elements to make a decision.”

About Paula Felps

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