As reader behaviors shift, so must publishers. Practices that seemed avant-garde just a couple of years ago now amount to basic expectations, much like basic hygiene: factors that readers increasingly take for granted, but if a publisher gets them wrong, they'll turn their nose and recoil to another source of content.
Allison Mezzafonte, a former media executive and now media industry advisor at Sailthru, shares key practices for publishers looking to stay relevant and profitable in the months and years ahead.
Practice radical transparency
Following two years of uncertainty in everything from public health to politics to the economy, consumers are craving trust and transparency. Media companies have an opportunity for disclosure that leads to a trusted bond with the consumer. "Media companies should make sure readers understand the nuts and bolts of how they operate: everything from disclosures about affiliate revenue to fact-checking," Mezzafonte noted.
Verywell, a health information publisher with 38.5 million monthly unique visitors, does this well, requiring that all its medical content be reviewed and approved by a medical expert before it's published. Under each byline, readers can see which doctor has reviewed the content and access their LinkedIn profile. "It adds a layer of credibility that readers expect more and more," Mezzafonte said.
On the affiliate side — think Wirecutter or any site that publishes product roundups — you'll see required disclosures that the publisher might earn a commission on products. And most importantly, readers should understand what data publishers collect and what they do with it. "If readers don't understand how you'll handle their information, they'll be quick to opt out," Mezzafonte cautioned.
Treat readers like customers
Putting customers first is hardly a new concept, but the common phrase can and should be brought front and center for all media companies. In the months ahead, a made-for-me, smooth-as-butter customer experience will be essential for monetizing audiences.
When it comes to creating this experience, media companies can learn from retailers. "For the most part, publishers don't treat readers like customers," Mezzafonte explained: "If you think of readers as customers, it changes things. What would you expect if you were a shopper? What touchpoints can help bolster rapport? How can you make it a seamless experience?"
A customer-first mindset would give readers options for how they want to consume content — audio, video or print, for example. It also lets them choose how to receive communications: SMS, email, push notifications.
Commerce completes that loop. If you're going to present an idea, it's important to follow through and show your audience where they can buy something, much like you see with social media shopping. This is nothing new, but oftentimes competitors are getting better at removing friction from content consumption and purchases.
In all, consumers have become spoiled, in a good way, Mezzafonte said: "We all want choices. If you don't offer choices as a publisher, you'll likely lose some of your audience."
Consider your customer's lifetime value
Back to the commerce example, publishers should think carefully about their value exchange with readers. What are you offering that will compel a consumer to engage with your brand and take action of any kind? You've got to prove your worth before readers will buy, click, share or subscribe.
And if that doesn't happen? In the short term, publishers risk falling behind competitors as readers turn elsewhere for content. Long-term, there’s the issue of loyalty. "Historically, customer lifetime value wasn't as critical to publishers because you were monetizing readers in the moment with ad impressions," Mezzafonte explained. Much of that is changing as publishers diversify revenue streams. Without a focus on the reader's lifecycle, it will be tough to meet expectations and keep loyalists on board.
Fuel experiences with data
As third-party cookies crumble and privacy mechanisms tighten, publishers' capture of first and zero-party data — that is, straight from readers — will be key to driving engagement, which fuels everything else. Years ago, email got bumped to the back of the line when social media became the big player in search. Now, with privacy issues looming, direct access to a reader's inbox is extremely valuable.
With that in mind, The Associated Press came to Sailthru with a challenge: the media powerhouse wanted an improved email newsletter experience that could be scaled and didn't take as long to create. At the same time, The AP wanted to capture first-party data points to drive personalization, reader engagement and revenue. This triple focus on email, data-driven personalization and AI-powered automations (plus great content, of course) enabled the publisher to grow its newsletter subscriber base from 150,000 to more than 750,000 in a few months, with a resulting website traffic jump from 15,000 to 165,000 per day.
The first step to transformative results like the ones The AP is tapping into? Take the solutions you own today, like email, and use them to begin capturing user data.
Building next-level capabilities
There's no need to "go it alone" to operate like a next-level media company. In many instances it's unrealistic to think you could build these capabilities yourself, Mezzafonte explained. Instead, lean on existing technology partners.
"What I've observed with many media companies that seek our help at Sailthru is that often you're so close to the challenge, you don't see solutions or opportunities that might be right in front of you," she said. Your technology partners can help illuminate integrations and plug-and-play solutions that have solved the same challenges for many of your peers.
As we step into 2022, McKinsey researchers predict leading companies across all industries will prioritize hyper-personalized care, with the "care of one" being the new standard by 2025. Astute publishers will get there before competitors do — and reap the rewards.