Creating audience leadership at Morris

It used to be so simple. Now it’s so complicated.

The days are gone when hiring a few reporters and editors and reporting the news of your town virtually guaranteed you healthy advertising revenues and a handsomely profitable business.

Back then, we didn’t talk about “content” or “audience.” We just reported the news, and people showed up in droves to get it. Businesses paid us to put their ads alongside the news, and people paid us to print their “car for sale” ads somewhere in the back section. And we enjoyed profit margins that other businesses could barely imagine.

It was nice.

These days, it’s not so nice. We’re still doing the news, and people are still showing up in pretty good numbers to get it, but not like before. Businesses are still paying us to put their ads next to the news, but not as much as before. And we’re not getting nearly as many of those “car for sale” ads as we once did.

And, as a result, our businesses have shrunk by almost half.

At Morris Publishing Group, where I work, I had a minor epiphany in late 2010. I began to think about Morris  as an audience company, where the ability to generate revenues and profits stemmed entirely from the size and character of the audiences we reached. And it was obvious that the audience model that had made us so successful in the past was no longer working well enough.

In that light, I asked myself who was responsible for managing our audience model.

Uh-oh … nobody.

We had lots of people working hard every day on news and other types of content. We had a corporate VP of Journalism, and we had lots of editors. But no one came to work every day thinking specifically about audiences, with questions like, “How can we grow our audiences? Are we reaching the right audiences? What audiences do our advertisers need to reach? What new audience opportunities could we develop in our market(s)?” It wasn’t the editor’s job, and it wasn’t the VP of sales’ job. It was nobody’s job. And that’s still true at most newspaper companies.

At that point, we began to talk about the need to create true audience leadership in the company. We saw that, as audience behavior patterns shifted radically in the digital age, we would fall farther and farther behind if we didn’t figure out new solutions for attracting and delivering the right audiences.

Then, when we compiled the Hitwise pie chart I mentioned in a previous entry, it hit us like a 10-pound sledge: We didn’t have nearly enough audience to be competitive. We began to talk about trying to multiply our audiences by a factor of five over the next three years. Not because we think it’s possible, but because we know it’s necessary if we’re going to be competitive in our markets.

We built the audience challenge into our strategic plans, we defined a new corporate VP of audience position (job description), and about a year ago, we hired Bob Gilbert from our own Morris Digital Works division to fill it. Bob swung into the role as if he’d been born for it, bringing expansive thinking about audience potential into our corporate conversations and working with all of our units to do the same.

By design, Bob is in conversations that go well beyond news. If the subject relates to audiences, he’s there — and the number and kinds of conversations that relate to audiences are much larger than you might think.

If only our industry had been thinking this way 10 or 15 years ago, maybe we could have headed off the massive loss of classified. Back then, we thought of auto, employment and real estate as sales categories, not audiences. If it had been someone’s job to figure out what audiences wanted in these categories, maybe they wouldn’t have leaked away so fast to Craigslist, Autotrader.com, Monster.com, Zillow.com and many others.

Bob also began holding bi-weekly discussions with our editors, putting new focus on our ambitious audience goals and soliciting discussion on how to meet them. And, with Bob’s leadership, we developed a new, comprehensive audience dashboard that is compiled and shared with our business units every month.

In the attachment (August dashboard sample), the first sheet is the rollup of all 12 Morris markets, the second is the explanatory key, and Augusta is included as an example of the dashboard we create for each unit. Since Bob introduced this dashboard early this year, we’ve seen steady and sizable gains in most of the key metrics.

The next step was adding audience leadership at the unit level. We brought the publishers into the audience dialogue and developed a market-level VP of Audience job description derived from the corporate model.

To illustrate the broad scope of the position — and his own — Bob worked up a diagram (Audience organization) representing the functions that needed to be directed by or available to the VP of Audience. In effect, it’s part of the job description. Not all the functions necessarily report to the VP at every unit, but the newsroom and its functions always do.

Once we posted the positions, it wasn’t easy finding qualified candidates. Most applicants came from newsroom backgrounds, but that isn’t necessarily the best kind of preparation. In some ways, it can be a handicap.

The ideal candidate would have had past responsibility for actual audience creation, engagement and growth, rather than just for content. And he or she would have been involved previously in deploying marketing programs to grow audiences and in developing business models to monetize them. Today, that’s what we need, but few editors have that kind of experience. One of our best applicants, for example, had no newsroom experience but had been responsible for audience development and monetization models at a national weather web site.

It took months, but we got the positions filled with some very good people. And now Bob is holding bi-weekly conference calls with our VPs of audience, too. They’re working not only on growing news audiences, but on expanding our non-news audiences and creating new ones.

Lately, too, we’re trying to figure out how we, as an audience company, can make smart use of the massive amounts of audience data available through our digital targeting partner. We believe the same data they use to target digital advertising to the right people can also enable our audience leaders to see what kinds of content and offerings would resonate with our local audiences. And we think we can create new activities on our sites that would enrich that data still further.

It’s a whole new audience game now, because digital ad platforms and exchanges can target ads to people in our markets through virtually any web site. Just having the most traffic of any local site isn’t enough; we need to compete with the likes of Facebook, Google, Yahoo and  YouTube.

For us at Morris, this is very much a work in progress. But we feel that we’re much better equipped for it, now that we have people reporting to work every day whose mission is to build the audiences and the monetization strategies we need.

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Posted on September 30, 2012, in Audience, Disruption. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

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