For a long time, our Facebook efforts were all about growing arbitrary numbers. We wanted likes and comments, we looked for shares and those heart-eyed emoticons, and we optimised for views and clicks. For many newsrooms — ours included — reach and clicks were the focal points of social media strategies.

Two years ago we decided to make a change.

The situation was dire. We were losing our ability to monetise advertising. The global behemoths, Facebook and Google, were making better advertising products than us and democratised the buying process. No wonder advertisers went for it.

As a result, we made less money from advertising and became less reliant on getting a lot of people to do one thing for a small profit per action. As luck would have it, the whole advertising downturn proved to be a perfect opportunity for us to shift our focus from growing the number of clicks to growing the number of subscribers.

Looking at subscribers as our key performance indicator (KPI) turned out to be motivating for the entire organisation. We started measuring each content piece on how many subscribers that specific content added to the whole, and provided the editorial staff with a dashboard where this could be monitored in real-time.

A real-time dashboard allows journalists to see how successful their articles are beyond Facebook.
A real-time dashboard allows journalists to see how successful their articles are beyond Facebook.

To focus on conversion, we had to make Facebook visible as a contributing channel to all stakeholders. We created the “Insight” dashboard where every single paywall-enabled article was listed with stats showing how many sales it generated and from which channel. It also showed how well it created circulation.

Journalists felt pride in being able to contribute to the newspaper’s business model by adding subscribers. The new KPI proved their articles were so interesting that they motivated readers to pay for their news.

More importantly, it gave us an opportunity to start experimenting with Aftenposten’s Facebook account without fear of potentially losing traffic or reach.

To gain subscribers, we started with the basics. We used conversion data from our site to determine which articles were top converters. We hypothesised they would be effective at converting even when exposed to more people.

Facebook was chosen for two reasons: It has the reach (85% of all Norwegians are on Facebook) and it has a native ads product suitable to our content. This simple step gave us a steady 200 extra subscribers every week.

Instead of chasing likes and comments, Aftenposten placed a new emphasis on its Facebook page and community.
Instead of chasing likes and comments, Aftenposten placed a new emphasis on its Facebook page and community.

From there we started to experiment with how we could engage our existing subscribers. One of our main challenges when rapidly growing our subscriber base is to make sure new subscribers use the product and experience value for money. Through Facebook’s custom audience feature, we were able to locate our subscribers on the Web site and reach them with engaging content or concrete call to actions such as “download our app” or “attend our event.”

In both reaching new audiences and engaging our existing subscribers, it was crucial to define what type of engagement on Facebook is valuable to us. We found that likes, comments, and shares had no correlation with our effectiveness in reaching business goals.

In addition, several studies have proven social engagement is a poor analogue for sales or branding KPIs. We had to look at more concrete actions that provided us with more ways of reaching subscribers.

The last two years have proved two hypotheses:

  1. Our journalists produce content that is so good readers become subscribers just to read it.
  2. The more contact points and relevant engagement we create with our subscribers, the more likely it is they will stay on as subscribers.

Now we’re looking to prove a third hypothesis: whether reader frequency over time will make readers more likely to become subscribers.

Rather than measuring how many people each piece of content reaches, we want to measure how many times we can reach potential subscribers with a content piece. This goes beyond just Facebook, but it will certainly be an important channel.

The theory is we need to warm up our readers with content before we try to convert them into subscribers. Therefore, we will start serving readers with content pieces so they pass a “critical mass” of read articles. When this happens, we will provide them with a relevant sales message.

We believe this will increase the conversion rates on our sales efforts, and, more importantly create more high-quality conversions as these are readers who have started forming a habit of reading Through this, we hope we will see a drop in churn rates and an increase in the lifetime value of a subscriber.

Working with a platform like Facebook that is so thoroughly out of our control is challenging. The kind of articles and videos Aftenposten’s excellent journalists create encourage the kind of social media engagement that was sought after for many years.

However much the platform wants us to keep our eyes on likes and comments, it’s important to understand if there is an actual correlation between these KPIs and your business objective. In our case, there is none. That makes it easy to focus on the KPIs that matter to us and that we can see actually affects our business KPIs.