“It’s a Big, Big World”, Editor & Publisher

23 Jan 2015 | By Yukiko Koizumi

Thanks to Big Data, publishers now know more about their readers than ever. They can track engagement, spending habits, clicks, sites visited, and real-time locations. So what can publishers do with all this information?

According to Phil Pikelny, vice president and chief marketing officer of The Dispatch Printing Co. in Columbus, Ohio, “Big Data, while arguably an over-hyped buzzword, is a useful term in that it highlights new data management and data analysis technologies that enable organizations to analyze certain types of data, and handle certain types of workload, that were not previously possible.”

David Arkin, vice president of content at GateHouse Media, said, “It’s one thing to have (Big Data) at your fingertips, it’s another to make it actionable. The next big step is using new tools and better analysis to make strategic decisions on topics, content types and story formats.”

Going mobile

Mobile users can be targeted and encouraged to participate based on their location and activities. Arkin offers this example: “Can we prompt a user who is in the stadium for a Friday night football game to engage with other readers at the game by sharing photos and comments? Can we deliver a coupon for a hot dog and a soda for halftime?”

Mark Challinor, vice president of International News Media Association, said that location data is a crucial component of mobile. “Location data is helping transform the mobile advertising and marketing industry and creates a better experience. The ability to deliver hyper-local, well-targeted advertising that’s personalized in real time represents an exponential shift in the evolvement of the media ad market.”

If you’re using the right tools, Big Data helps publishers reach readers, no matter what platform they happen to be using. Lauren Pedersen, vice president of global marketing for Oslo-based data analytics company Cxense, said, “If you are a publisher and you can’t track user behavior—and use this data to target across mobile, tablet and desktop—then you are using the wrong systems.”

The question is not only how to find readers, but how different platforms drive different demands. Arkin said, “We may see a story spike on social media but not so much on the desktop. Seeing that can help us figure out what more we can do with it on social to take advantage of the excitement around the content, like posting multimedia or a map or asking readers a question about the story.”

Pikelny argues that social media—such as Instagram photos, Twitter or Facebook posts and Vine videos—can also help reporters. “On the journalism side, the vast amount of data we collect can many times bring clarity to complex stories through the proper analysis and display of data to tell a better story for readers.”

Mobile usage actually conveys much more than the users’ location, as Challinor observed. “Mobile Big Data isn’t just being able to look at, say, smartphone penetration or reader usage patterns. Mobile data is also created from publisher apps or other services working in the background.” Challinor said that the move to mobile is only growing, and so is our digital fingerprint. “As we all shift our behaviors and lives to digital channels, we are leaving a trail of data documenting all our movements, actions, reading habits, purchases, viewing, etc.”

A private matter

When you add in the data from social media, “the potential skyrockets to drive more almost one-on-one, personalized targeting and campaigns, (and) that’s extremely powerful,” Challinor said.

That kind of power to access consumers’ personal data also brings a heightened degree of responsibility.

Pikelny said, “Privacy is a very important issue.  Most publishers have a brand that readers would be willing to trust with a portion of their personal information in trade for a better experience in dealing with the crush of information that envelops us each day.  I think consumers are willing to share some of their personal data if a publisher can, in turn, help bring context and depth of knowledge to the day’s onslaught of news.”

Peter Zollman, publisher and executive editor of the Classified Intelligence Report, noted, “It is a concern, but it’s one that we have all pretty much learned to live with, for better or for worse. If you use the Web, your selections will be monitored. If you don’t want the Internet to know about you, you shouldn’t use the Internet. It’s one of the choices we make to participate in a society where the Internet and digital information are part of our everyday lives.”

The trade-off between users providing personal information is, ideally, publishers providing a trusted and rewarding environment. Arkin shared that a few years ago, GateHouse Media switched its commenting platform from one that allowed anonymous comments to one that required a social login. “We saw a drop-off in participation, but the conversation improved because we were much closer to real name registration. It’s an example that proves there is concern about privacy, but in the case of commenting, it creates a better user experience to require something like social logins.”

Newspaper publishers can also learn valuable lessons from other industries, especially high-tech leaders like Google and Amazon.

“I think many publishers are starting to realize that they have to take control of their data. Using analytics systems and DMPs (data management platforms) that do not share or leak data with others is becoming a top priority for publisher,” Pedersen said. “For many years, players like Google have captured publisher data and used it for their own benefit. This has really driven down advertising revenues for publishers.

“By understanding the value of data, and the consequences of giving it away, publishers have started to realize that there is no such thing as a free analytics system. Those are the kind of companies that have been quick to see the huge opportunities there are with data, but they have developed technology that only benefits them. Our goal is to offer similar technology to all the other businesses in the world that have an online presence but not the time, money or desire to start hiring enormous R&D teams to develop this technology in-house themselves.”

Targeting your readers

Publishers can also take a page from digital leaders on building reader engagement. “I would look to the gaming industry for how they have fostered and developed the reader experience,” Challinor said, praising the way they create “ambassador communities where users feel they belong,” how they reward loyalty (such as getting to the next level of a video game) and how they make “the whole experience immersive and enjoyable.”

Pikelny said, “Choice, engagement and personalization are what all successful digital companies are about,” adding newspapers can learn from eBay or Facebook “by using data science to better retain subscribers through a more engaging and personalized product.”

“Simply put, publishers should use Big Data to understand their customers,” said Zollman. “Data can be used to improve products we deliver to print customers, online customers, advertising customers and the advertising respondents, and to deliver better experiences and, ultimately, better revenue.”

Getting a specific message to a specific audience has never been easier, “Targeting people that you know are interested in tennis, and plan to buy new tennis shoes shortly, is much more effective than targeting a more generic demographic segment such as men between 18 to 35,” Pedersen said. “You can charge premium rates for these audience segments and deliver more effective campaigns for your advertisers.”

Pikelny suggests that data science can generate revenue in a number of ways, including using algorithms to maximize traffic per content piece, which in turn, maximizes ad revenue and to calculate “customer lifetime value” to set subscription rates.

“Done right, publishers could also create dynamic rate cards to charge the highest ad rates for the greatest number of print and digital readers as well as subscription models to maximize customer acquisition and engagement with our products,” he said.

Becoming data experts

Of course, crunching all that Big Data is likely out of the scope of most newspaper staffs.  Zollman, who’s also a founding principal of the Advanced Interactive Media Group LLC, said, “This is not something that a small publisher is likely to be able to accomplish on his or her own. You’ve got to work with smart data management companies that have proven their value to other publishers and that have developed products that will help you do better.”

When asked how publishers should be training reporters and sales reps on Big Data, Zollman said, “Probably not at all. You need massive computing power, deep computing skills and disparate, multiple data sets. They can present information based on Big Data to their clients, but sales reps cannot be expected to deliver and develop Big Data.”

Going forward, Big Data is likely to be a key part of any publisher’s business model. “Publishers that build a data-driven culture will build stronger business models for the future,” Pikelny said. “Newspapers have access to more data than ever thanks to digital subscriptions, search information and page metrics. Harnessing that data offers a great deal of opportunity.”

Pedersen said that data is key to the future of newspapers. “Data will be—and is—critical. Publishers will start to hire more data experts—audience, analytics and data teams will be more influential than ever. The newsroom will have instant feedback about what is working and what’s not so they can improve results and user experience. The days are gone when everyone logging in to a particular site will be presented with the same static content. Editorial content and ads will become more and more relevant and interesting for each site visitor going forward— something that users should look forward to.”

Pikelny agreed: “Newspapers need to get out of the ‘one size serves all’ mentality.”

Creating an experience

With all this focus on mobile users, where does that leave the time-honored newspaper print edition?

“Some people, particularly older readers, like the touch and feel of a traditional newspaper,” Challinor said. “The heritage and status that a newspaper provides can still be immensely powerful for many. For (them), print is still the cornerstone to what we offer, but not the be-all and end-all in the future.”

“Newspapers are more than just content on a page or a screen,” Pikelny said. “Newspaper publishers offer their readers a unique experience of in-depth, agenda-setting news.  As consumers engage with our content, they also experience the serendipity of stories of great interest that they might not have sought out on their own.  This newspaper experience is the competitive advantage publishers have over other purveyors of daily news.”

While you can’t add interactive bells and whistles to a print edition, “The audience insight you gather from digital can give you input into your total content strategy,” said Pedersen.  She suggested that personalized print editions might be “the next step for an enterprising publisher,” which might include different ad inserts for different readers. “The sky is the limit for these applications,” she said.

Don’t sound the death knell for print just yet. “I’m in the chorus of people who don’t see print as a dying business,” Pikelny said. “Instead, I see print as part of an overall strategy that requires our content in all forms to intersect with the lives of our consumers wherever and whenever they are seeking information, looking to be entertained or willing to be educated.”

“Frankly, print still works remarkably well as an advertising medium,” Zollman said. “It’s the backbone of most newspapers’ existence. I’m not a big fan of killing print editions just for the sake of killing print editions. They’re still very profitable publications and they’ll still very valued by a certain segment of the audience.”

But Arkin had a warning for publishers. “Data will continue to have an important and growing role in newsroom strategy, but we have to be careful how and why it is used. The tools are getting stronger, but it is likely privacy concerns will as well. You can slice and dice the data in many ways to make content decisions, to deliver content programmatically and by location, but none of it trumps the experience and judgment solid editors and reporters bring to their communities and newsrooms each day.” He argued that the media needs to keep its “watchdog role” in how data is “gathered, secured and used.”

Zollman echoed his sentiments that data analysis alone shouldn’t drive content. “You cannot publish a newspaper content based only on the data. You need people who have a better understanding of their markets and the environment. Do we provide what people want or do we provide what people need to know? If a newspaper only delivers what it thinks the audience wants to see, it becomes People magazine or Playboy. That’s not a newspaper.”

Going forward, which aspects of mobile use and Big Data should publishers embrace?

Challinor said, “As both our personal and our business lives migrate more onto mobile platforms, so will the data we glean from the devices. It will become more important, more so than any other channel or platform. Keywords in all this are relevance and experience. I would say, concentrate on these two areas for optimal mobile big data benefits.”

But can publishers afford to ignore Big Data?

“Most of the newspapers in this country are surviving just fine without using Big Data,” Zollman said. “It is not a panacea that’s going to fix all the ills of the newspaper industry. Big Data is one more tool to better understand, better serve and better deliver material that is going to be of great value to the people who get it.”

By Sharon Knolle, published in Editor & Publisher, January 12th 2015