7 ways Cox Media titles engaged readers during recent hurricanes

By Laura Inman

Cox Media Group Newspapers

Atlanta, Georgia, USA


Cox Media Group has several properties that were affected by the recent hurricane activities in the southern region of the United States. Among our newspaper markets impacted by Harvey and Irma were The Austin American-Statesman, The Palm Beach Post, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The devastation and destruction from these storms were tragic and life-changing. Thousands of people lost everything they cherished, including loved ones, homes, and irreplaceable family heirlooms. More than 70 people were killed by Hurricane Harvey. In its wake, Hurricane Irma left at least 23 dead in the contiguous United States and more than 30 dead in the Caribbean. The storms left an upheaval of displacement, property damage, and despair that will have a lasting impact.

Tragedy often becomes a call to arms for local media companies. It is a time when our brands demonstrate unique, undeniable value by reporting breaking news and information. We provide content our readers rely on to stay safe and informed as they piece their lives back together.

The Palm Beach Post stayed in constant contact with readers throughout the hurricane.
The Palm Beach Post stayed in constant contact with readers throughout the hurricane.

Imagine the value created if we always delivered customer experiences that are meaningful, repeatable, and highly personalised every day, but in the absence of looming hurricanes?

A study called “The State of Engagement” was recently conducted by Marketo and its partner, Illuminas. They interviewed 1,000+ consumers and 1,100+ B2B and B2C marketers to learn about marketer and consumer attitudes toward engagement and their motivations for engagement.

In short: “Consumer expectations have shifted to expect more from brands they buy from. They seek a personal relationship that offers them value wherever they are and whenever they are ready to engage.”

The report goes on to share that consumers rely on the following channels to learn about products or services:

  • Web site (65.5%).
  • E-mail (54.5%).
  • Social media (33.5%).
  • Online communities (31%).
  • Video (29.5%).
  • Chat (26.5%).
  • Mobile device/app (23%).

Integration across touchpoints is also key. Among B2C consumers, 56% think it’s important to have their profile data integrated across channels.

More than half of B2C consumers think it's important that data is integrated across various touchpoints.
More than half of B2C consumers think it's important that data is integrated across various touchpoints.

When asked, 91% of marketers believe they effectively integrate consumer data across multiple touchpoints. However, this is primarily limited to integrating their Web site, social media, and e-mail interactions. In contrast, only 8% believe they have integrated across all channel touchpoints.

Delivering a seamless consumer experience in all channels with expert orchestration is a high bar. To stay connected to our readers, the CMG newspaper teams worked tirelessly to cover all aspects of the hurricanes. The CMG audience engagement team rallied to increase the distribution, frequency, and formats of subscriber communications.

The communication strategy was as follows:

  1. Send storm update e-mails following national forecast events and updates.
  2. Proactively inform customers about delivery schedules and delays.
  3. Create special e-mail sends focused on “news you need to know” and “from the editor.”
  4. Streamline our team operations and deploy our multi-market, on-call staffing schedule as employees relocated to work from higher ground.
  5. Add new e-mails to our existing cadence to provide consistent coverage and feature subscriber-only content.
  6. Move the paywall to “open house” mode during critical storm periods.
  7. Test digital marketing campaigns to drive goals or efficient conversions during the time of heightened traffic.

Although the strategy is straightforward, the focus and persistence was rewarded by added customer loyalty and engagement from subscribers. During Hurricane Irma, the team generated the following results for The Palm Beach Post from September 1-13, 2017:

  • 80 unique e-mails were sent to subscribers. The time sent ranged from 5:00 a.m.-11:00 p.m.
  • More than 262,000 unique clicks were driven to our premium content from e-mail alone.
  • Average e-mail click-to-open rate was 29% with a click-to-open range of 25%-60%.
  • 7,581 subscribers returned to active status (re-engaged with our digital premium content after no consumption in the last 30 days or more).
  • 390 subscribers became active with digital premium content for the very first time.
  • The e-paper engagement metrics from all markets reached the highest level since 2013.

E-mail was one of many channels that helped distribute information and keep readers informed. Facebook and social media were used to share content, updates, and breaking news. A very effective ad campaign on Facebook featured our native app downloads for The Palm Beach Post and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. This short blitz resulted in driving 2,527 downloads at a cost of only US$.97 per install.

Content integration included an ad campaign to drive app downloads.
Content integration included an ad campaign to drive app downloads.

Experimental custom media buys were also placed during this same timeframe using Google AdWords to drive traffic. The results were impressive: 61,749 sessions at US$.01 per click with 2.13 pageviews per session for a total of more than 130,000 pageviews.

A team SEO expert discovered we needed to produce a content feature for the Georgia evacuations topic to leverage the trending news and opportunity. That story was created and resulted in 105,000 visits referred directly by SEO. Newsrooms were continuously reporting and updating stories, photos, and videos to keep the content fresh, captivating, and relevant.

All this time-sensitive work to serve customers and maximise our impact resulted in improved traffic, engagement, loyalty, and leads generated. It also resulted in e-mails and letters of appreciation from customers who appreciated the service.

But we don’t have hurricanes every day and customer expectations are high. These examples of best practices work because they are about understanding and meeting consumer needs.

Breaking news events of major significance seem to be happening with an intensity and pace we have never seen before. We have a responsibility to share those stories and, in so doing, deliver an improved experience for our readers and subscribers. Connecting all the dots between data, engagement, content, and audiences will put us in a better position to delight readers and retain subscribers.

About Laura Inman

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