In 2012, The Boston Globe was one of the first metropolitan newspapers to take a double-pronged approach to digital media. It offers a free, online version designed to please a “media-snacking” audience and a subscription-based digital version of the 143-year-old newspaper for more in-depth coverage.
The decision ran the risk of the company cannibalizing itself, said Peter Doucette, the Globe’s vice president of consumer sales and marketing. It’s just one of many experiments the media company’s marketing organization has taken in recent years in an attempt to jump-start both consumer and advertising revenues.
CMO.com talked to Doucette about the benefits of that kind of experimentation, the difficulties of converting anonymous users to known customers, making the most of a shoestring budget, and why digital marketing talent is actually drawn to an industry in transition.
CMO.com: What are the biggest challenges for marketing in the news industry today, particularly in a metropolitan area such as Boston?
Doucette: At a macro level we have to educate our audience about the products we offer. Historically consumers think of The Boston Globe as a print-first medium, but we have a number of digital products.
Another major challenge is monetizing the millions of visitors we have every month to our digital properties. We need a better understanding of them to get them engaged as loyal customers.
CMO.com: How are you attempting to educate and then monetize that audience?
Doucette: In a disrupted industry you don’t have an unlimited marketing budget. We’ve been trying to use our own channels as marketing vehicles to help tell that story. It’s an evolution. We’re constantly trying to refine that message. We’ve seen some traction, but we’re not all the way there yet. We’ve done a good job at attracting visitors. Right now, we’re trying to better understand our visitors. We’ve recently started working with marketing platform BlueConic to get a 360-degree view of our customers across our channels and start down the path toward personalization.
We want to understand every consumer that interacts with our products, and we recognize that there are segments within that. Ultimately, we want to provide the optimal experience for every user by segmenting them into meaningful buckets and creating targeted solutions for them.
CMO.com: How have you segmented your visitors?
Doucette: Our approach to segmenting the market has been evolving since 2011. We were one of the first publishers to have a two Web site approach, and that was driven by our knowledge of our distinct audiences. We have a free mass audience Web site called Boston.com, and we launched a premium subscription Web site with bostonglobe.com. We wanted to provide an experience that was ideal for two distinct segments: one looking for a curated, analytical, and contextual experience, and another more headline-based information snacking offering. That’s where we started.
We’re expanding on that to look at that segment the next level down. We know a fair amount about our paying bostonglobe.com subscribers. And we have some information about our registered users. But we don’t know much about our anonymous users other than some behavioral patterns at a macro level. We’re trying to move users from anonymous to known to customers.
CMO.com: What were the risks in that dual—potentially competing—Web product approach?
Doucette: There were risks in doing it. But there were also risks in not doing it. There wasn’t, at that time, a well-defined business model for metro publishers to create a sustainable business. So we took that calculated risk of creating two sites. We thought it was the best opportunity to maximize revenues and maximize our audience. And it did allow us to maximize our digital ad revenue and our digital consumer revenue. In the three-plus years since we've gone down that path, we’ve grown our digital audience by more than 90%, from 7 million to 13 million. We’ve had one of the top-performing digital media businesses, with more subscribers than any other metropolitan Web site in the U.S. We had to be aggressive to pursue a solution in the digital space.
CMO.com: Were there concerns that by launching this Web site—Boston.com—with quick hits and more superficial coverage that you’d alienate loyal readers of the Boston Globe?
Doucette: Were there concerns? Yes. But one of the things we knew was that only about half of the market understood that Boston.com was owned by the Boston Globe. So we tried to create an approach that worked down both paths. The other thing is it was an evolution. When first launched, there was Boston Globe content that still lived on Boston.com. Over the past few years, we’ve pulled them apart. The two sites have pretty distinct audiences. There is less than 20% overlap.
CMO.com: You mentioned the challenge of limited budgets for marketing in this industry. How do you do the most that you can with what you have?
Doucette: Those macro conditions force us to be more judicious in our marketing approach. We need to show the ROI in what we’re doing.
We’ve moved significantly down the path in trying to optimize everything within the digital purchase funnel to improve conversion rates, reduce customer acquisition costs, and increase lifetime customer value.
We’ve greatly redistributed where we spend our money. Now, significantly more of our investment goes to digital channels. We do a lot of landing page optimization and email purchase flow optimization. And we invest in resources that allow us to be very agile in that process from a development and marketing perspective.
CMO.com: As you’ve shifted more of your dollars to digital, what new skills do you need in your marketing organization?
Doucette: In the past, most of our marketing skills were around brand marketing or marketing for offline channels. Now we have people that do landing page optimization. They run experiments. They work on the user experience. We’re hiring a data scientist, and our analytics group has grown from two people to 12. Our skill sets have changed tremendously. We’re also working to find the right partners and technology to assist with that. In working with BlueConic, we’re trying to take a big step forward in understanding our audience, particularly across platforms, as one of our challenges has been not having visibility into cross-platform usage—for example, someone who reads both on their laptop and mobile phone.
CMO.com: How difficult is it to attract those professionals to what many view as a “dying industry”?
Doucette: One of the most exciting things about people coming to an organization like ours is that we really have the opportunity to experiment and try new things in a material way. A lot of companies in established and growing businesses can experiment on the margins. We are trying to re-engineer our business model so we get to immediately try new things. That’s exciting. There’s nothing better than coming into an organization and having the ability to make substantive changes.
CMO.com: Where are you finding digital marketing talent?
Doucette: It varies. It depends on the discipline. We’ve hired people from other media companies, consumer products companies, agencies, even startups. We’re looking for people that are intellectually curious and can thrive in an evolving environment.
CMO.com: And what’s your approach to selecting new technology vendors?
Doucette: The technology has changed tremendously. We’re focused on finding the right partners to help us. We’ve taken big steps in terms of marketing automation and audience understanding. The ideal partner for us is someone who has the best technology that can work for our space. In the publishing space, we need to drive both our subscription and our ad business, so we need technology that’s flexible enough to support both. In the end, we’re also looking for a partner that can help us evolve our own internal capabilities. Most of all, we need information that is actionable.
The goal is to understand the audience better and create more customized and relevant products and features and offers for them.
If you look at the past few years of what we’ve done, that’s digital model 1.0. We’ve been experimenting, but it has mostly been one mass message based on a behavior, not who you are. We want to deliver more personalized products and experiences by using all available information about a user to target them with relevant messaging and content.
CMO.com: What advice would you offer CMOs in your industry and others?
Doucette: In this industry, everyone is looking for a silver bullet. Just do this, and it’s going to work. But there is no silver bullet. We’ve seen many potential ones, but they never turn out to be that.
Outside of this industry, I’d say that it’s all about the process. It’s about becoming more agile and focusing more on experimentation. You have to create a structure that allows for that productive experimentation and the agility to change things quickly based on feedback. It’s a marathon, and you constantly have to revisit it to ensure you’re on track.
CMO.com: How do you encourage both that risk taking and the willingness to let go of what doesn’t work?
Doucette: There are no penalties for failed attempts. I think we’ve created a system where people know they can experiment. They see the benefit of pushing forward ideas. We recognize that not all ideas work, and that’s OK. The process allows people to put their ideas forward in a safe environment.
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