Editor’s note: This article was originally published as part of a Folio: Special Report on the state of data in publishing, but we have decided to open it up to a wider audience by publishing it below. To view the full report, click the link at the bottom.
The rise of big data—and the ability to collect, analyze and use it—has transformed industries from finance and healthcare to retail and logistics, and publishing is no exception. While publishers have always used data in some form, recent years have seen it emerge as an integral component to nearly every aspect of the media business.
While demographic data on readers still matters, the insights available now are far richer, containing information on the preferences and behavior of groups of readers as well. However, every publisher has their own way of collecting, organizing and monetizing data as a product.
“In our shift from a more linear acquisition and retention model to a relationship model where the customer is at the center, data and insights about our customers is critical,” says Nicole McGuire, SVP of consumer marketing at hobbyist magazine publisher Kalmbach Media. “By collecting data and insights about our customers, both purchase and behavior, marketers are better able to deliver relevant messaging to customers and inform content decisions.”
Across the board, publishers share the belief that the future of their businesses will rely on evolving these products. There’s a growing understanding that companies can use data to create a more personalized (and valuable) experience for their readers across all platforms. For years, publishers have been touting the importance of delivering a “user-first” experience, and data is now giving them the tools to actually deliver it.
That understanding doesn’t always translate into investments. As recently as 2017, more than two-thirds (69%) of publishers surveyed by Folio: said that their company didn’t have an internal, unified database solution. Among those, fewer than half even had plans to build one.
Still, both consumer-facing publishers and B2B media have started to recognize on a widespread level the value of the first-party data they collect from their readers and all of the sophisticated ways that they can utilize it. When used properly, first-party data can offer insight and value beyond what programmatic platforms yield.
In 2014, Meredith centralized its data and research teams, which has given the largest magazine publisher in the U.S. the ability to scale insights faster and integrate data more efficiently, says chief marketing and data officer Alysia Borsa.
“We directly monetize our data through audience targeting and programmatic digital revenue,” Borsa says. “But data and insights have also become a core part of driving major advertising partnerships. And, ultimately, the more we understand our consumers, the more we can drive high-engaging content and experiences, that will drive direct and indirect revenue.”
While publishers have found plenty of ways to use reader data internally, part of the push toward data reflects demand from advertisers. On the print side, magazines are increasingly using data to prove their value, giving advertisers hard numbers that show ROI and how print can help advertisers hit their marketing goals. On the digital side, advertisers expect even more. They want the data—and they want to know what that data means.
“Data and insights are playing a larger role in our advertising partnerships,” Borsa says. “Audience targeting has become mainstream and, obviously, critical for programmatic; however, we are also using our insights to inform creative messaging and even help clients develop new product ideas.”
A Changing Approach to Content
The rise of social media and other forms of content distribution make it vastly more important that publishers deliver the most relevant content, every time. When they misfire, the reader will simply click elsewhere, and have less incentive to return. High-quality content remains the key to keeping readers interested, but it has to be content that’s uniquely relevant to a specific reader.
The metrics that publishers look at when evaluating their content are starting to shift. While the focus may have previously been solely on the number of page views or unique visitors, now publishers are starting to dive deeper into the data, with a focus on more qualitative measures, such as how long readers spend with a specific piece of content, or how they might behave after reading it.
Artificial intelligence doesn’t replace the editors who decide what type of content to offer, but it can help them make smarter decisions more quickly. By delivering exactly what the audience wants—on an individual level, publishers are able to make their content more valuable to those readers, and potentially even convert non-subscribers into paying subscribers on either a one-time or ongoing basis.
“On the content side, site audits and analytics are helping to drive more deliberate digital content planning with a better understanding of what kinds of content drive audience, engagement and ultimately conversion,” McGuire says.
That data becomes more useful when publishers broaden their understanding beyond one channel, and recognize how the same end user is interacting with site content, as well as email newsletters, social media and even the print magazines. Aggregating that information to develop a user profile allows for more personalization across channels.
For B2B publications, which typically already have an extremely niche audience, data creates an opportunity to create an even more unique and useful experience and specifically targeted services.
“We collect data with the sole intent of serving our audiences more relevant content based on what they’re already doing with us,” says Sarah Welcome, EVP of digital and data operations for Hanley Wood. “People are busy, so the more relevant you can make their content—whether that’s on site or via email or at an event—the more engaged your audience is going to be.”
Hanley Wood often uses reader location and behavior data to promote attendance of live regional events. If a reader downloaded a paper or watched a video on a specific topic and lives in an area where a related event will take place, the company will make sure the reader is invited and receives promotional materials via emails, sites, or phone calls.
“Without the data, we might have to market 20 times more than we do in order to get the event registrations,” Welcome says. “If you cast too wide a net, there’s a cost, both for the company and the audience. If the audience receives too much information that is not important to them, they may disengage.”
Just as publishers can use data to push appropriate content, they’ve also been able to use it to tailor subscription-marketing messages more appropriately for individual readers.
“If a user is consuming a lot of content about a particular topic, and we have a related newsletter, we are likely to serve them a promotion about subscribing,” Welcome says. “We use the data to better understand their interests, and then make sure they are aware of content and offers related to those interests.”
Kalmbach Media is continually refining its data solution with the goal of figuring out exactly how to target a marketing message to a visitor in a way that will drive conversion. For example, the company might recognize in real-time that a site is due for a magazine subscription renewal, so they’ll send a custom renewal offer, or they’ll notice that they read a lot of content online that might appear in a sister publication and send them a message about subscribing to that publication as well.
“Often there is a journey to conversion,” McGuire says. “Rather than an immediate subscription offer, we may choose to offer a free e-book on a topic the visitor has browsed on one of our sites. With the email captured, there is a triggered welcome series meant to drive conversion.”