WSJ, USA Today, Globe and Mail teach Engagement 101 to newsrooms

By Dawn McMullan


Dallas, Texas, USA


The days of newsroom editors and journalists embracing their ignorance of audience engagement are long over. Or certainly should be. 

During Friday’s session at the INMA Consumer Engagement Summit in Miami, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Globe and Mail discussed how they have engaged their editorial departments in the vital battle for audience engagement and retention.

The Wall Street Journal’s Karl Wells, general manager/WSJ membership, and Carla Zanoni, editor/audience and analytics, shared how a universal goal and a deep investment into educating journalists about audience analytics have refocused the Journal on reader engagement and retention.

The universal goal started with the who, the what, and the where of its audience— centering around “active days,” Wells said. When the team looked at analytics of what causes/prevents churn, the number of active days a reader engages with content was at the top. 

“Active days is also something that is a metric, easily understood,” he said. “It’s influenced by broader engagement metrics. You can increase active days by promoting benefits of Wall Street Journal across multiple platforms. If you can drive good, quality visits, the chances of someone coming back for another active day is therefore higher.” 

Two projects came from this focus: 

  • Habit Project: Stolen from medical profession research looking at survival rates of patients, the Habit Project is a model that looks at what onsite habits make members stay longer. The project focuses on 16 different engagement opportunities (each having countless line items for engagement actions like Twitter shares, saving an article, doing a puzzle, for example). 
  • Project Canvas: There are limited places to engage with subscribers — especially those on the low-engagement list. Project Canvas is a focus on increasing that real estate so more people “bump into” Wall Street Journal Content more often, Wells said. 

“How can we ask for help to increase active days from the newsroom?” he asked. “Asking a journalist to help with churn does nothing. Asking a journalist to help get more people to follow them in their app is something they can control.” 

Which is where Zanoni comes in.

“How do we evolve the newsroom’s thinking about engagement — shifting from top-of-funnel acquisition focused to really thinking about the true lifecycle of a Wall Street Journal member?” Zanoni explained her task. She spent six months traveling the world, training every single reporter and editor working for the media company on engagement metrics, audience metrics, and best practices/strategies. “Convincing a newsroom of 1,200+ journalists that they should be thinking about these things in a more nuanced way when they’re thinking about how they’re going to reach their deadline turned out to be a real challenge.” 

Zanoni focused on three things: 

  1. Reach: How many people are you reaching at any given time? These people were split into two buckets: current subscribers and people WSJ wanted as subscribers. 
  2. Quality: After Zanoni transitioned journalists from a focus on pageviews to a focus on conversions, she worked on getting them excited about the quality of those conversions. Are they readers who are going to return to WSJ content? Are they bringing friends and family to WSJ? 
  3. Habit: When the habit is built, the cycle keeps going. And, in an internal joke at the bottom of the PPT, the customer will “die a happy WSJ subscriber.” 

“We needed to ensure everybody in the newsroom understood this isn’t just the job of the [very small] audience team,” Zanoni said. “At the end of the day, journalists are humans and driven by ego. And they want to make sure that people are actually reading their stories. When they understand time spent — that someone is only reading three paragraphs and bouncing off — that wounds the ego. That is something we’ve really driven home because it motives them.”

The results of this new focus and programmes: Average active days of digital-only members is up 3% year-over-year.

For Zen Habito, director/loyalty and retention for Globe and Mail, customer engagement is a bit like a marriage. Your print headlines were a bit like an introduction by a colleague of a friend. And now, people — and news media companies — find their significant others online. 

“How do we get someone to see us and to click or swipe?” she asked. 

Zen Habito, director/loyalty and retention for Globe and Mail, says engagement is all about the relationship.
Zen Habito, director/loyalty and retention for Globe and Mail, says engagement is all about the relationship.

Audience engagement is about relationships. And understanding those relationships starts with data, which is why the Globe and Mail’s data science team created Sophi, Delphi, and Athena.

  • Sophi: This real-time dashboard, which is available to the entire company, shows how articles are performing. It also shows where readers are coming from: social, Google, the Web site, etc. Clicking on an article listed on Sophi allows journalists and others to see the number of visits, the time spent, and recirculation (did that article take you deeper into the site?), as well as whether reading it generated a subscription. Editors use Sophi to make decisions about content and placement based on engagement.
  • Delphi: Identifies high-value content before it’s published using Machine Learning and Natural Language Processing. The newsroom uses this information to decide what content should be promoted with high homepage placement and what content should be behind the paywall. Editorial teams are notified in real time about this information through Slack. 
  • Athena: A proprietary Web analytics platform used to measure and analyse behavior of the Globe and Mail’s digital audience across platforms, section page, referrals, marketing campaign, and A/B testing. 

“There is so much content,” Habito said. “We’re trying to send the right thing to the customer at the right time.” 

Other engagement initiatives that have worked at Globe and Mail: 

  • E-mailing subscribers with the highest propensity to churn: Reduced churn by 140%.
  • E-mailing subscribers who haven’t logged in for 30 days: Reduced churn by 27%.
  • Creating digital version of formerly print-only lifestyle magazine on Web site, presented to subscribers who log in and visit lifestyle section: quadrupled downloads and reduced churn by 40%.
  • Creating hub of member benefits for digital subscribers: Less than 1% of those who use it churn.

USA Today Network has been transitioning from a volume-based to a blended subscription model — and its success hinges on newsrooms, according to Josh Awtry, senior director for news strategy at USA Today Network. 

“As we’ve started to pivot,” Awtry said. “Local markets have really grown in importance. Our local newsrooms are really becoming the prize.” 

Josh Awtry, senior director for news strategy at USA Today Network, explains how the company put an “audience analyst” in every newsroom.
Josh Awtry, senior director for news strategy at USA Today Network, explains how the company put an “audience analyst” in every newsroom.

Five years ago, the company was training journalists about metrics based on the volume model, creating a position called “audience analyst” in every newsroom. While this increased awareness about how data can be useful to the newsroom, it was only a first step.

More recently, USA Today has been working to democratise the data. In recent years, it has experimented with tools and systems for communicating the data and its importance to journalists. Some things worked, some did not, and by 2018 the company began to see a better path forward. 

“We developed our own tools using data that comes back to our values. This is called Pressbox,” Awtry said. “It’s a report-focused view. It highlights [for an individual journalist] which stories they wrote that performed below or above their average. We call it the ‘Fitbit for news.’” 

With so many regional properties, USA Today faced an additional challenge that different newsrooms were focused on different metrics. They revamped the approach to training journalists in a way that would create more alignment and build a bridge between the editorial and data teams.

“If you put a data team in the middle of a newsroom, but they don’t speak the language of journalism, they get eaten alive,” Awtry said. “To truly get journalists to understand where we are going, it has to come directly out of a newsroom ethos. We went into our newsrooms and we plucked the best digitally thinking, journalistically credible people, and we …  taught them to be analysts and statisticians. Then we put them back in the markets and told them their job is content strategy. They could speak to editors — they could sit down with the features team in Detroit or the entertainment team in Phoenix and work with them regularly on what they were doing right.”

USA Today Network also created an internal campaign around a simple concept: “Stop doing things readers don’t want.” By examining the “bottom half” of content that wasn’t performing well, they were able to determine that only 6% of the audience was reading that content. 

“We could eliminate half of our journalism and our traffic really wouldn’t change — if we replaced it with nothing,” Awtry said. “What if we replaced that with content readers really wanted? We knew early on we didn’t just want it to be about pageviews. We decided to measure volume, engage time, and loyalty (return frequency) and we created a lens by which we view successful journalism. Then we build some tools around that.” 

The company revamped its Pressbox tools with easy-to-digest displays, measurable intelligence so newsrooms could see what content was hitting marks. As a result the company is producing less content, which allows them to reallocate resources — while simultaneously generating better metrics. 

“We are publishing 2.7% less monthly while the article pageviews have gone up,” Awtry said. “Pressbox is very exciting and will eventually be integrated into our content creation engine, our content management system.” 

For now, the focus is on helping the newsroom recognise its role in building engaged and loyal audiences — how to foster growth with smart curation, understanding readership habits, unique work, and topical awareness. 

“We are looking at a lot more personalised messaging, more growth and development in new niche verticals,” Awtry said.

He believes it’s critical to make sure everyone in the newsroom understands their responsibility to audience engagement. They need to be aware of which stories truly are most engaging and promoting the most loyalty — not just the ones with a high number of pageviews.

In 2019, USA Today will make a move toward holding newsrooms directly responsible for the number of readers they can get to land of the offers page with their content. “That is the next big step,” Awtry said, recognising that eventually newsrooms will feel more responsible for actual conversions, but getting there will be an evolutionary process.

About Dawn McMullan

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