SCMP’s 3-part innovation process to grow audience

2024-05-08. Shea Driscoll, the South China Morning Post’s Digital Editor, recently discussed how the daily is focusing on improving presentation, analytics and practices to attract audiences across Asia and beyond.

by WAN-IFRA External Contributor | May 8, 2024

By Trinna Leong

Continuous iterations and changes has led South China Morning Post (SCMP), one of the region’s oldest newspapers, to have tens of millions of users a month from across the globe. 

SCMP has accomplished this by implementing three innovation steps within the organisation.

  • Innovation in presenting information
  • Innovation in newsroom analytics
  • Innovation in your own practices

“If you display your expertise in interesting and novel ways, you can both serve readers and tempt them to subscribe,” Shea Driscoll, SCMP’s digital editor, told participants of Digital Media Asia 2024 in Kuala Lumpur.

Innovation in presenting information

That strategy has included the daily’s info and graphics team to build a “databank” of China’s leaders which maps out their profiles, connections, and related news coverage. Called China’s Power Players, it was first launched in 2022, where it converted 3.9 times of last-touch subscribers than the next top article by the organisation.

The iteration they did in 2023, called China’s Economic Deciders, “converted more last-touch subscribers in the whole of 2023 than our second top story by seven times. That’s across the entire SCMP,” said Driscoll.

In total the databank brought in more than 250,000 page views. To convert these viewers to subscribers, the daily experimented by making China’s Power Players available only to annual and biennial subscribers. The strategy worked.

“It shows that when you innovate and present information in useful ways, the value of your curation is extremely high. People were willing to fork out a year, or even two years of subscription to be able to access our information,” Driscoll added. 

To ride on its recent successes, the daily is now pushing a new product called SCMP Plus – a go-to platform for all things China – including daily roundups, analysis, columns, fact-sheets, summaries, and calendar of events. 

Innovation in newsroom analytics

A critical step that SCMP took with all the data it has on its audience and web performance was, making that information freely accessible to every single person in the newsroom. 

Every journalist, editor are able to answer questions such as the daily’s audience demographic, articles that led to more subscribers, average time spent per article, trending topics that consistently attracted readers. All that information was packed into a staff-only available tool called Exodus. 

The outcome was that trove of data helped the newsroom improve its content and efficiency. 

“My team provides actionable recommendations and analysis to the journalists in the newsroom,” Driscoll said, giving an example of how the editorial publishing strategy changed because of data.

A third of SCMP’s readers are from the United States. The traditional notion was that stories meant for the US audience should be published at midnight in Asia time. By looking at data from Exodus, majority of the US audience came from search and news platforms, with stories published at different times throughout the day still generating views.

“I was able to prove pretty conclusively that we do not have to publish in US hours to reach readers in the US,” Driscoll elaborated, adding that “This helped the newsroom to figure out their publishing times better and stop holding stories that were ready just for US hours.”

Innovation in your own practices

The daily has had several revamps over the years as it sought to draw more online audiences. The approach however, has changed over the years. 

An example of that was when the newsroom did a website revamp in 2018, which Driscoll described as being a “top down order” and launched based on what the newsroom thought the readers would want, without prior reader testing and feedback even internally. 

Its next website revamp, done late last year, had a different approach. 

“The process by which we design it was completely different,” said Driscoll, with 350 readers providing input on what they wish to see on the news site, market research and cross departments giving feedback based on available data, the website underwent multiple prototypes for testing before its launch. 

The result was an improved scroll depth on its homepage, with 18 percent increase on mobile app and 41 percent on desktop, top menu clickthrough rate went up by 45 percent and a 10 percent uplift in total page views per user. 

Much of the changes implemented across SCMP has been towards building loyal readers, having their needs served and engage with them. By building that audience, the daily hopes to be able to grow direct traffic, reducing the reliance on platforms as a traffic source.

This year’s Digital Media Asia conference took place in Kuala Lumpur on 24-25 April.

“The innovation is to try create more direct users, more people coming back to you again and again… By giving people useful information, actionable information along the lines of service journalism hopefully it creates a habit of people coming back to your website as direct users. That’s how I see it going,” said Driscoll. 

At the heart of it all, is the constant push for change internally – for the better. 

“I find true innovation, doing something completely new is pretty rare, pretty hard to come by. What’s more important is to not stay stagnant. Instead do something different within your own company,” he said.

About the author: Trinna Leong is a former journalist, having reported on politics, economics and general news from the MH370 & MH17 air disasters, Rohingya refugee crises, 1MDB financial scandal, Kim Jong Nam’s assassination, to Malaysia’s 14th general election. She joined Google News Initiative during the pandemic and helped lead its annual Trusted Media Summit from 2020-2023. She also designed the Youth Verification Challenge, which gamified fact-checking for Gen-Z and ran in 8 languages in 2021 & 2022. Most recently, she is part of the founding team called JomCheck, Malaysia’s first fact-checking alliance promoting collaborative fact-checking between newsrooms, academics and non-profit organisations. She now dabbles in building a more sustainable media ecosystem through consulting work in partnerships, fundraising, grantmaking and business development.

WAN-IFRA External Contributor

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