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From activation to conversion: The news media marketer’s evolving role

By Emmanuel Naert


Brussels, Belgium


I’ve been working in media since 2001 — the first 10 years in the magazine business and now seven years in newspapers. Correction: Make that news brands. I can confirm the world of news has changed quite a bit, and the job of a news media marketer with it.

Over a period of a decade, the magazine business in Flanders is being disrupted, even eradicated. My first magazine, a youth weekly called Joepie, ceased to exist four years ago. And Humo (a true monument in Flanders and an inimitable blend of a TV magazine incorporating aspects of Charlie Hebdo, Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated, and The New York Times Literary Review) has decimated in circulation. In 2007, its average sales peaked at 235,000 copies per week. Last year, it sunk below 90,000. Luckily, this wasn’t all my fault.

In the past years, magazines had fierce competition from nearly all possible substitutes and surrogates imaginable: Newspapers started to publish magazine supplements on the weekend. TV guides were free on digital TV. News sites and social media basically looted spare time from magazine readers.

The popular Belgian publication Joepie has declined in circulation in recent years.
The popular Belgian publication Joepie has declined in circulation in recent years.

When I recall what my job consisted of in the first part of my career, it was all about “activation.” Each week of the year was an opportunity to deliver a nice incentive to buy the magazine. Music CDs, books, tickets, mobile phone credit, or DVDs — each promotional item gave a boost to the circulation. And there was cash. Advertising was doing well, so we could spare some marketing dimes on the bottom line.

I had the privilege to work on some truly spectacular stunts at that time. In 2009, we managed to release the new novel of an award-winning Flemish author and distribute it with a circulation of more than 300,000 copies … for free. The author described it as the “democratisation of literature.” At Humo, we were more than happy to help, of course.

Another activation was organising events, often large-scale events. Events like Humo’s Pop Poll Deluxe, which filled the more than 10,000 seats in Antwerp’s Sportpaleis for many years.

And 15 years ago, marketers were also involved in data. The KPIs for digital marketers was a collection of many registered users and options for commercial use and newsletter subscriptions. Every week, another spectacular competition was organised with maximum chances to win.

The data flowed in like liquid gold; the database grew and traffic on the Web sites boomed.

Let’s fast forward to 2018.

The reality today is shifting. The leitmotif of a news media marketer is moving from activation to conversion. The results of our acquisition campaigns aren’t that successful anymore.

Wherever I look in Belgian media, the newsstand promotions have disintegrated. Data gathering is still around but has taken a different shape. Over the last couple of years, we have been automating conversion efforts by putting content behind paywalls, getting more registered visitors on the Web sites and apps, and selling subs while we sleep.

Also, since there’s been a dramatic decline in advertising income, marketing budgets have come under pressure. If the bottom line of the newspaper’s P&L is declining, it’s a sound decision to save on these budgets when you’re on the board of a newspaper. But it’s a sad one when you’re a marketer dedicated to offering added value to your reader.

Now more than ever, the mission for a media marketer is to work on the content. Marketers are constantly developing new content distribution strategies to obtain more conversions: What kind of article should I publish? When and where should I push it, and to whom? How about video and audio? Should I put it in front of or behind the paywall? What will be the return for the news brand by doing so?

This sentence on the Helsingin Sanomat paywall summarises our current job in beautiful Finnish poetry: “Do you wish to read this entire article?”

So, what will the future bring? Will our marketing team still consist of a brand manager, communications manager, and sponsoring manager? Will our newspaper still develop other activities besides conversion and reader activation? Will there still be marketing budgets to set up these talked-about brand campaigns?

When looking at the pattern over the past several years, I fear not. We have to prepare ourselves for a mutation of the traditional marketing professional into a data- and content-driven expert — a more analytical profile, making decisions based on figures of reading behaviour and conversion.

But this also needs to be a professional who knows how to read a newsroom, who’s working closely with journalists, and who knows how to translate an editorial strategy into new subs using the right metrics.

Finally, more than ever, I think this marketer will also be a product developer. As media and its platforms swiftly multiply, so will product propositions and offers in order to obtain and service new and youngers readers. That was not on our radar back in 2001.

About Emmanuel Naert

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