Data leads editorially driven subscription strategy at Herald Sun

By Nathaniel Bane

Herald Sun

Melbourne, Australia


This month I want to share a piece written by colleague Jon Burton, Herald Sun’s subscriptions editor. A key part of his role is helping our newsroom in Melbourne better understand its growing digital audience and tailor content that informs, entertains, and enriches their lives. Content this audience is happy to pay for.

As we shape the value of digital journalism, this is crucial to growing and retaining a subscription audience.

This is Jon’s appraisal of how data is helping drive an editorially led subscriptions strategy at the Herald Sun, for which we have been chosen as a finalist in INMA’s Global Media Awards. Proudly, may I add.

It is a good read.

As journalists, we are often reminded that it is our duty to know who our audience is and to write for them. It’s a lesson taught by news editors, journalism professors, and anyone in between.

And it’s a message we often forget.

The rise of analytics has given newsrooms a myriad of tools to understand who our audience is.

Customer data has helped the Herald Sun address subscription issues.
Customer data has helped the Herald Sun address subscription issues.

Traffic-based news organisations take these analytics to heart — their bottom lines depend directly on seeing these numbers go up.

In a subscription-based organisation such as the Herald Sun, analytics are just as vital but the metric changes. Pageviews become less important. Content that both attracts new subscribers and shows value to your existing ones becomes paramount.

How do we quantify this content?

Google Analytics, Omniture, and Nielsen can give us some of the information we need, but there are other places to look.

Where does our audience live?

For a location-based news organisation such as the Herald Sun, having an idea of the suburbs where our readers live is immensely valuable. We looked at anonymised postal code sign-up data to get an empirical view of where our subscribers are.

From this we can infer a range of interests and pain points.

What freeways and arterial roads are causing our subscribers the most grief? We know. And we can tailor editorial to it.

What presses their buttons? We track what individual stories turn readers into subscribers in real time.

At its base, this has given us data on the most popular content sections and types. We can feed back successes to reporters and commission similar content.

We’re not doing anything new in this respect.

The jump we’ve gone though is to break down those headlines and use a couple of different analysis types to identify the keywords that have pushed readers’ buttons — and pushed them enough that they choose to subscribe. So, from general themes, to individual hot-button words, we have the data we need to make our content as compelling as it can be.

What can commercial data can tell us?

The church/state separation has helped quality journalism thrive. But we’ve found it’s helpful to open a window now and ask questions of our commercial colleagues.

Any marketing department worth its salt will have a wealth of data on its readers. It may not have been produced for editorial needs, but this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tap into it.

In the case of the Herald Sun, while the data we’ve had access to isn’t exact, it’s another tool for us in creating a fuller understanding of our readers. Coming from a print parent company it has been particularly useful to contrast online readership and habits.

Defining our digital audience by life stage and other indicators, along with audience and language data, arms our journalists with the information they need to inform our subscribers and show value to new readers.

About Nathaniel Bane

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