Unexpected ways publishers engage readers

When news publishers today think about their digital strategy, it’s clear they need to focus on apps, newsletters, and social. But some innovative publishers have found success with other platforms, such as conference calls, calendars, and WhatsApp. While the best practices for these platforms all differ, they succeed because they tap into basic desires of readers: to feel part of a community, to understand the utility of news, and to find time to build news into their daily routine.

Building community with conference calls

We all know audio is seeing a resurgence in news media, with publishers experimenting with podcasts and daily briefings on smart speakers. The New York Times is taking it even further, with their “participatory podcasts“, aka conference calls. They’ve experimented with a subscriber-only conference call for their runaway hit podcast “Caliphate” which featured foreign correspondent Rukmini Callimachi’s reporting on the Islamic State. Other conference calls have focused on Game of Thrones or the opioid crisis, with each call featuring relevant members from The Times’ team.

These calls have been successful in drawing in usually several hundred subscribers, with a broad mix of demographics — including international subscribers. The Times could easily just release these conversations as podcasts but that would miss out on the community-building aspect. By being live, and taking listener questions, these calls foster a sense among subscribers that they are part of something bigger than themselves. This is one of the reasons more and more media organisations have been trialing membership programs; it helps to increase retention as well.

Other publishers such as The Atlantic and The Information have also experimented with conference calls. Publishers wanting to add the community-feeling to their audio strategy can also follow the model of Radio Ambulante, which has had success with their podcast listening clubs. Earlier this year the team piloted listening clubs, which usually saw 15-20 people show up for a two hour session where they’d listen to an episode and discuss Radio Ambulante-provided talking points. With early results showing 91% of participants felt they were communicating with the club in more powerful and efficient ways than on social media, the team then launched the listening clubs for a wider audience in the summer. Now anyone can follow Radio Ambulante’s guidelines to set up their own independent listening club in their community

Highlighting the utility of news on calendars

Today readers are often feeling overwhelmed by the sheer amount of news available to them. There’s a growing number of “news avoiders“; in some countries, such as the UK, we have even seen the number of news avoiders grow by 11 percentage points in just two years. Readers report feeling ‘bad’ or ‘stressed’ after reading the news, and struggle to see how the news fits into their own lives.

Some publishers have turned to solutions journalism to combat this, but the Star Tribune took a novel approach. To highlight the utility of their journalism, they created election calendars for readers. In the run-up to the US midterm elections last year, the Star Tribune team created a calendar that notified readers of relevant stories being published and key election dates.

Our print audience … is likely different than our digital audience, which responds to a different tone and may have more need for persistent utility stuff that they can come back to at the right time.

– Chase Davis, Senior Digital Editor at the Star Tribune

While there are a few things the team identified as room for improvement in future iterations, the basic technology for creating the calendar was quite straightforward. The team created a Google Calendar with the relevant info then used a tool to allow it to be imported to other types of calendars such as iOS and Outlook. Going forward, they just needed to update the calendar on Google as they would any other calendar.

Forming habits with WhatsApp

Last week saw more than 150 news media innovators gather in Berlin for the third edition of our Digital Growth Summit, focused on habit-forming news products. One of the case studies that stood out was Project Habit at The Telegraph, presented by director of product Mathias Douchet. Their full transformation to a news organisation focused on increasing reader frequency will be profiled in the forthcoming Reinventing Digital Editions report, sign up to receive the report first.

One of the key results of this project was the development of daily audio briefings sent to listeners via WhatsApp. Aimed at commuters, these low-tech briefings come out at 8 am and 5:30 pm. This is likely an outcome of a very interesting role at The Telegraph focused on ‘commuter editions’. In addition to the two minute audio briefing, the message includes the links to the mentioned articles. This has been very successful in both converting new subscribers and increasing the frequency of existing subscribers. Users of this WhatsApp briefing are 12x more likely to become paid subscribers, and people who read the linked articles end up reading 2x the number of articles than an average reader. This has been so successful because it taps into the most effective way to build habit; that is, being where your readers already are every day. For example many people already have a habit to check their phones during their commute, so this WhatsApp news briefing helps provide something to fill that time.

Still, relying on a tech giant’s platform always comes with a risk. Recently, WhatsApp announced that as of December 7 they would start taking legal action against those who send automated or bulk messaging on its platform. This prompted The Financial Times to close down their WhatsApp messaging group which had been quite successful for them.

In the future, we’re also interested in exploring how some newspapers have found a loyal audience for their digital editions on Kindle and other e-readers. If you have something to contribute to this research, please get in touch.

Mary-Katharine Phillips
Mary-Katharine Phillips
Media innovation analyst @ Twipe
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