A mantra of this column for the past two years has been the need for news organizations to develop deeper knowledge of, respect for and engagement with readers. It’s the key to building and retaining a loyal audience in an environment where information sources are numerous, and social platforms and search bypass brands. And, of course, it’s also the key to the great shift toward reader revenue that most media companies are trying to make this year.
That starts with a mindset change: Designing websites and mobile sites with the experience of readers prioritized over intrusive ad formats or tactics designed for a short-term windfall. Building trust through more transparency about both your journalism and your business practices. Finding out more about who your readers are and what they care about. Actually listen to readers’ feedback (even if, maybe especially if, it’s angry), and actually respond to questions.
But we should also be asking what technology should exist to aid in this shift.
Customer relationship management software is essential to advertising sales. If reader revenue is just as important, and the base of customers and what we ask from them far more complex, why don’t we have a CRM for readers?
Of course, there are some sophisticated platforms out there for driving, managing and encouraging renewal of digital subscriptions. But the decision to subscribe or become a voluntary paid member of a news organization is not a simple transaction in which readers need a product and pay for it. If readers don’t need the product, what gets them to pay? They’ll subscribe or become a member if they have an affinity for your brand, if they trust you, if they have an active relationship with your organization.
A reader CRM could include subscription or membership information, of course. But also every touch point that could move non-subscribers into that category: Data from newsletter subscriptions, open rates and click-throughs. Story commenting statistics, and depending on the sophistication of what you use for that platform, how trusted they are by fellow commenters. Record of attendance at events sponsored by the news organization. E-commerce purchases.
Taken further, you could ask your most engaged readers to voluntarily provide demographic information and tell you what topics they’re most passionate about. Send them a tote bag in exchange for their time and information, or the chance to win concert tickets.
To really be successful, don’t limit the reader CRM to a revenue-side only or newsroom-side only endeavor. News organizations must cooperate across those lines if reader revenue is going to replace advertising. They’ve already been in a position of needing to cooperate as advertising revenue has shifted to sponsored content and native advertising that’s blurred the lines.
An editor committed to involving readers in every step of the process of local journalism might use such a CRM to track people who’ve contributed information or quotes for news stories, and note which readers have helpfully pointed out errors in stories, building a database of sources and fact checkers on particular topics.
A publisher looking to diversify revenue could use a robust reader CRM to bring casual readers up the ladder of engagement to eventually become paying subscribers or members.
It could be used to launch or grow an events business—providing a targeted invitee list of readers who are engaged in a particular topic or in general with your organization or local issues.
It could be used to launch new products—targeted podcasts or newsletters, for example—or to push e-commerce sales.
And at the end of the day, more sophisticated knowledge of your readers could help restore some of the advertising revenue you’re trying to replace. It’s a powerful thing to bring to advertising clients.
There are obvious questions about whether some components of a reader CRM suggested here are scalable. It would require a major commitment and some degree of manual work to maintain.
But you’d have to generate millions of pageviews to get the digital ad revenue equivalent of signing up a single subscriber or member who will support you for years. Those supporters will be won over with some degree of individual attention. We’ve got to start building the technology to support that effort.
Matt DeRienzo is executive director of LION Publishers, an organization that supports local independent online news publishers from across the country. He is a longtime former newspaper reporter, editor, publisher and corporate director of news.