When The Sun scrapped its paywall to chase scale in 2015 it literally lost sight of who its online readers were. So, in a bid to offset the fact it could no longer use that data to target audiences with pinpoint precision it has spent the last six months building its own in-house media agency – a move that's paying off.
So far, this team has engineered its own martech stack and data management platform (DMP) working with the likes of Google to ensure a more targeted approach to digital advertising. Over the past six months, the ROI on campaigns run through The Sun's internal agency has risen by as much as 50%.
The play is also benefitting commercial and editorial teams, who have real-time access to the data.
‘Grow, know and monetise' is the digital strategy News UK’s flagship tabloid brand lives by. In joining the growing throng of media brands addressing internal knowledge gaps and creating products that bridge the gap between online and print, the title has not only able to glean clean first-party data and build upon it, but it's also grown revenues and audience shareacross its digital portfolio: which includes Dream Team, Sun Savers, Sun Racing and Sun Bingo.
The road to in-housing
All this has been led by Paul Hood, the ex-Dennis Publishing digital exec, who joined The Sun as digital marketing director last summer with oversight from the paper's managing director David Robinson.
Part of the step change has resulted in the brand ending its relationship with VCCP, which was previously charged with delivering online growth for The Sun.
“At agencies, you buy into people,” Robinson explains. “It comes down to relationships and we had a good relationship with VCCP, which helped us deliver strong growth for The Sun website."
However, delving into the thinking behind bringing planning and buying in-house, Robinson says The Sun spotted an opportunity to understand more about the audience it was targeting.
Neither News UK or The Sun have ditched agencies completely though. The publisher still employs a number of WPP agencies, including Wunderman and The &Partnership, which together with others in the network form Pulse Creative - a bespoke 70-strong full-service shop that sits within News UK handling disciplines like PR, creative, design and more.
It’s now been over three years since The Sun abandoned its online paywall strategy. In that time it's increased digital reach to 24.6 million readers a month, according to PAMco data. It's now the most-read online news brand in the UK, just under 2 million readers ahead of MailOnline.
However, without the paywall data, the profile of that audience is largely unknown. It's monitored each day using analytics platforms, including Parse.ly which is used by the content teams. However, until now, it has been a challenge for the company to target its readers fully with relevant offers and advertising.
As part of its in-housing efforts Robinson has brought the external Pulse Creative team's desks closer to that of News UK’s operations. This, he said has allowed the publisher to “take back some control” while helping it to understand what is happening with its audience in real-time in order to develop and serve content that will drive further engagement.
“There should be one single source of the truth and rather than going to five different places and passing a baton over which you often have with digital buying, for example,” he adds of the change made internally since the process began last June.
The in-house team, which took four months to get up to speed, was introduced in a staged approach, Hood reveals.
Day-to-day, the outfit is led by senior digital marketing manager Joe Johnson. It has now also assembled a fully-functional martech stack and a data management platform integrated with Google’s marketing own alongside a host of other features and tools. The build ensures a more targeted approach to digital advertising, and offering more attributable ROI through any bought media via networks of platforms, he adds.
As a result, audiences can be profiled and content fine-tuned alongside product offerings that increase engagement.
“We publish more than 600 articles each day The Sun online and reach a huge UK audience,” Hood states.
“For our digital marketing to be truly effective we need to be reactive and agile. In much the same way that the editorial team keeps a hawk-like eye on analytics in real time to ensure they are publishing efficiently, we’re applying the same rationale to our digital marketing."
He continues: "We want to be able to adjust our digital marketing campaigns and update creative and targeting in real time to maximise our effectiveness."
Promotions loyalty and audience insight
For the last decade, traditional media companies have looked to online to make up for the continuing shortfall in revenue from print sales, and The Sun has a number of products that connect both print and digital to drive loyalty.
One such project, the fantasy football game Dream Team, is a free-to-play reader recruitment initiative that began as a newspaper feature that has developed over the years to also run online and has engendered loyalty in football fans who come to the brand for more than just news updates on the sport.
The first push led by the in-house team was a marketing drive to recruit players at the end of the summer, just weeks before the new season kicked off.
“The print world has grown to a scale and now it’s going to decline because that’s the market,” states Robinson who adds that since Sun Savers was introduced, offering holidays for £9.50 or the chance to claim back £5 online through newspaper voucher collection, has helped to shore-up the decline in print sales, to some extent.
“In terms of advertisers – this gives us a richness that we have never had before in terms of data, but once we have built it out there, how do we build it out digitally? Readers might be rewarded for the consumption of content and therefore you might still benefit from this – and that’s where we may go from here."
Robinson says the ideal outcome is a "world where The Sun is a product with a number of products within it like Dream Team".
"If they're linked up and we know the readers who can move across the products with a wallet underneath allowing them to spend money with us. That’s where we want to get to," he adds.
The challenges and benefits
In in-housing, The Sun has found talent recruitment to be a challenge, but it's one which has led to a partnership with Loughborough University. News UK now hosts seminars with the institute's digital marketing MSc students. It's opening up internships to these students in the summer to add to its staff of PPC buyer, digital media planner and a digital media analyst.
“We’re not doing this because it’s a growing trend; we’re doing it because we want to lean into the opportunity to connect with the people who are reading and sharing our content so that we can build a devoted audience,” Hood concludes confidently.
Read more about the strategy behind the Sun Savers initiative and how it built an 800,000 reader database in The Drum's interview with its head of loyalty, Justine Salter.