Counting to Infinity: Why Media Need More Analytics

As Brands Face Boundless Competition, Numbers Are Key to Making Most of Pay Systems

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Ken Doctor
Ken Doctor
Rob Grimshaw's Financial Times office sits aside the River Thames, just off London's Southwark Bridge. Just as the river stayed its course through the city, the oldest English-language paper has stayed true to its business model, which involved a lot of print ad money and some circulation money. But recently, the FT has moved into the forefront of the news revolution.

"We're becoming a direct internet retailer, and we have to have expertise to do that," said Mr. Grimshaw, with the Thames as a backdrop. "When you do that with publishing, it looks like a different business."

The's managing director is running the Amazon of news publishing, sifting, sorting and making sense of user data throughout the day, the week and the year. By doing so, he's in the vanguard of news people playing infinity, the new game that has replaced scarcity as a business model. But it's a game his colleagues at other papers, including The New York Times, which is set to introduce its online payment system later this spring, will all need to learn sooner or later.

Scarcity was fine for the old products when there was only so much space in the paper or so much airtime for broadcasters to sell. But where news and entertainment brands once sold boundaries -- finite ad availabilities neatly packaged into newspapers, magazines and appointment TV -- they're now facing boundless competition.

So far media sellers have responded to the advent of infinity by trying to fill all the new digital venues from Hulu to iPads and, increasingly, get more money out of consumers. But no tactic, no matter how smart, is going to work without analytics.

Analytics will be what set apart the winners and losers in 2011, also known as the year of digital reader-revenue tests, especially among news brands whose traditional businesses are eroding fastest. We saw a few in 2010 -- News Corp.'s folly of putting up a tall, wide pay wall around Times of London/Sunday Times content has rightly been perceived as the wrong way to go -- and we'll see many more this year.

The most-watched test will be The New York Times' launch of its metered system, which will be accompanied by dozens of similar, though smaller, tests powered by Journalism Online's Press Plus system. Borrowing a page from the Financial Times, which has been tweaking its meters since 2002, the New York Times is trying to enjoy both those legs of Old World revenue -- advertising but also subscriptions -- in the booming digital sphere.

The Times and others using the metered approach will try to do this by better understanding infinity. Infinity is first about seeing the media world differently. As it has evolved, it has shown itself to offer unprecedented potential mass reach -- 900 million English-speaking people worldwide -- at next-to-nothing incremental cost, as well as a seeming endless number of niches within the new mass.

That big potential mass market is drawing the strategic attention of news companies I call the Digital Dozen -- global-reaching, English-language companies that can taste the financial rewards of becoming truly global players. Thomson Reuters, the Associated Press and Bloomberg have head starts on the business-to-business side of the trade, while CNN and the Financial Times are a step ahead in making money through consumer audiences. Now, they are joined by, among others, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, ABC, NBC, the Guardian, the Telegraph and the BBC. All are trying to figure out how to monetize vast out-of-home-market audiences that the web has created.

But audience infinity turns out to include a lot of people who aren't really all that valuable to advertisers and who won't pay for digital content. While Google, Bing, Facebook and Twitter expose news brands to many times more would-be readers than a newspaper could ever reach in print, only a small percentage of those exposed will actually become regular digital readers. Search and social media offer media brands lots of fly-by traffic, but valuing those fly-by flocks highly would be like counting print readers who happened to snag a piece of a flying newspaper as it blew by on a windy day.

Analytics are the key to helping metered payment systems capture digital reader revenue from about 5% or maybe 10% of online visitors. That 5% may not exactly parallel the print readership -- though the overlap will be substantial -- but it's an important number. The Times' new pitch to that 5%: pay us a single price, and you can access us anywhere and on the device of your choice. It's the same pitch we see in The Wall Street Journal's newest approach, offering what I call "all-access" -- paper, desktop/laptop, smartphone and tablet -- at a single price.

That means most visitors to the Times' site will not run into any pay wall. The Times can set its threshold at 10, 20 or 30 page views a month -- and it can set the thresholds differently for different users (geographically, demographically or by any other kind of targeting and segmenting it is able to do). The idea: segment the infinity of Times digital usage, and only try to get paid for digital access from those who really value the Times brand. The rest: monetize the 95% through advertising.

Analyzing web traffic in a way that goes beyond unique visitor counts is the key to playing infinity well. A clear leader -- and model -- in the field is Mr. Grimshaw's Financial Times. The FT got analytics religion about three years ago, and now—with a new nine-person analytics team in place -- is re-fashioning itself into the Amazon of news publishing. That means really trying to understand the reading and shopping habits of its readers, applying that fast-rushing river of data to presentation, pricing and product decisions. It has used the data -- from regular readers and some of that fly-by traffic -- to hone a successful digital revenue stream.

In 2010, it grew advertising revenue, circulation revenue, audience and usage while most of its peers were still struggling with negative numbers on all those fronts. It has rebalanced its two legs of support better than most -- 55% of revenue now comes from readers, both print and online, up from just 26% a decade ago.

These reader learnings also mesh well with ad growth, creating a still imperfect but virtuous circle of knowledge. In fact, early this year, the FT will start offering top advertisers access to reader data. Advertisers or their agencies can sort it themselves, finding the target audiences they want. That's a kind of unusual transparency, built on the belief that ultimately numbers matter and that shared intelligence drives business.

Far too many other media companies, however, gather, but sit on, their data. Happily there are companies vying to make a business out of making media players smarter on metrics. Companies like Brighttag and YieldBot are trying to help by going beyond what the free offerings of services like Google Analytics (and now Twitter Analytics). The big notion here: In a world of seemingly infinite global audience and wider merchant reach, analytics will be what drives the business forward, not what measures its exhaust.

Ken Doctor is a news industry analyst for Outsell, a global research and advisory firm, and through his own Content Bridges company, he covers the transformation of the news media. He is the author of "Newsonomics: Twelve New Trends That Will Shape the News You Get" (St. Martin's Press)., with its new daily 5Spot feature tracking the trends, is a daily, updated web companion to the book.
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