Harnessing audience data: using data maturity to drive business outcomes

Between 2018 and 2020, eight news publishers embarked on a major endeavor to leverage audience data with two objectives: content planning and re-circulation. Two of them spoke at Digital Media Asia 2020 about the impressive results and key learnings which came out of their Google News Initiative (GNI) APAC Data Lab journey.

by WAN-IFRA External Contributor | November 2, 2020

By Dexter Lin

“We are at a stage where it is imperative for the digital part of the business to succeed, and the only way it can succeed is when everything is measurable,” CEO of Jagran New Media Bharat Gupta said in a panel moderated by GNI’s APAC Associations Lead, Mike Katayama.

Also on the panel were Andy Wylie, Head of Data and Analytics at New Zealand Media and Entertainment (NZME) and Jakub Otrząsek, Senior Analytics Director, APAC at MightyHive. 

Gupta and Wylie were participants of the Google News Initiative (GNI) APAC Data Lab with MightyHive as a data strategy partner to improve audience engagement, increasing direct paying relationships with users and driving revenue from advertisers for their news outlets, Dainik Jagran and The New Zealand Herald respectively. 

The panel talked about their experiences using audience data towards two use cases: content planning and re-circulation (or recommendation). 

Content planning involves dashboards detailing the performance of articles by different dimensions that help to identify audiences. Without this, planning content for a particular audience is impossible, as content has to be based on trends. 

Recirculation, or recommendation, is a function that utilises machine learning to analyse a user’s history to recommend other articles for the users to read. It also takes into account the context of these articles to help understand the individual users. 

Brand lovers are the backbone of a sustainable business

At the heart of this data-driven optimisation are the brand lovers. Brand lovers, the segment of the audience that visits a site regularly (a user would need to have more than 50 page views in the last 30 days to qualify as one), are the backbone of a sustainable business according to MightyHive. 

It is here where simply leveraging data for ad monetisation falls short: it cannot help optimise content for brand lovers, neglecting the audience segment that contributes the most to revenue. 

“There is a need to move towards quality, and quality can only be assured if we are very focused about the kind of audience we are catering to,” said Gupta. 

Both Jagran and NZME found themselves with challenges at the start of the journey.

Gupta said Jagran faced the “tricky process” of convincing teams to buy into a new data-driven culture. 

For NZME, COVID-19 proved to be a double edged sword. The organic growth due to what Wylie called “the biggest story of the decade” made it difficult to understand the impact of content planning changes that were due to improved data.

Caption: Dainik Jagran’s total users doubled between March 2018 and March 2020

But two years on from the project’s inception in 2018, their commitment to data maturity is paying dividends.

By March 2020, Dainik Jagran’s readership doubled from about 60 million to 120 million, with nearly 10% of this readership as brand lovers, according to Gupta. As a result of the increase in this user segment, programmatic revenue dropped by only 5% during the fallout caused by COVID-19.

“That is the power of a data-driven working (methodology), that is the power of using the right kind of solutions, that is the power of the cultural change within the teams to be data informed,” Gupta said.

Driving engagement at The New Zealand Herald

Similarly, The New Zealand Herald saw an increase of more than 300% in engagement in just two months, thanks to a new in-house recommendation engine that they progressively deployed to up to 50% of all traffic. Encouraged by the results, they soon deployed it to all traffic. 

The result is over 300 million advertising impressions a month; sellable as they are not restricted by an ad bundle that comes with third party solutions.

Wylie said this contributed to a “significant boost in revenue.” Another benefit is that the Herald can now tune the recommendation engine to shape traffic: they can now shift traffic towards articles that are more likely to be monetised. 

Wylie said they can also use this to grow their subscription base. Non-subscribers will be recommended mostly free articles, and subscribed users will be offered premium articles. There is one caveat, though: non-subscribed users who are likely to subscribe will be also pushed to premium articles. 

Otrząsek credits the two publishers, along with four others (Mainichi, UDN News, SCMP, Star Media Group), for foraying into uncharted territory. “Those who were able to quickly provide access to data so we could run all of our assessments were the true winners,” he said. 

He urged more to follow their footsteps and go further by investing in in-house data employees. 

“Invest in your own data teams. It’s a crucial division in every business today,” Otrząsek said. 

“There needs to be someone on your side who we can have a relationship with. Otherwise, it’s really hard to execute data projects if there is no data team on the other side.” 

Gupta recognises that the deluge of data can be intimidating, but leveraging it is necessary for success. 

“Until we know what is happening and what is the way forward, the organisation within wouldn’t change.” 

‘The technicalities are easier nowadays’

Otrząsek said that smaller publishers need not worry too much about cost: Google has released a free product, Google Analytics 4, that can handle analysis up to 10 million hits a month. As for those with over 10 million views in traffic, affordable paid options are available. 

“At some point you will have a discussion about buying tech or hiring more people to create solutions. But the technicalities are easier nowadays, so I highly encourage everyone, especially those with cost constraints to experiment,” Otrząsek said.

For more on how data science and analytics can help publishers improve their content planning, keep visitors on-site with better content recommendations, and improve site revenue, download the Google News Initiative APAC Data Lab Playbook.

About the author: Dexter Lin is a third-year undergraduate student at Yale-NUS, Singapore. His interests lie in the effects of Orientalism in media and wider culture. In 2018, he camped outside the Shangri-La hotel during the historic Trump-Kim Summit in an attempt to find a story. Outside of school and work, Dexter also represents the Singaporean national team as a 100m sprinter. 

WAN-IFRA External Contributor

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