If there’s one industry at the forefront of digital disruption, it’s media. Changes in how people consume media have driven the digital transformations of the past two decades, and for long-established newspaper brands, they have called for a thorough reappraisal of business models and what they stand for.
At more than 200 years old, The Times is one of the world’s oldest newspapers. Reinventing itself for the digital age means taking a “reader-centric” approach and breaking down internal silos. Last year, owner News UK created two separate business units: one for The Times brands–The Times and its sister title, The Sunday Times; and one for The Sun and The Sun on Sunday brands. It appointed a managing director for each unit and individual CMOs, replacing an overarching chief customer officer role. Marketing and sales director Catherine Newman was promoted to CMO for The Times brands. In conversation with CMO.com recently, she began by outlining her responsibilities.
Newman: I am ultimately responsible for the content revenues overall, as well as acquisition and retention of those casual and then subscription readers, both across print and digital. Within that, we have our reward programmes, the operational core centres and escalations team and everything that comes with that.
The marketing team is responsible for both generating demand for the branded audience activities we do, but also for making sure we monetise those. I have a sales target, a revenue target, and an average revenue per user target. It’s quite similar to FMCG in that respect, although I would argue that we are a genuine FMCG. We have a daily challenge to provide news and meet the news agenda and to maximise the sales as much as we can. If you don’t sell it today, you can’t sell it tomorrow.
CMO.com: How has that changed the marketing function for a publisher?
Newman: It’s very commercially focused and we talk about metrics that lead to revenue and drive copy sales. It’s not volume at any cost; we are very much driven by the average revenue per user number because we want to be as profitable as possible, as well as achieving sustainable and managed growth.
As we’ve seen our content revenues increase year on year, it’s helped us transform our internal image from cost centre to key revenue driver, especially with the backdrop of a challenging advertising market.
Before, you’d have a circulation team that dealt with newspaper sales and the marketing team would promote it. Whereas now, my marketing team is responsible for end-to-end, so we will talk to finance about suppliers we want. We’ll discuss the various price points that we sell at for subscriptions, and we’ll recommend price points for the newspaper.
We have to be very flexible and respond to what our readers want. If something’s working well on social we need to respond to push it or switch to something else.
We have fewer traditional brand people [in the marketing team] but brand is still incredibly important, and something we’ve been investing in recently.
CMO.com: You launched the Know Your Times campaign last year based on research into your readership and what makes them tick. Can you talk me through that?
Newman: That’s been quite revolutionary for us. When you have a strong editorial team, it’s easy to say you understand the brand and you know what it stands for, but how that gets translated to readers and outside of the content is quite challenging. We had to look at ourselves and explain how we are relevant now. What motivates people to read and subscribe aside from just a snazzy headline one day? What is it that creates sustained behavioural change, and what makes someone a Times reader?
So about a year ago our own audience and analytics team started a project with a company called Verbalisation to dovetail three years’ worth of data and look at the psychology of our reader and what motivates them to behave in the way they do.
What we needed was a single unifying proposition understood throughout the company, so we all know what we mean when we say we are serving the reader first. Editorially we are very strong but we wanted to understand how to make sure the marketing language we used was in a similar tone of voice, which is essentially what people subscribe for.
Some media news organisations are still struggling with whether people will pay for content so we wanted to understand why our readers do. What makes our content special? Our audience is very clear that free news sources are important and will make them informed, but if they were going to trust a piece of content enough to act upon it, or to repeat it, then they needed to feel well-informed. That is something that they are prepared to pay for, and that’s what distinguishes us from our competitors.
With this insight, we looked at how we could articulate it as part of our brand proposition. That’s where Know Your Times came from because we said, “Actually, if you better understand the world in which you live, then you will be better placed to deal with it.”
That’s what our readers value and we’ve now run that through all our marketing and are using the language within our call centres. By better understanding why people are subscribing, we can talk more about the benefits of staying with us; we’ve reduced our churn by about 4% and our new acquisitions are up over 200% year-on-year. The whole campaign has given us a common language within the company.
A lot of this was driven by knowing that what people say and what they mean are totally different. Using the insight, and data provided by our work with Verbalisation, we were actually able to bring something to the table and say, “We now have a framework which we can put all our understanding through and something that we can translate across the rest of the business.”
CMO.com: Editorial is traditionally the brand guardian in publishing but now marketing is increasingly taking that on. Has there been any resistance internally?
Newman: Our editors have been involved in every stage of the research and it was great to work with them because they really know our readers. Just as the marketing team is more professionally minded, so is the editorial team.
We will inform them how well a story has performed and part of my weekly briefing with our editor John Witherow is about call centre themes of the week and how we are responding to them. The editorial team can help with that. Nine times out of ten people are calling about the editorials, so it makes sense to involve them in the 360-degree feedback.
CMO.com: What does your relationship with agency partners and suppliers look like?
Newman: We have an on-premise creative agency called Pulse, so they work with us on our core business. Likewise, I have met a number of suppliers and will work with them because we are trying to be a challenger in a mature market and ensure we are super-serving our customers. We are used to changing quickly and don’t have many emotional ties to the models in which we work, so I am quite happy to look at new suppliers. But neither do I have 1,000 agencies on the roster, because that’s just inefficient now.
We are taking a far more partnership-based approach with our suppliers, too. I’m not interested in quick fixes, I’m interested in people fundamentally understanding our business, buying into our vision and wanting to work with us. We are working on plans for 2020 and I want people I feel will still be there as part of that journey.
CMO.com: What are the next challenges for the business?
Newman: There are two key things. Firstly, now we understand the psychology of our readers and why they buy us, we are looking at other customer revenues we can develop. What other platforms should we be looking at? Are there new content areas?
The second part is looking outside our core markets. We do very well in the UK and have great brand awareness globally, but what we don’t have is a huge international footprint, so that’s something we are looking at.
CMO.com: A key question facing publishers today is how much of your content do you keep within your own platform and how much do you distribute elsewhere. How do you look at that?
Newman: I think the question is a distraction. The question that feels more important for The Times is: “Do we think our content should be paid for? Do we think it’s worth paying for?” Yes, we do. That guides us, that is something that is non-negotiable, so do I want to spend half my time worrying about the different platforms that it’s on? No. And do I want to make sure that I own every single platform? No, I don’t. Do I want to make sure that it’s paid for? Yes, I do. I am a content provider, that’s my business.
We haven’t put a whole lot of free content onto Facebook and Google because we’re not trying to build up their business, we are trying to build up our own business, so therefore that’s not what drives us. If it makes sense to work with other platforms, and our content is valued, then that’s great. We don’t need to own every single touch point. The question for us is always how do we value our content and how do we want people to access it and pay for it?