How publishers can learn from mistakes

learn from mistakes
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The one sure thing in digital publishing is that change comes fast, especially around customer behavior. To remain successful, publishers must adapt quickly, even if that sometimes means getting things wrong. Swedish newspaper group NTM recently shared ‘five epic fails’ in an effort to highlight how publishers can learn from mistakes.

In sharing NTM’s five failures and more importantly the lessons they taught, head of editorial development Jens Pettersson said: 

We need to be brave and be willing to test and try. We need to be a learning organisation and integrate this into our company culture. And we need to dare to do wrong.

Paywall ‘mess’

In 2017, NTM began charging for digital subscriptions on its 19 news sites in Sweden. It started with a metered model that gave visitors free access to a number of articles before they hit the paywall. There was, however, no central strategy over what articles should be included or how limits should be set.

To learn from mistakes, NTM to set up a joint editorial team, working with the subscriptions department to create a central, data-driven strategy. They also set common KPIs and built useful dashboards for the reporters. NTM eventually swapped the metered model for a strict paywall as they could see that local journalism had real value.

Dashboard ‘chaos’

In the past, NTM allowed each of its newsrooms to create its own analytics dashboard and KPIs. Even common KPIs, like ‘pageviews’ could be interpreted differently across the group. In 2020, it moved to a common web-based dashboard but one that required login credentials for access, creating a barrier to getting reporters to use the analytics tools.

Pettersson said it’s important to remember that dashboards aren’t worth anything if no one uses them. He explained:

We still struggled with getting reporters to use the analytics dashboards. There were still too many thresholds to fully become a data-driven organization.

The group’s IT department solved the access problem and the dashboards are now well received by reporters and editors.

Missing targets

Without hard data, it can be tempting to try to be everything to everyone and, in the process, failing to please anyone. Relying on ‘gut feelings’ can lead to products that are unfocused and this was the situation at NTM for many years. In an effort to learn from mistakes, NTM analysed audience engagement data and found that, while some content in some areas was engaging audiences, content in other areas wasn’t. Pettersson said:

Analytics showed the highest interest in breaking news, restaurants, crime, weather, and real estate. We realised we could and should increase production on many of these topics.

NTM analyzed existing customers’ behavior to create seven priority topics. Editors were given a checklist to ensure content met content priorities. A current project is underway to segment audiences into seven target groups, with three identified as having high potential for growing digital subscriptions.

    • Green graduates interested in city living
    • Facebooking families discovering news through social media
    • Suburban houseowners interested in local news

Being ‘afraid’

NTM tried live sports broadcasting, but afraid of the investment required, bought TV rights match by match. The group saw strong conversions, but new customers didn’t stay. The solution was to invest and last year NTM broadcast 869 matches live. Pettersson said:

Our analysis shows great outcomes on customer lifetime value for regular live sports viewers. We also get a substantial uplift in average revenue per user.

Chasing new stuff

Pettersson said getting tired of old things and always wanting new stuff is a problem. Over time, NTM has come to see that it is not easy to build new brands and that the ‘big fail’ is in trying to invent new stuff instead of relying on established brands. Pettersson said:

Being a legacy brand is nothing to be ashamed of. We have built a lot of trust since 1758. We just need confidently believe in it.

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