Digital transformation: The loyalty factor in the search for reader revenue

Audiences are becoming more and more fragmented, and to serve them, news publishers have to meet these diverse needs across different platforms. A key enabler of the new normal is turning digital readership into a source of revenue by leveraging on existing relationships with readers.

“I’m a big believer in valuing your content. If you think of a newspaper company before the digital era, readers paid for news when they bought newspapers. It’s channelling this thinking online,” says Lyndsey Jones, a strategic advisor and coach with the World Association of News Publishers’ (WAN-IFRA) Women in News programme.

In the second of a two-part interview, Jones, author of the upcoming business education book, ‘Going Digital’, to be published in early 2022, and a former executive editor of the ‘Financial Times’ shares her thoughts on reader revenue prospects for African media. 

1. One of the factors you speak about in your sessions with news publishers in the countries where WIN is active in Africa (Botswana, Malawi, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe) is the idea that loyalty grows revenue. How can an organisation build loyalty?
Loyalty builds revenue. Organisations need to build a sustained audience and customer habits over time. In editorial, for example, it may be that you publish certain content at a specific time to target a particular demographic of your audience.

On a more detailed level, you can carefully curate links in copy. Take care how high up the story you place them. You don’t want people to leave the story if you have a link in the intro. Consider what content the links take people to. The links should be to in-depth, evergreen articles that are relevant to the story and not to some random news story that mentioned the company or person only the day before. Review whether people are clicking on them. 

Complex language can switch people off. Keep it simple. Ensure headlines grab attention while still saying what the story is about. Also, put meaty quotes high up in the article and at regular points in longer-form pieces to retain readers’ attention.

Remember, though, that each site and audience is unique so you will need to routinely look at drop-off points. Why are people leaving your site and at what point? Run controlled experiments to find your sweet spot. Set tight time frames and weed out strategies that work and those that don’t and make sure you evolve tactics quickly. 

Finally, if people trust your news site, and they can come to you to understand complex issues in an accessible, accurate way, then they will likely pay for that high-quality content. There is a value in being a high-quality product, a trusted source of news, one that is known for accuracy and can break exclusives and set the news agenda for the day. People will pay for that.

2. In your assessment of the African media space, what do you think are the biggest obstacles news publishers will need to overcome in establishing reader revenue models?
There are a number of challenges for the media sector. Infrastructure is one of the issues that is mentioned a lot. Access to advanced technology and internet penetration are others that can be problematic. Data is also expensive and the time it takes to load can be off-putting. Chartbeat, for example, found that fewer people scroll in the CEMEA region and this may be to do with load speed. If people do not scroll, they may not even see the intro to your story. 

Some populations can also be hesitant when it comes to paying for news. For instance, it can be a challenge if your target audience is largely made up of farmers and remote rural communities – but then you may need to think of sponsorship deals or partnerships with agricultural businesses.

3. What are the biggest opportunities?
I think there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Kenya, for example, is a pioneer in both digital consumption and innovation. According to the Reuters Institute, the country will have seven million new mobile phone subscribers by 2025. This is a huge potential growth market for news consumption.

Uganda has a population where roughly 70 per cent are under the age of 30. This generation of consumers is online and could be another source of growth.

In Zimbabwe, about 49 per cent of people have a mobile money account, which is a good indicator of whether they are able to pay for online services.

Focus on making your content discoverable, engaging your readers and thinking beyond your national borders to push into new markets. Ask yourself: is the diaspora engaging with your content? Where else in the world are you being read and why? These are all exciting opportunities.

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