Morris Publishing rethinks itself as an audience company — hiring accordingly

By Steve Gray

I had a minor epiphany in late 2010. 

In light of the changing advertising market realities surrounding our industry, I began to think about my company, Morris Publishing Group, as an audience company, where the ability to generate revenues and profits stemmed entirely from the size and character of the audiences we reached. 

I asked myself who was responsible for managing our audience model.

The answer? Nobody.

No one came to work every day thinking specifically about audiences, with questions like: How can we grow our audiences? Are we reaching the right audiences? What audiences do our advertisers need to reach? What new audience opportunities could we develop in our market(s)?

It wasn’t the editor’s job, and it wasn’t the vice president of sales’ job. It was nobody’s job. And that’s still true at most newspaper companies.

We began to talk about the need to create true audience leadership in the company. We saw that, as audience behaviour patterns shifted radically in the digital age, we would fall farther and farther behind if we didn’t figure out new solutions for attracting and delivering the right audiences.

Some statistical reality in the form of an audience pie chart hit us like a 10-pound sledge: We didn’t have nearly enough audience to be competitive. 

We began to talk about trying to multiply our audiences by a factor of five over the next three years. Not because we think it’s possible, but because we know its necessary if we’re going to be competitive in our markets.

The job description as we searched for the right candidate included this description: “The vice president of audience will be the chief architect, leader, guide, and metrics monitor of MPG audience initiatives. He or she will provide strategic and tactical leadership in 1) developing and deploying successful non-news audience strategies and tactics and 2) advancing our news operations to 21st-century models of content development, distribution, organisation, and cost structure.”

We built the audience challenge into our strategic plans, we defined a new corporate vice president of audience position and, in 2011, hired Bob Gilbert from our own Morris Digital Works division to fill it. 

By design, Bob is in conversations that go well beyond news. If the subject relates to audiences, he’s there — and the number and kinds of conversations that relate to audiences are much greater than you might think.

If only our industry had been thinking this way 10 or 15 years ago, maybe we could have headed off the massive loss of classified. Back then, we thought of auto, employment, and real estate as sales categories, not audiences. 

If it had been someone’s job to figure out what audiences wanted in these categories, maybe they wouldn’t have leaked away so fast to Craigslist,,,, and many others.

Bob began holding bi-weekly discussions with our editors, putting new focus on our ambitious audience goals and soliciting discussion on how to meet them. And, with Bob’s leadership, we developed a new, comprehensive audience dashboard that is compiled and shared with our business units every month.

Lately, we’re trying to figure out how we, as an audience company, can make smart use of the massive amounts of audience data available through our digital targeting partner. 

We believe the same data they use to target digital advertising to the right people can also enable our audience leaders to see what kinds of content and offerings would resonate with our local audiences. And we think we can create new activities on our sites that would enrich that data still further.

It’s a whole new audience game now because digital ad platforms and exchanges can target ads to people in our markets through virtually any Web site. Just having the most traffic of any local site isn’t enough; we need to compete with the likes of Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and YouTube.

This is very much a work in progress. But we feel that we’re much better equipped for it, now that we have people reporting to work every day whose mission is to build the audiences and the monetisation strategies we need.

About Steve Gray

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