The Guardian: Can journalism be sold like a pair of trainers?

In a conversation with the Global Editors Network, Anna Bateson, chief customer officer at the Guardian talks about the Guardian’s reader-first strategy, taking inspiration from other industries, and funny job titles.

The Guardian reports that it is well on track with its three-year strategy to make the Guardian sustainable and break even at operating level by 2018–19.

‘More than 800,000 people now financially support the Guardian, up 200,000 from a year ago. Of these about 200,000 are print or digital subscribers, more than 300,000 are members or regular contributors, and more than 300,000 gave one-off contributions’.

Anna Bateson

Anna Bateson was appointed as the Guardian’s first ever chief customer officer in 2017. As part of her role, she takes global responsibility for the Guardian’s membership, subscription and contributions programmes. Bateson joined the Guardian from Google, where she was director of global consumer marketing at YouTube.

Interview slightly edited.

GEN: Journalism is not a business like any other — or is it? To what extent does your role differ from the role of Chief Marketing Officer in other industries?

Anna Bateson: I do think that journalism differs to other commercial businesses. I increasingly think of it as a social good, and therefore one which can have a different and more direct relationship with our readers and we can ask for funding directly from those readers. There is no intermediary, and the value exchange is as much an emotional one as it is transactional. Therefore, in many ways my job is the same as other CMOs — I have stewardship of a brand whose​ equity is defined and built up by the daily interactions the readers have with our journalism. Trust is paramount, and the constant investment in the maintenance of that trust is core to our sustainability.

Your job role is ‘Chief customer officer’. When does a reader turn into a customer?

In a very blunt and literal way a reader turns into a customer when they choose to give us money — either by buying our paper, by making a contribution, by subscribing to a product, or by taking up one of our other products. But we don’t think of them as customers — we think of these readers who give us money as Supporters. But Chief Supporter Officer is a very funny title.

Do you take inspiration from other industries outside of media in terms of building customer loyalty?

Yes. There is so much to learn from other industries, and indeed from the charitable sector and from political movement organisers and fundraisers. From these sectors, I have learned about the power of the context for the ask for contributions. It is as much about what the reader is reading at that moment.

The primacy of our editorial platform does mean that it is not always the case that the ‘customer is always right’. But that doesn’t mean we don’t think of ourselves as having a reader first philosophy. The reader has a right to be listened to, and respected, but at times their opinion might differ to our editorial line — and that is important to acknowledge.

Please could you give us some more insight into the Guardian’s reader-first strategy and in what way your strategy is ‘ahead of the curve’ for news organisations?

The Guardian has a very individual and special ownership structure — we are funded by the Scott Trust, which exists only to sustain Guardian journalism in perpetuity. This allows us to form relationships with our readers where we can ask for their money to fund our journalism. We are able to be transparent about how their money is being spent — only on journalism, not on enriching any shareholders. I don’t see this as ahead of the curve, but rather as something that is uniquely possible given our ownership structure​ the trusted relationships we have with our readers.

The perks of a Guardian membership aren’t immediately obvious (no paywall etc), so why do people pay for a membership?

Membership isn’t about perks. The desire to support our journalism, and the satisfaction in playing a part in the funding of the public service mission of quality journalism is the biggest motivation. Those who contribute also benefit from emails from our editors and journalists, and a closer proximity to our journalism, and the stories behind the stories.

Our original membership scheme offered access to events, but while this was of interest to a small and loyal group of supporters, it was inevitably geographically bounded and therefore hard to scale. The power of our contributions scheme is that we can unlock the support of our global readership.

Has the membership scheme had an impact on the Guardian’s editorial line?

We are working to bring readers closer to our journalism, listening to their views — whether that’s through series such as Voices and Votes, or via our members podcast — and providing them with insight to understand behind the scenes at the Guardian. However, decisions on the journalism we produce are made by our team of senior editors.

We were wondering what role platforms play in your strategy. How strongly does the Guardian rely on Google and Facebook for distribution?

Google is extremely important for discovery. We index very highly and therefore Google is a regular source of traffic and an increasingly important referrer during moments of breaking news when users are searching on specific topics or events.

Facebook is still important to the Guardian for reaching non regular audiences and groups of readers who might not otherwise come to the Guardian, but it makes up a small proportion of our overall traffic. The importance of Facebook referral has been declining over the last year although video explainers that we create for the platform do well.

How has traffic to Guardian articles fared since the recent Facebook algorithm change?

So far, if we have seen any impact at all, it has been a positive one.

A recent article by Dylan Curran about all the data Google and Facebook have on us has been widely shared. In this tweet, it is pointed out how many Google/Facebook trackers are on the page of that same article. How can you be transparent about the tracking on your website? Is it your responsibility to be transparent about this?

I absolutely believe it is our responsibility to be transparent and to hold ourselves to the highest standards in putting our readers first and respecting their privacy. We regularly review our cookies, which are a necessary part of the current digital advertising ecosystem and we will continue to do this. We are currently updating our privacy and cookie policies to be ready for GDPR and I think this is only the beginning of what is an ongoing process of transparency, respecting our reader’s trust, and pushing to evolve our industry and best practice within it.

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal — it’s been revealed that the Financial Times and Economist were Cambridge Analytica clients — what are the more successful and ethical marketing practices to get customers on board?

I am a marketeer and I think there are clear boundaries between sensible targeting, smart media usage, and the sorts of activity that Cambridge Analytica were alleged to be involved in. I also believe that political advertising and messaging should be held to a higher and distinct bar.