Since March, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age have experienced renewed subscriber interest in our lifestyle coverage. Our readers are hungry for stories outside the news cycle and, under the shadow of the pandemic, appetite is stronger than ever.
We planned to tweak the direction of our lifestyle coverage this year to keep up with the demands of our subscribers, but COVID-19 forced us to drive that change more quickly than we first imagined.
Of course, most media outlets experienced a COVID-19 traffic bump. But what we discovered was that our subscribers were seeking out, and spending more time with, articles about exercise, relationships, working from home, and general wellbeing.
An understanding of our audience underpinned every change we made. Our research told us that lifestyle content had some influence on a reader’s decision to continue subscribing, but unlike our local news or politics coverage, it was not the primary reason they chose to stay.
We also know, thanks to a deep dive into subscriber habits, that subscribers who regularly consume a broad range of topics on our Web site are less likely to churn. The task was, and still is, obvious: We need to encourage the readers who come for news coverage to stay for lifestyle coverage.
A new strategy
The approach became two-pronged: First, deliver in-depth coverage to readers who may not consider us their go-to for lifestyle coverage. Additionally, retain their loyalty by being clear about who we are and what they can expect from us.
In March, we made the decision to launch a daily print page in both The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age called Home Front, designed to assist readers as they navigated the lockdown with stories on fitness, wellbeing, entertainment and recipes ideas.
Finding a regular place for lifestyle content in print, outside of the weekend lift-outs, required a different way of thinking for our teams. Previously, with no regular weekday pages to fill, the lifestyle team was called upon to fill gaps as an afterthought rather than set the agenda. The result was a print-first, often female-skewed lifestyle offering that didn’t translate well to digital.
For a long time, lifestyle journalism was perceived as the light to the shade in a news publication. The problem with this, however, is the assumption that it can’t hold an audience like news can. Our task was to demonstrate to the newsroom that it could — and then continue to deliver on that promise.
We implemented change with the backing of audience data that showed us subscribers were particularly interested in personal health and relationships. It prompted us to increase our coverage in this area, drawing on the country’s top experts and delivering our readers the depth of storytelling they already received from other verticals.
The result was a spike in subscriber reads, engaged time, and completion rate. We’ve worked hard to maintain interest, even as total site traffic tapers off toward the typically quiet holiday season. Perhaps even more importantly, we’re doing so with fewer and more in-depth articles. Lifestyle has never been a volume play for our mastheads, which makes it all the more important to make every story both valuable and surprising.
As Australia emerged from lockdown, the daily Home Front page was renamed Life to allow for a broader scope across health and wellness, life and relationships, fashion and beauty. This marks the first time in decades that lifestyle content has a regular place in our weekday print editions.
We also launched our Live Well newsletter, delivering stories on personal health, fitness, nutrition, and relationships. We wanted to strengthen our connection with readers while also responding to reader interest about personal health and relationships — only this time against the backdrop of life beyond the lockdown.
Under a subscription model, our core readership expects high-quality journalism, so it’s important that our newsletter adds value to the reader experience rather than just being a list of links. The narrative format provides context and a behind-the-scenes look at the making of a story.
For example, recently, deputy lifestyle editor Sophie Aubrey used the newsletter to detail her major takeaways from her comprehensive piece “How exercise changes your body after a day, a week, a month, a year.”
This particular story engaged subscribers for more than three-and-a-half minutes and was one of the most read on the Web sites and via search that week. It also prompted a rich discussion in the comments section with readers sharing personal anecdotes and tips on staying fit.
Ultimately, what we are noticing is that our lifestyle coverage not only drives subscriber engagement, but it is creating new reader communities which, in turn, assists with retention, brand building, and attracting new audiences.
For the past nine months, our key focus has been to shift the content strategy and remind our subscribers — and the wider newsroom — of the quality journalism they can find in the lifestyle section. Importantly, we wanted to move from a model whereby a large volume of content was being published for print, despite having little traction with our digital subscribers.
Rather than “filling gaps,” we are now making considered and deliberate decisions around what type of content truly serves our audience across platforms.
As we look to 2021, we will further target our efforts to build audience habits and loyalty — something we have already actioned with our Live Well newsletter and a soon-to-launch relationship series — in order to solidify our position as a go-to destination for lifestyle coverage.
A key indicator of our success will be when lifestyle content begins to regularly appear in the reader subscription journey, moving from having some influence on their decision to continue subscribing to having a strong influence. In achieving this, our coverage will play an integral role in the subscriber experience, adding value and, significantly, giving them a reason to stay.