From print to digital audience engagement: why we can't sleep at night


IIn the halcyon days when consumers lacked news options and the advertiser's money paid for creativity without limits, we printed until the presses couldn't take it anymore, assumed a lot of eyeballs stumbled across our prose, and slept peacefully at night knowing that our work made a difference in the world.

Let's say our circulation was a nice round 100,000. At least four people, on average, read each copy, for a daily readership of 400,000. Now, that's influence! That's something advertisers can appreciate — a good number.

What we didn't know couldn't hurt us.

Of course, the reader studies parsed print engagement in a way we'd prefer not to talk about. Different genders, different races, different socio-economic levels of consumers liked certain sections and genres better than others. Eye-track studies suggested the broadsheet was less a broad piece of paper than a broad palette that people tended to read here and ignore there — always surprising despite the consistency over time.

The average reader spent 30-45 minutes with the newspaper, suggesting decent engagement with an ever-growing print product. Yet this was highly inconsistent at different points in our readership base. Anyone notice that time spent with the newspaper dropped over time even as the number of pages proliferated?

Purposefully vague circulation audits evolved into greater specificity. My goodness: there were fluctuations in circulation on different days of the week! A decent part of our circulation base was, in fact, given away free to schools and other worthwhile causes. One-third of our circulation base was acquired through means — telemarketing, promotions, trial offers — that suggested consumers like the status-fueled idea of a newspaper more than they actually read the newspaper. Most of the paid circulation base was originally motivated with a sales offer of less than full-price.

How would you describe the engagement of this audience? While chaotic, we slept well at night knowing, as Warren Buffett once said, that we operated in an industry with a wide moat and tall wall surround it.

Fast-forward to today.

Describe a news brand's digital audience.

Let's say our total audience — consisting of print subscribers for whom we have records, web site registered users from the past decade who haven't permanently bounced, Google transients, and more — is 800,000, or about double our print readership base.

There are no ambiguities or estimates. There is nearly total transparency.

We know which articles get clicked and how often people stay on the page. We know where they go from there — including whether they exit the web site. We even know who is interacting with us, their complete history, and their precise demographic.

We know that half of our active audience — a small portion of the total audience that we internally identify — is outside of our print circulation base. A big number are former residents and the kids of local residents who used to live here but have moved on. A big number is industry-specific because of the companies based here.

We know that most web site readers go directly to what they want, form a habit with segments of our web site, and move in-and-out at warp speed — with a few minutes representing an eternity. We know there are grazers, and external research deduces that these are current or former print readers with print reading habits.

We use e-newsletters to prompt busy consumers with the best content we produce, only to learn our idea of “the best” isn't relevant enough. We know this through open rates that started at 30% and dropped consistently over time. We say to ourselves it's not our content; it's the e-newsletter. We eventually figure out it was neither the content nor the e-newsletter but how we packaged the content and e-newsletter. We know that to double our e-newsletter clicks, we need to grow our audience four times.

Oh, and because e-mail has exploded as a medium unto itself, all such communications are fading in value. Even our now-highly personalised relevant e-mails are getting lost in an inbox of highly personalised relevant e-mails — and the end user can't manage them. We're getting tarnished because the user is inundated by e-mails, and our latest e-mail is simply the straw that broke the camel's back.

Desperate for one more click and one more second of attention, we load up our e-newsletters with too many words for the A.D.D. Generation — an old-school attempt to be all things to all people at the biggest part of the audience curve. Too many compromises, not enough hard choices. We over-feed the broad market with a kaleidoscope of home page links that overwhelm and scare everyone except the grazers. We delude ourselves into believing our mission is to convert the A.D.D. into grazers, then realise that's an impossible task.

What is engagement success? Is it 100% of our audience lightly engaged? Is it 15% deeply engaged, 35% tepidly engaged, and 50% disengaged? How does this compare with our sleepy print past? We have no idea because the print metrics were nowhere near as deep or broad as the digital metrics are today. Maybe only 15% of our print audience of the past was deeply engaged, but they were influencers who were a vocal minority?

Metrics, metrics everywhere. We're drowning in data. Research budgets have been cut, so there aren't enough smart people around to make sense of it all. Our instinct is that we're reaching more people than ever before. Yet instead of brand loyalty, we're fighting for every second of attention with more and more granular pieces of content with sensationalised headlines which turn out to be our biggest marketing weapon (what did “sex” and “headless chickens” have to do with last night's city council meeting?).

All we want to do is make a difference. Yet we can't sleep at night because we have no idea what level of engagement we have with an audience we can't quantify or weave together in an adequate enough storyline to monetise.

Oh, for simpler times. Ignorance was bliss.

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