September 19, 2023

Do Media Companies Need to Feel More Like a Community?

I hope you had a great weekend. With the weather officially changed here in NYC, I really cannot complain. I have a couple of quick notes before we jump into the beef of the newsletter.

First, tickets to the AMO Summit increase in price next Tuesday. They’re going up $500 per ticket. If you want to attend, register today.

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Media can’t just push information anymore

I often ask myself why newsletters have become so in vogue these past few years despite the technology having existed for decades. Yes, the Morning Brew team (disclaimer: I work there) and The Hustle both showed tremendous success in an era when many other media companies were floundering. The rise of Substack and Beehiiv certainly have contributed with the ease of publishing.

But it can’t just be that. The answer I come back to time and again is that, by and large, these newsletter companies unlocked the potential for the audience to feel part of the experience. One of the marks of a very successful newsletter is the response rate. How many people hit reply? Even more, how many people notice when your email hasn’t hit their inbox? A couple of weeks ago, we mistakingly had an error where no one received the Morning Brew newsletter. People emailed us asking for “their Brew.”

And I think, when it comes down to it, the fact that the audience feels as if their voice is being heard gives them a feeling of connection with the newsletter. Unfortunately, many legacy media companies don’t do this with their newsletters. It’s very much a one-way road. The newsletter is thought of as just another means of distributing content rather than a way to hear from the audience.

The reality is, people want to feel a connection. And data shows this across two different stories. First, we have a survey conducted by BlueLena, which asked 7,500 news readers about supporting newsrooms. The findings are interesting.

What do readers value? The top answers are “being connected with like-minded people,” “feeling that your concerns are heard by the organization” and “offering the world something you think should exist.” In other words, readers want the connection that comes with knowing there are people like them interested in the same topics (and they may be interested in events or other ways to get in touch with fellow readers). They want good customer service and confirmation that the story ideas or issues they voice are heard. And readers find value in supporting an organization whose mission they believe in. 

Other high ranking answers included “a sense of affiliation or belonging” and “ability to interact with those who work within the organization.”

But it doesn’t stop there. A study was conducted to determine what would happen if readers had a say in the stories that local news outlets wrote. Nieman Lab wrote up a good summary of the report and the findings are interesting:

The most economically promising finding for newsrooms interested in experimenting with engaged journalism: This intervention increased new subscriptions, with “an increase of 1.75 new subscriptions each day for intervention news sites compared with the control sites, all else equal.” That increase is significant relative to the daily average of 2.27 new subscriptions (though the authors noted that there was “considerable variation in subscription rates” so that number didn’t necessarily apply to individual sites). This finding suggested to the researchers that “by providing a service that answers questions posed by audience members, audiences are more likely to reciprocate through subscriptions.”

The intervention also seemed to affect audiences’ perception of and relationship with the newsrooms. Following the intervention, survey respondents “rated their news efficacy higher…found the news site more responsive…and felt that the news site was more engaged in the community,” affirming the researchers’ hypotheses. In other words, after a sustained engaged journalism initiative, “audience members had more favorable perceptions of the newspaper and a stronger sense of the news sites’ role in the infrastructure of their community.”

The audience was more likely to subscribe if they felt that their questions were being answered. In other words, the publication wasn’t just pushing content to the reader, but actually responding to things that the reader cared about.

There’s a common mantra on Twitter that “people like to read people, not brands.” And I think that’s true, but it doesn’t mean that the future of media has to be all individual creators. Instead, we should be looking at ways to welcome the audience into our ecosystem and treat it like a two-way road versus just a means of pushing content. That means seeking out responses to our emails, engaging on social media, and interacting at in-person events.

And this brings us back to newsletters. I find that this is the most straightforward way to get people engaging with us. A simple solution could be the creation of a once-weekly email that goes out from the editor or a different reporter each week that talks about a hot topic at that moment. The most important KPI should be email responses. Ask people what they think. Ask what is missing in the piece. Get people to hit reply. And then reply back. Yes it takes time, but doing the things that don’t scale is how you build a long-term, loyal audience.

As we move into a world where the reader comes first over search and social algorithms, making sure that the audience feels a sense of connection with the publication is going to become more important than ever before. There’s no reason to not lean into building that connection.

Hit reply and tell me what you’re doing with your publications to build this sense of community.

Are subs for podcasts a good business?

In the never-ending quest to grow subscriptions, various media companies have experimented with podcast subscriptions. The latest is The Economist. According to Axios:

The Economist plans to introduce a new subscription tier this Thursday called Economist Podcasts+ for $4.90 monthly, the Economist president Bob Cohn told Axios.

Subscribers will be able to sign up for the new paid podcast tier on the Economist’s website or app. Listeners to the Economist’s podcasts on external apps, like Apple Podcasts or Spotify, will be guided back to the Economist’s site to register for a subscription.

Then Digiday came out with a story about Substack writers launching their own premium podcasts.

Monetizing their podcasts through subscriptions means that independent writers don’t have to worry about the ups and downs of the advertising market or ensure that their content is considered brand safe, four Substack writers told Digiday. Podcasts can also serve as a marketing tool for their Substack subscription business.

The weekly “Burnt Toast” podcast now has an average of around 8,000-10,000 downloads per episode. The newsletter has nearly 40,000 sign-ups, 10% of which are paid, said Sole-Smith, and on average, 10 listeners of each podcast episode convert to paid subscribers.

And so, we’ve got a number of use cases where individuals and major publications are looking to make subscription money from their podcasts. I think the question to ask is, “will it actually matter?”

To some extent, it will. In the case of Burnt Toast, being able to convert 10% of the listening audience into a paid subscription is really quite good. But I think what we’re seeing here is less a phenomenon of paid podcasts working and more the fact that having email as a distribution engine is so powerful. Because Virginia Sole-Smith, the founder of Burnt Toast, can hit send every time a new episode goes up, the audience is naturally larger and, therefore, more people have a chance to subscribe.

On the other hand, this forces the user into an ecosystem they might not want to be in. I use Apple Podcasts. I don’t want to use anything else. As far as I can tell, if I want to listen to full episodes of The Economist podcasts, I’ll need to do so on The Economist’s website or app. And while Apple Podcasts does have a subscription feature to charge listeners, all signs point to it being a subscription that exists on its owned & operated.

If that’s the case, it means that The Economist is going to have to encourage users to overcome their natural inclination to open whatever their main podcast player of choice is. I don’t see that becoming a reality. There is, of course, a way around this. The Economist could share the private RSS URL for the podcast and then the user can upload that into Apple Podcasts. The issue is, if the user churns, I don’t believe The Economist will be able to revoke that URL.

UPDATE: A reader reached out and told me that there is the ability to create a user-specific feed. That means that if someone subscribes, The Economist would give them a unique RSS feed. If that subscription then cancels, that unique RSS feed would no longer receive episodes. This changes my perception of this considerably because it’s not forcing the user outside of their desired ecosystem. Very interesting.

This differs from paid newsletters, where the user can live in their respective inbox, and the publication controls which lists to send to. I’m not forcing anyone to use the AMO specific App or email to read this content. It’s what gives email an advantage.

We’ll have to wait and see how this plays out, but I am not bullish on forcing users to aggressively change their behavior. For years, they’ve been able to listen to their podcasts on Apple, Spotify, Google Podcasts, etc. Going to publication-specific apps to listen seems like a lot of friction. It’s a nice idea in theory, but in practice, I suspect it doesn’t work.

Thanks so much for reading. Like I said above, if you have thoughts, hit reply. Or become an AMO Pro member for an invitation to the private Slack community where we can talk about this story and others.

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Have a great week and see you next week!