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Funnel discipline: Why these gaps exist

In order to overcome them, first understand the barriers to success in funneling occasional users to habitual and paying loyalists.

This is an excerpt from “Table Stakes: A Manual for Getting in the Game of News,” published Nov. 14, 2017. Read more excerpts here.

a) In the print era, audiences had no choice. Now they do.

Audiences had limited choices among newspapers, TV, radio and magazines for news and information during the long history of the monopolistic (or oligopolistic) market positions of metro, local and regional newspapers. Now they have zillions of choices.

You know this. You know this from your own lives as consumers of news. You know this because you’ve watched a decade of explosive growth in choices available to news and information seekers. You know this because it has been written about and worried over for a long time now.

If you don’t know this, you’re living in a cave.

b) It is only now dawning on newsrooms that they and their technology and tool-building colleagues – not circulation – are accountable for building and engaging with audiences

Many metro news organizations have been late getting into the new game, and only now recognize how essential it is to build digitally based subscriptions and pay for content approaches. For them, building digital loyalty is a new thing.

Often, the role of audience development in the digital era has been no one’s job. As digital has evolved, many people in many functions have grown concerned with pieces of the funnel but no one or no one group has clear accountability. It was simpler when circulation was a standalone function.

Yet, digital audience development is not something newspaper circulation people know how to do – or even could do if they did know how. Circulation folks are excellent at marketing, pricing, selling, renewing and otherwise serving print subscribers. Some of that experience is relevant to attracting and retaining audiences who pay for digital content – for example, marketing, pricing and renewal approaches and tactics. But only in the broadest sense because converting occasional digital users into habitual and paying ones doesn’t happen through such tried and true circulation approaches like direct mail. Instead, it demands an every day, every moment engagement supported by data and analytics. And, that engagement is the responsibility of the newsroom – not circulation. Only the newsroom – the folks who create, publish and deliver the consumer experience – can succeed or fail at what spells the difference between usage and payment versus neither.

And, in some ways, circulation’s experience and know-how can get in the way. Steve Yeager, Minneapolis’ head of marketing, points out that the complex number of differing pricing and renewal options used for paper subscribers are entirely inappropriate in a digital context that must be user-friendly. He notes that the Star Tribune has dozens upon dozens of different offers compared to Netflix, which has just a handful.

c) Newsrooms lack the basic orientation and language of serving – and selling to – audiences first and foremost

The long history of the divide separating editorial and content from the business side enforced a clear division of labor in news enterprises. During the mid-to-late 20th century, generations of journalists learned – and conscientiously handed down to successors – a paramount principle that they were not and should not concern themselves with commercial matters.

This has shifted over the past decade. The walls are coming down. Younger journalists are more likely to understand that the difficult economics of journalism require everyone working together to figure out how to attract revenues to pay for their jobs. Still, the required, basic orientation is new: serving audiences through identifying and delivering against audience needs is first, foremost and paramount.

Decades of craft and practice militated against this orientation. It is no surprise, then, that part of the print legacy expresses itself through journalists who think and at times declare:

“We, not readers, know what’s important, what constitutes news and what’s necessary for democracy to function.”

“We cannot and should not pander to audiences.”

“I’m a journalist. Not a sales person.”

“Audiences are, sad to say, stupid. Not always. But often.”

Compare folks who work on American automobile assembly lines. Throughout the 1970s to 1990s, numerous books and articles pinned declining sales of American-made cars in part to worker attitudes – attitudes born and fostered from prior decades of oligopoly, of consumers just not having that much choice. Beginning in the 1990s, though, attitudes began to shift (“At Ford, Quality is Job #1”) as workers realized their jobs and livelihoods depended on making cars that made customers happy.

The shift in autoworker attitudes was largely sufficient to the task at hand. For newsrooms, though, the shifts are more difficult because, unlike autoworkers, newsrooms directly serve and sell to consumers every day.

Along with rooting out and forbidding any commercial orientation, the church/state divide also precluded journalists from learning the basic language of service, sales and, indeed, the industry in which they work. Each of the four Knight Temple Table Stakes newsrooms, for example, had folks who did not understand what “CPM”, “UX”, funneling, A/B testing, EBITDA and other essential words and concepts mean.

In addition, sometimes the same word had a different meaning to the newsroom versus marketing and sales. For example, Robyn Tomlin of Dallas notes that ‘product’ means an advertising unit to ad sales while to some folks in the newsroom it means a content-tailored offering designed to meet specific needs of customers.

d) Newsrooms trail in having the individual as well as institutional skills to serve – and sell – to audiences

The Knight Temple Table Stakes effort – indeed, this entire report – address the gaps in newsroom skills – both individual and institutional – required to be in the game. It is worth teasing out the distinction between individual and institutional shortfalls. For an example of individual skills, look at the description for a fully skilled reporter in the Chapter entitled “Shaping The Right Staff Roles And Skills For Your Newsroom.”

Institutional skills, in contrast, reflect capabilities required of the enterprise, not just individuals themselves. For example, news enterprises do not have a long or rich history at being institutionally skilled at fundamental innovation: experimenting in disciplined ways with identifying, testing and, if successful, rolling out dramatically new and different ways of doing things. This sort of fundamental innovation differs from continuous improvement – tweaks at the margins.

Institutional capabilities also reflect the blend of human effort with technology. Today’s metro news enterprises, for example, too often make it difficult for audiences to be loyal. Slow, cumbersome load times, poorly designed, hard to navigate web or mobile sites, poor integration with social media: overcoming these depend on people and technology performing in ways audiences expect. And, as discussed throughout this report, newsrooms are only now building the data and analytics required for the organization to get good at attracting, engaging, retaining, and monetizing users.

Further, news enterprises have historically emphasized transactions over relationships and customer solutions. Print subscriptions are transactions – you pick the subscription package you want and pay for what you get. The same for print advertising – sell off the rate card for ad size and placement (and now programmatic which is purely transactional). Neither encompasses the kind of ongoing relationships and/or solution problem solving required.

And newsrooms in particular have historically ignored the customer experience. Newsrooms have gotten better thinking about user experience (UX) for a particular platform, but this is still a platform-by-platform approach and not the total customer experience across platforms and across time.

e) Newsrooms lack tech solutions to do it right

In addition to skill limitations, newsrooms have technology limitations that get in the way of using a funnel to convert random users into paying loyalists. Too many newsrooms have far less data about users – individually and in the aggregate – than is required. Tools – like those that help manage user identity (good registration systems across devices/platforms/products) or serve targeted messages (notifications, digital marketing, etc.) – are often inadequate. And most news organizations struggle to connect these various tools and user data into usable approaches (where print, email, registration, and site cookie data, for example, are all in one useful CRM/database).