“Marketing” includes a broad range of decisions: what services to offer, what to charge, how to talk to your audience, and where to deliver your services. Marketers describe this as the “4 Ps” of Product, Price, Promotion, Place. To focus on readers, grow engagement and sell subscriptions, you must act upon all four of the “Ps” plus a fifth: people.

Media organizations have typically focused primarily on “promotion,” touting news coverage or subscription offers. Our longer-term goal is to align our understanding of readers with the development of products and services that encourage engagement with our journalism and pave a path to paid subscriptions. Rather than a small marketing team just promoting current products, the whole enterprise has to be listening, measuring and adapting to user needs.

Rather than a small marketing team just promoting current products, the whole enterprise has to be listening, measuring and adapting to user needs.

A full suite of marketing tools is not required to improve your targeting of potential subscribers. But significant efficiencies are gained as your data is centralized.

For example, the systems used during a single website visit might include:

  • Web analytics to track and record visitor behavior on your digital properties.
  • A data management platform (DMP) to capture anonymous profile information about readers, including details of their current visit, preferences and past interactions.
  • A campaign manager to orchestrate cross-channel messaging to consumers utilizing data from your DMP and data warehouse to target and personalize.
  • An A/B testing platform to serve personalized content and test variations of design elements, purchase flows, and messaging to understand which perform better.
  • Web/email/SMS, the various platforms by which we deliver journalism to our audience.

And a typical website visit might proceed like this:

  • A visitor from Facebook lands on a sports story on your website.
  • Their browser has a cookie from a previous visit that contains a unique ID (UID).
  • Your DMP has a profile associated with that UID, which indicates the reader has visited five times in a month and read four local news stories. The profile also contains an email address and indicates the user is subscribed to a breaking news email newsletter.
  • The DMP reports the visitor is now part of an audience segment — “return visitor, potential subscriber.”
  • These details are forwarded to the campaign manager, which instructs your content management system to present the user with a sign-up module for your morning email newsletter and a recommended story list, including local news stories. And the meter on the paywall adjusts to allow an additional “free” page view.
  • Overnight, the DMP forwards the updated profile information to your data warehouse for storage; and an automated email is triggered offering the user a 20 percent discount on a digital subscription.
  • When that visitor subscribes via the email offer, that event updates their profile which now includes details such as: new subscriber; converted from email offer; conversion visit originated from Facebook; last story read before subscription was Sports.

Each of those marketing actions (steps five through seven) are hypothetical, but reflect a range of available options. In practice, your teams would execute a variety of campaigns and techniques and through iterative testing would continuously improve each process in support of business goals.

The value of a data-driven integrated marketing effort like this is in the ability to test, measure and continuously improve performance. Implemented effectively, this approach can provide a better user experience, revenue growth and cost savings.

If you are operating without a full data warehouse or DMP, it is still practical to use some of the same techniques manually. Your normal web analytics provide many of the details needed to identify likely subscribers.

A simple framework you can use to quantify a visitor’s propensity to subscribe is based on just three things: How did they arrive on your site, where are they located and what section did they read?

To create a rudimentary score for a given reader who just landed on your site, add the value from each row below.

How the user arrived: Direct
2 points
Social media
1 point
1 point
Where the user is: Local
2 points
In same state (not local)
1 point
Other state/country
0 points
What content the user is reading: Local news
2 points
Local sports
2 points
0 points

Based on a user’s score from those simple signals, you could serve up different subscription offers, related story recommendations, newsletter sign-up options and advertising.So — a visitor who came to your site directly (+2), lives in-state (but not in town) (+1) and read a news story (+2) gets a total score of 5. On the other hand, an out-of-state visitor who arrives via search on a wire story is scored at 1. This is far from analytically sophisticated, but it is based on behaviors known across the industry, that local people reading local content by coming directly to the site are most likely to subscribe.

As your targeting grows more sophisticated, requiring tracking behavior across multiple visits, more advanced tools will be needed. But that eventual need should not stop efforts to convert more readers with the tools you already have. And the use and testing of basic propensity scoring will help inform your later technical and staffing decisions.

Marketing terms to know:

Automated Marketing: The algorithmic triggering of pre-set tactics based on an individual visitor’s behavior on your website. Typically designed to drive on-site engagement, or to follow-up via email with potential subscribers.

Audience Segment: A portion of your overall digital visitors that is identified in the data as having similar properties for the purpose of editorial personalization or targeting of marketing campaigns.

A/B Testing: A statistically rigorous experiment where two or more audience segments are served different elements on a web page to understand if one element supports business goals more effectively.

CRM (Customer Relationship Management): A system to track all contact with customers. Often used in advertising and sales departments, but now also used to track reader behaviors, including web visits, subscriptions and customer service calls in order to understand and serve audience needs.

DMP (Data Management Platform): A system to create audience segments for targeting on internal or external platforms. It include profiles of visitors in a segment, but not personally identifiable information. Also used in the creation of segmented audiences for targeting of advertising.

Enterprise Data: Information available and utilized across an organization, as distinct from being confined to a specific department or team.

ESP (Email Marketing Service Provider): Your email vendor. Examples: Adobe Campaign, MailChimp, Cheetah Digital, Constant Contact, Marketo.

Funnel: A description of the purchasing process for a consumer. Typically covers the steps from “awareness” of a product and ends with “taking action” to purchase it.

Propensity to Subscribe: A score calculated using various metrics to predict the likelihood that a specific visitor will pay for access. The score informs the offers presented to that visitor.

SSO (Single Sign-On): An authentication system that allows registered users to access multiple different systems with one account. For example, a social media account may be used to provide paywall access, commenting and email newsletter sign-up.

Tag Manager: A tool to organize and publish javascript and HTML code on a website for analytics or tracking. This allows non-technical oversight of on-page tags, but still requires strict governance.

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