Why leading publishers invest more in engagement than acquisition

A recent survey from INMA found that 59% of publishers spend less on engagement than they do on acquisition. This is a staggering number when we see that the most successful publishers are the ones investing more in their engagement strategies—for example Financial Times now spends 3x more on engagement than acquisition. This week we’re looking at why the industry consensus is that publishers should invest 3-10x more on engagement than acquisition, and how you can improve your engagement.

And note, engagement is key in the beginning of your relationships with a reader: a habit is formed in the first 100 days or not at all. All year we are further exploring habit formation strategies for digital news readers.

Track what actually matters

Gone are the days of simply tracking the number of pageviews, today publishers need to track the actual engagement of their readers. Even tracking the number of subscribers can lead publishers astray if not linked to retention and lifetime value — it can drive profitless acquisition that will soon result in churned readers.

This need for a better metric led The Wall Street Journal’s Carla Zanoni (Editor, Audience and Analytics) to spend six months traveling the world to train every single reporter and editor in the company on their engagement metrics and strategies. Other publishers ensure the engagement strategy is clear to the whole company by having just one ‘North Star metric’ — for Financial Times, they use an engagement score based on the mix of recency + frequency + volume.

Don’t look at 25 metrics. Figure out where you need to focus and highlight that metric everywhere. Put it in e-mails, talk about it in meetings. In many news organisations, there are so many numbers floating around, nobody knows how to make decisions based on them.

Matt Skibinski, advisor for The Lenfest Institute for Journalism

Do more with email

Compared to last year, more publishers are realising how important newsletters are to their digital strategy, but there is still room to grow. For publishers who are not convinced of the importance of email yet, some quick stats:

  • The New Yorker found that the top sign a reader will become a paid subscriber is if they are a newsletter subscriber
  • The Times and The Sunday Times are investing in hyper-personalisation email technology called “JAMES, Your Digital Butler”, a collaboration with our team
  • Les Echos found that readers reached via email are more loyal than those who come via social media or search
  • The New York Times found that newsletter subscribers are twice as likely to become paid subscribers

One reason email is so important to engagement strategies is the relationship it helps to build between publishers and readers. Publishers can further develop the relationship through pop-up newsletters, focused on exploring additional interests readers have. This is a strategy that has been successful at The New York Times, with pop-up newsletters such as “Game of Thrones” and “Summer in the City”. Elisabeth Goodridge, who led these newsletter initiatives recently shared her secret ingredients for email success:

  • Targeted audience: know exactly who you are writing for (and who you aren’t writing for)
  • Expert writer: a newsletter writer needs to be passionate about both the topic they are writing on and the product itself, ensuring it’s serving the needs of the audience
  • Clear, conversational voice: emails are a very personal medium, arriving directly in the reader’s inbox, so the mail itself needs to be personal with a chatty tone

Of course, there are more opportunities to build relationships with readers via email than just newsletters. Don’t overlook the onboarding email that is sent to new subscribers, experiment with what works best to engage new readers. Email can also be used to prevent or counter churn, something The Globe and Mail is doing well. They found that emailing subscribers with the highest propensity to churn reduced churn by 140%, while emailing subscribers who haven’t logged in for 30 days helps to reduce churn by 27%.

Listen to your readers

Last year we identified the key rules for a successful digital news product, one of which was to develop around your audience. That means you first must listen to your readers, in order to understand their digital news consumption behaviour. While a good first step is to understand general reading behaviours, there will be differences within your own audience. Our latest report, in which we survey 4,000 digital news consumers, is a good starting point.

Minnesotan newspaper Star Tribune, which has been often highlighted as a successful local publisher in the US, knows the importance of this lesson. To better serve their readers, they compared when they were publishing their stories versus when readers were actually consuming the stories.

One of the most amazing charts that we put together was: when are we posting stories and when are people coming to our site. We graphed these two against each other, and they are not at all synced up.

Suki Dardarian, Senior Managing Editor and VP at the Star Tribune

USA Today also learned this lesson when they looked at the bottom half of content that was not performing well and saw that only 6% of their audience was reading this content. They took the initiative to stop doing what readers don’t actually want, and to focus instead on what helps foster engagement and loyalty.

We could eliminate half of our journalism and our traffic really wouldn’t change — if we replaced it with nothing. What if we replaced that with content readers really wanted?

Josh Awtry, senior director for news strategy at USA Today Network

Now, the company is producing less content (2.7% less monthly), while article pageviews have actually gone up because they are able to better allocate their resources for content that engages their readers. We see this as well with the rise of “slow news” movements such as Tortoise Media and De Correspondent.

This article was written by Mary-Katharine Phillips, Media Innovation Analyst at Twipe from 2017 – 2021.


Team Twipe

Get insights on Digital Publishing direct in your inbox

Subscribe to Twipe’s weekly newsletter and receive insights, inspiring content and event invitations directly in your inbox!

Subscribe to our Future of News newsletter