As one of the largest publishing groups in the U.K. — with more than 240 titles — Reach operates on the belief that to attract an audience, the news must be read, and it must be free.
The newspaper, magazine, and digital news publisher has embraced the idea even as other publishers are looking at ways to drive subscriptions, and during this week’s Webinar, David Higgerson, chief digital publisher at Reach, told INMA members how Reach has used data to drive its customer value strategy, or CVS.
“It’s called the customer value strategy quite simply because it’s about creating a value exchange,” Higgerson said, explaining the company has two motivations for not charging for news online.
Firstly, it operates in the same market as the BBC: “When you have a free, large provider in the market, it means that we have to approach things differently.”
Secondly, one of the big lessons learned from COVID-19 was that news is most valuable when it’s trusted and freely available, he said: “That is why we place so much stock on coming up with a strategy that enables news to reach as many people as possible,” he said.
“So, the customer value strategy is based around a value exchange of what we give to the reader. And in return, they give us information about themselves, which in turn, hopefully actually makes the value exchange better for them into the future.”
To transform the Reach newsrooms, Higgerson said the strategy relied upon a five-step change management programme:
- Step 1: Reveal the CVS products to be powered by newsrooms.
- Step 2: Create the right structure to facilitate delivery.
- Step 3: Create excitement around culture change.
- Step 4: Provide data and analytics which inspire and excite.
- Step 5: Constantly learn, experiment, celebrate, and keep doing new things.
Powered by newsrooms
In the first step, revealing the CVS products that would be powered by the newsroom, Higgerson said they divided the new products into four initiatives.
“The first was newsletters and obsessions, because we wanted to build daily relationships with readers around the bread-and-butter subjects we’ve always covered,” he explained. “But like many news organisations, we were seeing certain topics came and went, and people spent an awful lot of time with them, then they stopped.”
The popularity of newsletters was low-hanging fruit that became central to the CVS. Every newsroom had newsletters, and Reach began creating more newsletters, watching which ones did best.
“We then launched a series of common interest newsletters,” he said. “This can be around, for example, politics in Greater Manchester, Inspiring Women, and Unheard Voices, which celebrates the work and the achievements of black and minority ethnic communities.”
Reach also launched more than 15 newsletters around common interests that included different takes on football. But the one that really captured readers’ attention was Obsessions, which are short-term newsletters “about things that people obsess about.” This included the Olympics, a TV drama named Line of Duty, and Christmas.
“We launched 31 [Obsessions newsletters] during 2021, and now have more than a million active subscribers to 36 newsletters,” he said. “We’ve still got a very strong community of people who engage in a newsletter which was born out of creating a lockdown community during the pandemic.”
The remaining three buckets created were:
- Specialised subjects that gave people a reason to log in. This included personalised Web alerts to encourage them to log in on the Web site, more offerings on the app, and the launch of a One Tap feature to create a frictionless experience when logging in.
- InYourArea, a hyperlocal news service that allows users to filter their news from multiple providers according to their postal code. In addition to satisfying readers with local content, it created a unique sales opportunity for targeted advertising.
- Ireland and Beyond, which experimented with new features. It relaunched the Buzz.ie title it had inherited in its purchase of the Irish Daily Star, launched new content, and created “fan brand” mini sites for the sports clubs it covers.
Exciting the newsroom
The way it implemented CVS was critical. They didn’t want to overwhelm the newsrooms with changes, Higgerson said, but at the same time wanted to ensure CVS would be part of newsroom life.
“We didn’t overwhelm the business and the process because this wasn’t a pivot,” he said. “It was about taking the existing strategy and building deeper relationships. But to do that, you need to maintain the existing strategy.”
Reach created a structure that had clear accountability for CVS delivery in specific roles and relied on experts across the business. But it was also crucial to get the audience excited about the changes. To do that, Reach linked it all back to journalism.
“We spend an awful lot of time talking about the importance of journalism. It’s really important,” he said. “We don’t lose sight of the fact that journalism serves many purposes for many people, and often just being informed is the best thing that we can do. But you shouldn’t underestimate the power of inspiring and indulging people as well.”
The changes to the CVS have been as transformative to the company as moving from print to digital in the 2010s, he said. And zeroing in on the best ways to add value to readers can reduce the impact of Google or Facebook and bring readers back to the site.
“It gave us a chance to look at content areas, which didn’t always pass the scale test, but actually you can drive lots of engagement to them if you do it differently,” he said. “And it gave us a chance to focus on the brand as well.”
One of the great discoveries it gained from the CVS data was that it had a lot of work to do to attract and retain the under-35 age group. Because of that, it launched its first social platform, Curiously, in September. Curiously will also have a presence on all five of the company’s news sites, and priorities for next year include growing audiences on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok — all actions that were triggered by learnings of the CVS.
“We make a point of listening to the 1,500 under-35s that work for us as an organisation, finding out what they actually do in their spare time and what they’d like us to cover as a starting point,” Higgerson said. Curiously now has six content sections set up to cover topics that its under-35 focus group said mattered to them, and he sees this first-of-its-kind platform as a way to create future for journalism with audiences of the future.
“I guess if I could boil all of this down to one word, the customer value strategy is about listening to readers,” Higgerson said. “There’s no shortage of places for people to find information and also spend time online. It’s not good enough just for us to say, ‘We are trusted news sources, you must come to us.’ We need to find that way into people’s lives.”