In Conversation: Claudia Stebbings Head of Marketing, New Business Division, The Times and The Sunday Times 

In recent years the world’s press has reinvented itself supplementing print offerings with complimentary content and digital platforms.  PWC Global Entertainment and Media Outlook 2016-2020 report on Newspapers and Magazines Discussed the emerging strategic imperatives for print publishers of digital diversification and quality against the backdrop of the consumer need for news quality and immediacy. The Times and its sister titles has had great success with digital initiatives and platforms. In Feb 2020 the number of online subscriptions to the Times and Sunday Times was up 19% y/y. Digital only paid subscribers (304,000 of them)  now represent 56% of total subscriptions. The group of titles and magazines now has over half a million subscribers across its platforms and digital-only subscriptions now exceed print.  We were keen to understand how social media marketing has helped achieve this success and the challenges of delivering large scale, integrated social campaigns. 

What Are Your Responsibilities? Through the line marketing communications   to attract new audiences and promote new product offerings, using social media channels plus Times’ channels and platforms to drive new revenue streams.

Which Are your Top 3 Digital Channels?  We have multiple Twitter channels, the immediate, conversational nature of Twitter works well for a news organisation. We have Facebook pages that are Times’ owned properties and some sub-brands have their own pages. We’re also present on Instagram with its strong visual emphasis which works particularly well for our lifestyle brands.  

How Do You Use Digital Channels? My team builds ‘look-alike audiences’, similar in profile to a current customer base for a Times product such as The Sunday Times Wine Club, Times Currency Services, Times Expert Traveller and our new personal finance website, Times Money Mentor. We profile audiences to drive leads, traffic and ultimately revenue.  Data informs prospecting and retargeting as we build personas for look-alikes and subscribers based on past browsing or buying behaviour. We retarget these individuals with awareness content, secondary messaging and targeted offers across social platforms. Once engaged, they’re driven to our sites, we don’t invest heavily in external stand-alone communities. But The Times, with its own Facebook pages and hundreds of thousands of followers is an exception to this rule. It takes long term investment to build owned communities and platforms and we track that ROI closely. 

Which Teams are Involved with Communities? The Times has a centralized team dedicated to managing communities on platform as well supporting social media accounts for sub brands within the portfolio. Editorial play a central role, bringing their content to life through video, polls and comments. They also participate in communities for specific ‘news events’. Brexit offered this opportunity, where we set up a Facebook Group 52:48, as a place for readers to talk about issues arising from “Brexit” in a customized space. This approach might apply to any community of interest in B2B or B2C. 

Has the Significance of Social Media Changed for You? Editorial has been the heart of our proposition since 1785. The audience and editorial teams evaluate the current events for web or print coverage daily. Individual stories are assessed for suitability specific to social media and by platform. Social media has overturned the ‘traditional’ news cycle. Previously a story would appear in print, then go online and eventually possibly onto social. Nowadays it’s likely social media elements will be delivered first. We also create shorter ‘snackable’ content to reflect ‘consumption’ preferences – we use video increasingly and exclusively on digital. There’s been a shift on social media’s place in our audience communications strategy. Now it’s a core part of how we distribute content.

Has social media affected your approach to research?  Product development and user sentiment research is conducted via digital testing platforms and face-to-face. Editorial polls on newsworthy subjects like the NHS or Brexit help inform editorial pieces with insight gained via readership feedback. The polls have grown in significance and can now evolve into a news piece in their own right. Social media has reduced acquisition costs and significantly improved our testing capability. We test messaging and creative and we experiment with language and tone.  For example, in the past we’d never use emojis in a Times email, but there’s more scope on social platforms, it’s more personal, we aim to mirror that style.  Actionable low-cost insights are available fast and allow us to improve campaign performance in real time. Findings flow back through the organisation into marketing and advertising teams. We test at speed and with confidence.  Social media plays a critical role, particularly with new products. But there is one caveat …

Does the Approach Have any Risks? Instant insight makes it easier to take hasty decisions.  We can test multiple elements quickly, but we risk not letting campaigns run long enough to deliver before killing tactics and creative themes that haven’t yet proved their worth. Nowadays it’s easy to terminate a campaign when previously you would have made it work harder with course corrections and given sufficient time to do its work. Visibility of data has huge benefits, but it can distract from a focus on strategic goals.

What Guidance Do You Have for Those Planning digital campaigns and content? Be Aligned:  Social media teams are often siloed, and this is not conducive to an aligned set of activities and outputs. Where individual teams focus on CRM, paid media, social and PPC, the overarching campaign elements may become uncoordinated as each team focuses on their own deliverables. Inter team competition can also drive this behaviour in the race to claim ‘last click’ attribution to channel and content. Alignment is essential.  It enables effective, smart, sequential messaging and keeps us conscious of the recipient’s experience and limits the risk of us overwhelming them with, dislocated, confused communications. Orchestration of tactics helps us stay ‘on brand’. We intend to use experience audits to demonstrate how counter-productive unaligned activities can be for recipients. Digital enthusiasm doesn’t always drive the right behaviours.

Remember Awareness:  A focus on metrics and ROI leads us to concentrate on the middle to bottom of lead funnel, where digital allows speedy validation of spend. I observe a lack of confidence in awareness because short term results from awareness building is hard to measure. It’s a challenge to reconnect top of funnel to conversion stage. The brand builds pools of people who display interest or intent, then the digital team cultivate them. Conscious alignment and integration of the brand through all elements of the work through to social media tactics is something we’re very aware of.

Without doubt building a lookalike strategy is heavily iterative but it pays dividends and uncovers new, previously untapped groups of consumers for published content. It’s clearly important however, not to lose sight of marketing fundamentals and long term plans as well as systematically testing and experimenting with new media and messaging. As technology continues to evolve it will provide even more ways exciting ways for news readership to engage with digital content (including voice search and video) and  attract new audiences outside of pre-existing customer segments.

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