The pivot from traffic to audience: How early adopters lead change

Publishers

Gil Bar-Tur
5 min read

This article first appeared on Digiday

 

Across every industry, data is changing the way we work — and the publishing industry is no exception. Audience data, such as user engagement and visit value, has invaded online publishing and is forcing publishers away from old tactics towards adopting new revenue-growing strategies. Publishers must adapt at incredible speeds to maintain their position atop the food chain, or else risk losing their standing.

Here we will focus on positions that rose from the crowd into industry leaders of change, featuring key advice from Jim Thompson, former chief audience officer at Billboard.

The creation and development of data roles

In talking to Jim Thompson he shared one of his key learnings was that publishers should “not be data directed, but data supported. Data is a powerful tool to help inform decisions, but it’s not an instruction manual.” Data is used to resolve companies’ inability to figure out occurrences; it’s the reason that numerous departments and roles have been created to manage that data and its potential.

Last year the industry made a “pivot-to-paid” with the push of digital subscriptions; this caused new positions to spring into existence and fulfill the need for niche expertise. Last October, for example, The New York Times had the foresight to invest in a specialized team to manage subscriptions. Clay Fisher was appointed as SVP of consumer revenue to oversee the retention team, a dedicated team of engineers and marketers devoted to growing reader revenue. Numerous other publications have followed suit by investing in specialized consumer revenue departments to turn loyal readers into paid subscribers.

The publishing world has also seen the demand for product managers skyrocket. The creation of the chief product officer (CPO), the voice of product in the C-suite, shows that the industry is adapting and placing a high value on this department — investing heavily in its creation and development. While predominantly this departments’ focus on evaluating and developing new opportunities in the market, from website and app product launches to testing out new revenue streams, recently, large portions of product teams resources have been going into personalization – recognizing publishers’ need to use data to make audience specific decisions.

Nevertheless, the rise of the CPO position requires tremendous investments in building the right technology and in conjunction, changing the structure of the company to support it; these efforts rarely come to fruition and if they do, can sometimes end as low quality adaptations.

A similar transformation can be seen in the revenue department with the rise of the chief revenue officer; this role emphasizes the need for revenue measurement and monitoring on the publishing end. CROs often search their external networks for technological solutions, which can be a long and tedious process with no guarantees.

Today, both revenue and product departments rely on audience development insights for their success, therefore the chief audience officer position was created to head audience development efforts.

Audience development teams layer commonly used traffic data with audience insights in order to understand data as more than just numbers. Publishers with specialized audience development teams understand the department’s impact on core business KPIs and ultimately how their efforts affect the company’s bottom line.

Why early adopters lead change

The audience-first method provides deeper insights into the people reading your content, their age, gender, and location, do’s and don’ts, likes and dislikes; ultimately, the information is utilized to forecast and develop specific content. Both the buy-side and sell-side have found value in this approach since advertisers are willing to pay higher CPMs to publishers who use data to cherry pick ad delivery to the most suitable audience.

Audience development departments, with the right talent and tools, allow publishers to curate the best pieces of content, mapping and scaling it, and monitoring the performance of each audience segment. By slicing and dicing the data, you get a holistic view of your audience and an understanding of how each piece of content generated different revenues from different audiences, creating scale.

Jim Thompson became chief audience officer at Billboard in 2017, where he oversaw the audience development team staffed by SEO, analytics, and social marketing, plus the editorial, social and video teams. Thompson believes that “whether you’re a publisher or a brand or an agency, you have specific audience segments you are trying to reach and grow. The ability to understand them, forecast them and create content that is of value to them is audience development.”

As one of the first C-level execs to define audience as their main KPI, Thompson and his teams were able to achieve significant results: five consecutive years of audience growth at Billboard- including 261 percent US comScore audience growth and a 153 percent increase in search visits.

Gaining an advantage

Many publishing companies are missing the proper opportunities for revenue and profit, ultimately underperforming business goals. Thompson’s advice is to first “really understand what value your company provides that defines your organization.” Once publishers and audience development teams have defined their paths, they can collect the relevant data that informs that mission, analyze it, draw insights from it and act upon them.” However, there is still one missing piece to the puzzle — having the right tool to manage these efforts.

Audience development “is a pretty wide scope and could cover anything from paid to earned to owned.” With such a wide net of possibility in the audience development field, it’s key to understand which analytics helps maximize profit and potential.

To successfully grow and scale an audience, publishers must be able to monitor and manage their campaigns on a unified dashboard with all relevant data sources integrated; only then can the unique value of each visit be analyzed into real-time actionable insights.

This kind of technology will eventually grant the C-suite decision makers a methodical way to steer the wheels of the organization to sustainability in our dynamic industry.

Gil Bar-Tur
Online publishing enthusiast, UX geek, and data science nerd. Combining all three of these brought Gil to start PubPlus: a platform allowing publishers to deep-dive into specific segments of information and extract insights in order to take action in real-time. He is also a self-confessed foodie with years of experience in restaurant selection.