News UK is one of many publishers exploring how it can keep hold of the customer experience amid the encroachment of technology companies like Facebook and Google. The publisher's chief customer officer Chris Duncan opened up to The Drum about how it plans to make that shift a success.
Duncan’s refocus from a chief marketing officer to a newly created chief customer officer role at the turn of the year meant the addition of audience insight and analytics responsibilities. The switch was emblematic of the media group's push to be less commercially dependent on advertising and instead seek out new revenue opportunities.
The marketer spoke to The Drum about News UK's recent investment in its audience data and analytics; how he intends to use that to wrestle back control of the customer experience; and how publishers should approach working with brands that are behind a paywall and those that are not when distributing across platforms.
Why was a chief customer officer more relevant to the News UK brand?
For us there used to be a very clearly defined separation between circulation sales and advertising sales, particularly in the print world, where marketers would be running promotions and advertising heads would sell space. Now the marketer’s job is to deliver an audience that can be monetised effectively by the advertising teams. So what you are seeing is a lot more collaboration between those two areas, which means that actually having a clear definition of who is responsible for audience management measurement and delivery, versus who is responsible for advertising, advertiser management and delivery is what we have done in the new structure.
Why is it more important to be a publisher that’s prioritising marketing and the customer, particularly at a time when many are having to surrender so much control over the way they distribute their content?
We have never been in a more competitive environment. You are seeing the ability of regular audiences to be targeted in so many ways. One of the great strengths of journalism is the connection between the audience and the media owner. Having a clear sense of what your relationship is with the reader has never been more important.
How do you go about enhancing the value of your brands when there’s so much choice now, especially now that younger audiences don’t have the same connection with them as older readers?
Each subsequent technology innovation brings a new set of challenges for a publisher to adapt. In most cases when you look at legacy publishers most of us have – not always as quickly as we would have liked – but most of us have adapted to new models.
What you are seeing at the moment is another great wave of disruption. We are all working out how the new platform players work like Facebook and Google. Part of it is recognising you are always going to be in a period of reinvention.
In terms of younger audiences, there is a very great fallacy about young readers not being interested in news. They have never been more interested in news and have never been more aware of where they can get it from. They are also pre-acutely aware of where they can get it from and trust it; where to go to be entertained; where to go if they want to be outraged. They have a very clear sense of who will deliver what, and it is up to the brands to be very clear with their audiences to say ‘this is what we are here for and when you want that kind of thing come to us’.
Do digital-first brands have an advantage over legacy brands?
About three years ago there was a sense that a digital entrant would be able to take over legacy news brands. We saw a lot of people enter the market, working off a very different cost base, becoming very attuned to the platforms. There was a sense that they were faster to understand how to work with platforms whereas traditional legacy brands tended to be quite cautious about adopting platform distribution.
In the last year or so what the legacy brands have been able to do is gradually adapt. But now you are seeing so much content out there, this sense of overload means the legacy brands can come back in as a strength. There is more value of brand recognition where users come to the Sun and the Times because they know what they are going to get rather than curation in the sense of really personalising down to the level of what they are interested in.
To that point, what are some of the ways News UK is behaving differently and what are the initiatives you’re investing in to ensure that you’re able to cut through?
We launched on Apple News, Facebook Instant Articles, and we will be on Snapchat. It is largely a platform experimentation for us, it’s a case of wherever it fits with the brand, wherever we think it is additive to the business model of the title in question. We are constantly trying new ways to find audiences and work out how they fit into our businesses. The key to that is understanding when for instance you are running a subscription model like the Times then the platforms perform a different job compared to when you are running a mass audience model like the Sun, so what you do in each case is different. We work very hard to understand not just what our business model needs but also what do the audiences that we work with expect from us and where do they expect us to be. That is the constant challenge for us to innovate as fast as the platforms are.
How does that thinking apply to the Sun and the Times brands, which are all undergoing massive change at the moment?
The Sun has surpassed the 30 million monthly unique visitors mark, that business is about a huge number of articles a day and working very hard to understand which articles are going to be shared. We are still in the process of regaining our audience having been under a subscription model. The gauge of success on the Sun is much more about growing audiences, ultimately the gauge of success on the Times is growing subscriptions. So a lot of the testing and experimentation that you do may be on the same platforms but may be completely different in terms of its intent and outcome and measurement of success.
We do a lot with the Sunday Times 'Style' [content] on Instagram because it is a very visual product, but that isn’t the direct subscription driver. To us it is more of a branding experiment. It is more about building and finding a community that is interested in fashion than it is instant and direct conversion to subscription. There is lots to be done with the marketing mix and we try to experiment with the platforms along those lines.
How does that focus on brand impact the way your commercial teams sell your titles to advertisers?
It is always about fitting what are the outcome of the client needs, what is the right decision for the brand, and what is the customer expecting - how is the customer going to act in a way the advertiser wants. Our advertiser approach is really about understanding exactly what each of our brands does and doesn't do and making sure that advertisers understand how we can generate the best results for them. When you think about the Times digitally, you are not going to come to the Times if your obsession is scale, you are going to come to the Times if you think you want to reach a very heavy concentration of chief executives. I don’t think that is something that media targeting will understand; not every product that you are selling needs mass exposure.
Do you think publishers are becoming more like brand owners?
They always have been brand owners. In some ways you could argue that brand owners are becoming more like publishers. Newspaper have always been recognisable brands that almost were shortcuts to an audience. People understood the audience of each publisher because they are deeply embedded brands in the national psyche. In a lot of ways that is probably something that previously has not been important, but now most publishers will realise if they have weak brands and platforms have strong brands then publishers will drown in a sea of content. Publishers need strong brands to make sure they have that link to their audience which I think defines great news brands.