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How the Dallas Morning News turned a traffic afterthought into a digital subscription conversion opportunity

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: The Dallas Morning News, which has eight major college football programs in its coverage area and just two full-time writers dedicated to them, concentrated on its smallest but most local school and turned it into a digital subscription success story.

This is a series on Better News to a) showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) to share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole.

This “win” comes from Scott Bell and Mark Francescutti of the Dallas Morning News.

Question: What problem were you trying to solve, and why was solving the problem strategically important for your organization?

Answer: This idea was borne out of needing to identify a niche beat that could work in a digital subscription environment. The importance of solving this issue was crucial — the newsroom had recently shifted to a metered model for our digital subscription business. Getting readers conditioned to pay for digital subscriptions was easier said than done. We decided to identify an area of our coverage that wasn’t necessarily a traffic hit, but could potentially be an area that a smaller pocket of local readers might subscribe to if we cover all aspects of a passion point.   

Q: How did you go about solving the problem?

A: We established a contract position dedicated to Southern Methodist University sports. While two full-time writers covered the other eight colleges in our coverage area on a more broad, big-picture level, this contract position focused on all things SMU athletics, attending all practices, games (home and away) and developed a digital-first content plan designed to be  a one-stop shop for all SMU sports fans.

Q: How is this approach related to Table Stakes (e.g. one of the 7 Table Stakes and/or an outgrowth of the Knight-Lenfest initiative, etc.)?

A: This approach is a direct reflection of several of the seven table stakes, but our starting point was Table Stake 3: Produce and publish continuously to meet audience needs. Volume was key. Would a fanbase that previously felt underserved positively react to a dramatic uptick in coverage? This contract position yielded 827 posts over the course of SMU football and basketball season.  

Q: What worked?

A: We quickly learned that our hypothesis was correct. SMU, which finished at the bottom  in terms of traffic for major area college sports teams the year before, quickly found itself at the top of our analytics boards when changing our focus to digital subscription conversion. In 2016, the ranking via pageviews was 1) Texas A&M, 2) Baylor, 3) Texas, 4) Oklahoma, 5) TCU, 6) Texas Tech, and 7) SMU. Once we created this contract position and made our key measurable digital conversions — defined by the number of stories that were the “last read” before a prospect converted to paid — those rankings became 1. SMU 2. Texas A&M 3. Texas 4. Texas Tech 5. Oklahoma 6. Baylor 7. TCU. To keep track of progress, we have a dashboard that is sortable by story, sport and author. The sports team checks this on a daily basis, to see how different schools perform and help us make decisions about how we allocate resources.

Q: What didn’t work?

A: When you focus on a sport, you’re leaving a lot of things up to chance. Reader interest and subscription success can directly tie to on-field performance. SMU’s football and basketball teams weren’t particularly good (nor were they necessarily bad enough to have major issues that fans wanted to read about). SMU’s football coach, Chad Morris, did end up taking the head coaching job at Arkansas, though, so that — and the subsequent search for a new coach — created an interesting storyline fans were compelled to read about (and subscribe to read more about). In other words, we weren’t necessarily prepared for how seasonal interest could be, and you should be prepared for hot and cold stretches.

Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?

A: One positive byproduct that we didn’t necessarily plan on was an improved relationship with SMU. The school — both from their institution-wide and athletics accounts — promoted our coverage far more than in the past, going as far as linking directly to stories from its website. This happened organically and wasn’t any part of an agreement, and certainly wasn’t a byproduct of us giving them favorable coverage, either. Many of our stories took critical looks at the school, including a dive into their declining football attendance.

Q: What would you do differently now? What did you learn?

A: Our biggest issue was probably getting the word out there about the coverage. Having some sort of built-in marketing push would have been wise. Word of mouth eventually paid off and fans learned organically about our new coverage, but it probably could have been better if there was a front-end marketing push to announce our new plans to a broader audience.

Q: What advice would you give to others who try to do this?

A: Find an area of coverage that might not necessarily yield the most impressive traffic numbers, but it does check each of the following boxes: 1) it’s hyperlocal 2) it stokes the passion of these local readers.