When the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in March, The Globe and Mail — like every other news media organisation — knew it had a big job ahead. As Canada’s oldest newspaper and the leading one in the country, public trust in the brand was paramount. The Globe team knew readers would turn to it for important news and information.
But it went beyond COVID content they were looking for, says Andrew Consky, head of research and media at the company. Speaking to INMA members in a live Webinar on Thursday, Consky said: “They relied on us to provide them with information that would help them get through the crisis. They were looking for guidance and advice on how to navigate the complexities around COVID.”
Consky joined The Globe and Mail in March. His first day on the job was one week into the COVID-19 lockdown. People in general were scared, he recalled. “Stores were shut down, workplaces went remote, people were worried about their health, their families’ health, their jobs, and their finances.”
The Globe and Mail’s response to COVID lockdown
Globe’s approach was to think, first and foremost, about the readers and what they needed most. The company immediately took down its paywall on coronavirus coverage as Canadians were consuming news at a record pace.
“When we saw the numbers, the traffic spike in March indicated just how many Canadians turned to the Globe,” Consky said. At that time, the media Web site had its highest-ever audience, with 12.4 million unique views — twice as many visitors as its average month.
This continued through April, but by May COVID fatigue set in and people were craving other stories.
“Context and facts remain the most valued resources to help inform Canadians,” Consky said. “From breaking news to politics and world affairs, business to physical and mental health, The Globe mobilised all of our domestic and international resources to ensure that we delivered the best coverage on all of the key issues.”
Globe’s Deputy National Editor Nicole MacIntyre outlined how the newsroom responded to readers’ needs at that unprecedented time, while also dealing with a disrupted newsroom.
“We recognised quickly that we had a vital public responsibility, immediately allowing free access to COVID news stories,” MacIntyre said. “Early on, we established the need for service journalism, as people had lots of questions they needed answers to.”
The newsroom saw that people needed opinion alongside the facts and wanted the trusted journalists at the Globe to help them understand the situation, she said.
The Globe used its proprietary readership analysis system, Sophi, to identify the themes and stories of high value to readers. Sophi provided valuable insights that guided the editorial team. The system showed them how people’s consumption was changing, Consky said.
For example, there became a huge appetite for business stories that helped the audience know what the pandemic would mean for their future, their income, and/or investments. They also wanted to know what the world would look like for their children.
This showed that, while the pandemic was a health story, ultimately it was a business and economy story.
“Since the start of the national lockdown, we’ve helped Canadians adjust to the new reality of physical distancing with an exploration of the human factors we’re all experiencing,” Consky said.
The team also produced a wealth of high-value content such as an “Alone Together” special weekend section, along with a series of high-impact photo and video essays. Readers needed stories that would instil confidence in the areas that mattered to them, from COVID to topics beyond that.
“By listening to our readers and responding to their needs, we saw massive audience gains across key demographics in March and April — in particular, with younger readers under 35,” Consky said.
The Globe saw unprecedented time spent on the content and audience engagement in verticals such as personal finance, parenting, lifestyle, and entertainment. Some of the organisation’s gains included:
- Adults 18-34: up 70%.
- Adults 25-54: up 48%.
- Women 18-34: up 92%.
- Women 25-54: up 56%.
- Men 18-34: up 49%.
- Men 25-54: up 37%.
Advertisers were quick to panic, sharing the same concerns that consumers do over the uncertain future, Consky said. The job of the Globe team was to figure out how to respond to that, and they needed a plan.
Mobilising the sales team
“We pulled together an organisational strategy that started with the Pandemic Playbook,” Consky explained. “It is a strategic resource that guided our sales team and enabled them to provide a cohesive message to our advertisers.”
To help advertisers, they offered support, flexibility, and understanding as they needed to pause or cancel their campaigns when business was closed. They also kept advertisers informed by offering them industry insights, advertising resources, and research that would help them understand the situation and help with their marketing strategy.
It was also important that this information be easily accessible to the sales team and advertisers. The Globe accomplished this by using its Sharepoint resource portal, called George: “We had to ensure the sales team had everything they needed to respond to advertisers with smart strategies,” Consky said.
This active client communication helped advertisers make sense of a challenging time through:
- Product updates.
- Audience research.
- Reader insights.
- Helpful links.
- Media kits.
Reinforcing relevancy through valuable insights
Through the data and resource tools at the Globe’s disposal, the team mined the internal data and conducted its own industry research. They also used consumer panels and third-party measurement. This created a knowledge base that they could share.
“This data provided the validation we needed to prove that we could deliver to our advertisers,” Consky said.
Though many organisations were conducting coronavirus research, some of them dropped the ball by not distilling the information and making sense of it for their audience.
The Globe created a research portal for all of this valuable information it amassed and made it available to advertising clients. However, Consky pointed out not everyone would download and read through all this research. So it was important to have highlights of the most important findings that advertisers could easily access and use.
“Industry research helped to inform us of the issues and trends in a general sense, but the real value we brought was through our first-party data,” Consky said. This allowed the Globe to share trends they noticed, from personal finance and real estate to careers and education. “In the end, it was all about providing research and guidance to inform marketing strategy, and helping them effectively connect to their target consumers.”
Connecting with Globe customers
Once the Globe had amassed this huge database of research, the team knew it had to reach out to their Globe Insiders — their most loyal and engaged customers. This panel of 2,600 print and digital readers were invited to take part in five surveys between April and July, and the Globe received 50% response rates.
“We were actually surprised because our typical response rates are closer to 30%,” Consky shared.
The Globe Insiders panel provided important insights about how they were coping with the COVID crisis, and what they needed from the Globe, that helped inform the media company’s editorial strategy.
“One of the benefits of having a panel is how quickly you can actually build a survey, launch it, and get some timely results.”
However, asking the right questions is vital. The Globe knew they needed to get to the heart of what its most loyal customers were most concerned about. They also wanted to keep the surveys short — under 10 minutes — so they limited the number of questions.
Uncovering the insights
Feedback from the Globe Insider panels provided invaluable not only for the Globe but for its advertisers. For instance, they found readers were largely OK with companies running regular advertising during lockdown and pandemic. In fact, they didn’t want to see their favourite brands disappear but rather have them communicate with consumers.
Some of the findings were:
- 98% of Canadians wanted practical information from advertisers and tips on dealing with the situation.
- 95% wanted ads that expressed support for frontline workers.
- 90% wanted ads showing response to COVID-19 or how they were helping customers.
- 84% were OK with contacting customers to give information about their COVID-19 response.
- 68% were fine with companies running “normal” ad campaigns.
- 66% were looking for promotions, perks, or loyalty benefits.
“These insights gave our sales team much-needed ammunition and the confidence that they could reach out to their clients and talk about the benefits of remaining in the market — and they had the data to back them up,” Consky said.
The insights also provided the newsroom with a strategy for what readers wanted. While the audience was looking for news and information about the coronavirus, they also wanted more positive and hopeful stories and content unrelated to COVID. This information was also important for the Globe custom content studio as it looked to create branded content for advertisers.
Engaging in conversation
“Once you have the research, you can use it to stimulate conversation,” Consky said. “We used the data to frame the discussions we were having with experts in retail, travel and tourism, and the alcohol industry.”
Each month, the content studio held a MarTech Mornings virtual event series, providing perspectives on topics of the most interest to Canadians and advertisers.
“To be able to share our own data and insights told that we were on top of the situation.”
What can you learn from the Globe?
Consky’s team came up with five important things that other news media organisations could take away from the Globe’s experience.
- Mobilise your workforce. It’s important to have an organised approach and a blueprint that everyone can follow. Communication within the team and making the information accessible are vital.
- Support your clients and customers. Determine a plan of action that can best support them and reinforce your relevance to them.
- Ask the right questions. Don’t rush through a survey questionnaire, but take time to think about what you really need to know, and how you want to use the data in the end.
- Uncover valuable insights. There’s no shortage of data, it’s the insights you glean from it that gives value. Unlike data, insights don’t just happen on their own — they take real humans to uncover them.
- Be there to help.
“It’s all about the customer,” Consky concluded. “By opening up and sharing helpful information, it will go along way to building trust and gaining their confidence in the long run.”