Email, Mobile Are Key to Building Reader Loyalty
Digital media has brought a lot of challenges to the publisher’s door. One of the biggest is the challenge to reader loyalty.
In the good old days, most readers had limited choice; sometimes if they didn’t read your newspaper or magazine, they didn’t read. In cities or subject areas where there was a choice, a carefully crafted editorial voice could assure you of the loyalty of at least part of the audience: The part that voted like you or dressed like you or made things the way you said they should be made.
But digital destroyed that sort of brand monogamy. As too many people have too often said, we’re all publishers now and readers have so much choice they are never going to remain faithful to just one information source.
Among all the content options that people have, it’s tough for publishers to maintain a distinct voice. Getting noticed is tougher and getting people to remember to come back regularly is the toughest thing of all. How do you think we ended up with clickbait?
Clickbait Does Not Equal Loyalty
But scamming people with ‘You’ll never believe what happened next’ headlines does nothing to build loyalty. The self-loathing readers feel when they click that link to confirm their suspicions that ABSOLUTELY NOTHING HAPPENED NEXT destroys any trust they ever had in your publication.
As CPMs wither and ad-blocking blooms, publishers have to reconnect with readers to give themselves some options. The relationship may never be as exclusive as it once was, but without some connection there is no hope of developing alternate revenue streams, either from advertising sold around dwell time or from paid content.
This may seem obvious, but the key to building reader relationships is getting people to read regularly.
Anyone who has ever sold software licenses knows how important it is to make sure your customer uses the software they signed up for. If the customer doesn’t use it regularly, you’re toast when it comes to renewal time. The exact same thing is true of information products, but publication marketers don’t spend anywhere near the time developing the relationship as they do selling the subscription.
Growing Loyalty on Mobile
A strong mobile play may have a big part to play in re-establishing regular readership, both through off-platform publishing and owned apps.
Humans are still creatures of habit; it’s just the habits have changed. Where we once picked up a newspaper on our way to work and a magazine once a week on the way home, we’ve shifted our habitual behaviors to our phones.
The app habit can be a powerful one – that’s why being seen in social streams has become so important to publishers.
Facebook’s claims 66% of users check in daily, with American users spending an average of 50 minutes a day on Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger apps. Publishers can only dream of getting that level of engagement independently, but they can maybe claim a share by shifting their content onto the networks.
Reaching Out With Email
But while publishing off-platform may help develop a content consumption habit, it does little for direct relationships. That’s why there has been a resurgence in publisher push efforts, from email newsletters to mobile notifications.
It’s maybe strange to think of old-school emails as a weapon in the 21st Century fight for attention, but time spent with email rose 17% in 2015-2016, with millennials spending more time with email than any other age group, all because of their phones.
Publishers are using email to re-kindle the direct communication they once enjoyed in print. Get anonymous social media audiences to sign up for your email newsletter and you have a shot at taking back control of your relationship.
Once that relationship has been re-established, you can maybe even revisit your own app strategy and start using notifications to spark regular interaction with your content.
Writing about news alerts, Nic Newman of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism said the importance of smartphones and richer notification options, “mean the lockscreen is set to become a new battleground for the attention of mobile users.”
An Ad-Free Future for Publishing?
But with Apple News and Facebook likely to open notifications to platform partners, it’s a fair bet that the alerts space is going to get busy. Maybe then publishers need to get back to basics, building strong communities of interest around their content, focusing on smaller, engaged audiences instead of chasing global scale.
Dutch news website De Correspondent is blazing a trail in this area. Ad free, it relies exclusively on subscription revenues and engages its 50,000-strong audience by inviting them to participate in story research and reporting. In the U.S., The Information has also developed an ad-free model, choosing to focus on serving the narrow content needs of a relatively smaller group of readers that pay $399 a year to subscribe.
In December, The Economist’s digital strategy chief, Tom Standage, predicted display advertising will be gone by 2025. His view is that only publications that can convince readers to pay for content will survive. Even if display does survive it is likely to move to a performance-based measures to beat ad-blocking and fraud.
The bottom line is that volume is giving way to value in publishing, and establishing reader loyalty is going to become more and more important.
Peter Houston runs Flipping Pages Media, an independent consultancy and training firm, helping publishers build multi-platform success. He has run Guardian Masterclasses, spoken at Google’s ThinkPublishing and was formerly Editor-at-large for The Media Briefing. He now co-hosts the Media Voices Podcast, delivering a weekly take on the media news and guest interviews with senior players at a leading media organizations, from Facebook to Nieman Lab, The Economist to CNN.