"No Buts Digital" - Data + Strategy

“No Buts Digital” – Data + Strategy

NoButsDigitalBy: Jaci Smith

The first question I got was a philosophical one.

Leave it to a former colleague of mine, one of the best business reporters I’ve known, to skip the softball stuff in responding to my call for questions in this column.

He produces a newsletter that started slow, but seems to be gaining steam. But he’s in a competitive market, and he has been burned by other journalists in the area who’ve used his newsletter as a tipsheet without attribution.

So, he doesn’t break any news in the newsletter. But he wonders about that strategy.

Don’t we all.

His is not an uncommon problem. The industry as a whole struggles with this question, expressed in a number of different ways:

-Hard paywall, metered or something else like Google Surveys?

-Do we put everything that we print on our website?

-Social media is where so many people find their news these days. How do I leverage that?

It seems daunting to consider all the questions that have no definitive answers. So, let’s change the focus a bit.

Let’s look for data, like any good investigative reporter would do.

There are now so many options for engaging your audience and determining their needs, no publisher needs to make even the smallest decision unarmed.

Recently, the Faribault Daily News published a four-page wrapper celebrating our 100th year of publication. We filled the section with historical stories and photos that we picked out from the previous 100 years of papers and we wrapped it around our regular edition. It was such a great success, we wondered if we should produce a book; 100 years of front covers of the Daily News.

Putting those books together takes resources. It costs a lot of money to have them made.

What if they don’t sell? We wondered. Was there a way to gauge demand?

Sure there was. Using SurveyMonkey.com (which is free), I put together a survey asking people a series of questions about the book. Actually, SurveyMonkey.com already had a template for that kind of survey so I just needed to change a few questions.

I shared the survey on Facebook. I posted it on our website. I wrote a brief and put the link the print edition. I posted it on several other community Facebook pages. I asked several organizations in town to share it as well. SurveyMonkey.com tracked all the completed surveys as they came in, and analyzed the results for me.

It told me that people were very excited about historical news in general (that was an “aha” moment), particularly in print, and were willing to pay about $5 less than our price point for the product we had in mind.

While not scientific, it was helpful to us in making the decision to go ahead with the book project.

Surveys are not the only tool. There is plenty of data to be found on your audience, both online and in print. Consider your circulation department. What information do you collect on your subscribers? Is there a way to create a database and reach out to them using it? What about your advertisers? What kind of database do you have on them and how could you use it to gauge interest in the special sections you’re planning for the next year? What about those folks who comment on your site? What’s required of them to be able to comment and have you looked at what kind of database could be made from that? What about the people who write letters to the editor? What information do you keep about them and how do you keep it? Could you reach them if you wanted to?

In addition, there are a number of applications/services that will help you collect data on your online audience. Some are paid (think Omniture and Chartbeat), but others are quite useful and free.

Google Analytics is the grandaddy of them all. It’s free, relatively easy to use — all you need to do is drop a piece of code into the backend of your site and you’re in — and it is a powerful analytical tool for your website. It can tell you demographical information about your readers, how they find you, how long they stay, what they spend the most time reading.

In the case of my colleague, his newsletter subscription form contains a line requesting subscribers’ emails. So, he could craft a survey asking them what they want in their newsletter. Taking it one step further, he could create a boosted Facebook post for about $15, target people in his readership area with an interest in business and send them the link to his survey via Facebook. He could also post the survey on his website.

The Knight Digital Media Center recently published a great piece on how true digital expertise actually means much more than multimedia experience. One of the points it makes is that you shouldn’t let all that information you’re collecting go to waste. Use it to help determine what your audience wants, and then consistently deliver it. Most importantly, jettison the stuff no one is paying any attention to.

Bottom line is this: Don’t worry about the competition. Spend your time and effort learning as much as you can about your audience (and potential audience) and their needs.

And then deliver.

Thanks for the question. Keep them and any training requests you have coming; “No Buts Digital” won’t succeed without your input. What would you like to learn how to do? What obstacles to using digital tools can I help you overcome? What are your training needs? How would you like to see that training happen? Send me your thoughts at jaci.smith@gmail.com, or give me a call at 507-649-1693. You can also follow me on Twitter @FDNJaciSmith.  And of course, watch for new topics in this column in your MNA bulletin.