Journalism needs to connect the dots between audience engagement + making money. The key might be the concept of a marketing “funnel.”

Andrew Haeg
Nov 15, 2018 · 9 min read

As more engagement initiatives crop up at newsrooms around the world, the challenge has turned to making engagement part of the day-to-day work of newsrooms—and making a clear linkage between more deeply engaged audiences and communities, and more financially successful newsrooms.

Photo by Maxim Mogilevskiy

Funnels. Pipelines. Ladders. Cycles.

Once marketing jargon, these terms are now gaining traction within the journalism profession.

It’s no secret why. Journalism is rapidly transitioning from ad-based, scale-above-all business models to ones based on more engaged audiences that support the news directly through subscriptions and memberships.

As a consequence, journalism leaders are rethinking how they relate to their audiences and communities—both in how they serve them with information and how they activate them as supporters. The old-but-new concept of a marketing “funnel” (or whichever metaphor you find most useful) might be what ties media’s public service function and its future as an again-thriving industry.

St. Elmo’s funnel

The marketing “funnel” is not new. Advertising executive Elias St. Elmo Lewis coined the term in the late 1890’s to describe how companies cultivate customers. The funnel provided a simple image and metaphor for how to “attract Attention, maintain Interest, create Desire and get Action.” The AIDA model — or some version of it — has guided how marketers and salespeople worked for generations.

Applying this model to traditional, ad-supported journalism, the “editorial side” creates awareness and interest by publishing the news, while the “business side” sells ads (creating desire and action) against the audiences the journalists create. How the business side decided to build and sell the brand was up to them. Over on the editorial side, journalists were freed to focus on telling it like it is, free from the pressure of corporate interests to influence their work.

I speak to scores of newsrooms in my work evangelizing for deeper community and audience engagement. I also attend the big journalism conferences, like the Online News Association Conference and the International Journalism Festival. Here in the US — and increasingly in Europe and beyond — existential threats to our profession have forced journalists to help build the news brand and cultivate audiences in ways they never would have previously imagined.

It’s no longer enough to write or produce journalism; you are now (probably) expected to monitor the analytics on your work and meet quotas for audience building. Even if you aren’t, it’s now simply irresponsible to ignore the crucial role journalists play in creating sustainable financial foundations for their work.

A tale of two sides, separated by a wall

Photo by Tim Green

Imagine for a moment that you’re a consultant brought in to reimagine a news organization’s business. Perhaps you had the audacity to think of it like any other business, having not been steeped in the history of the Fourth Estate.

You interview key staff, you pore over balance sheets, and inspect key metrics. You quickly conclude that the organization’s main “value driver” — its beating heart — is an unrivaled ability to attract attention en masse. Journalists are pros at manipulating the levers of human attention. The true definition of “news” (despite our sometimes lofty ideals) isn’t always “what’s important.” Often it is “what demands that we take notice.”

Another great strength, you observe, is the organization’s ability to maintain interest. Journalists are storytellers extraordinaire. They understand the importance of characters, conflict, dramatic tension and the power of mysteries to rivet our eyes and ears.

But oh, dear consultant, here is where you bump headlong into a wall, or rather, a firewall. You discover there are two sides to the business, and that it’s the editorial side that controls the top end of the funnel. The bottom end of the funnel lives on the “business side.”

CONSULTANT: “I sense a disconnect between the people inspiring all the attention and interest and the people out there selling (creating Desire and inspiring Action). What’s that all about?”

NEWSROOM: “We proudly protect the editorial independence of our journalists. They must work free from the pressures of advertisers.”

CONSULTANT: “That, of course, presumes that advertising is the main way you will make money?”

NEWSROOM: “Oh, we’d very much like to sell more subscriptions and might even explore a membership model.”

CONSULTANT: “And these people who build the subscription and membership business… they’ll work closely with the editorial side — the journalists?”

NEWSROOM: “We can’t distract them. They’re too busy making the journalism!!”

CONSULTANT: Consultant slaps hand to forehead “Thank you for your time.”

exit consultant

Are we all becoming content marketers?

This little one-act morality play is, of course, overly simplistic. Many newsrooms have started to connect the long-separated “sides” of their business or created entirely new brands or sub-brands (Quartz, Vox, de Correspondent (and soon the US version: The Correspondent), Reckon, to name a few) that operate more as multi-functional (business + journalism) brand agencies than siloed journalism shops. This is encouraging.

In my experience, and in my conversations I had for this piece with journalism thought leaders like Mary Walter-Brown (CEO, News Revenue Hub), Emily Goligoski (Research Director, Membership Puzzle), Kristen Muller (Chief Content Officer, KPCC), and Jenn Brandel (Hearken), the historical “two-sides” view of journalism has prevented newsrooms from truly linking the “top of the funnel” (i.e. the journalism) with the “bottom of the funnel,” those parts where people go from interest to desire to action (supporting the work by subscribing or becoming a member).

There’s a whole field dedicated to people who’ve already figured this out, unconstrained by the historical and ethical constraints that created the two sides in journalism in the beginning. They’re called content marketers.

A few years ago I attended Denamicon, a conference devoted to “inbound marketing” (aka content marketing). A friend invited me thinking some of the concepts would be useful as we marketed GroundSource (the engagement platform I run).

Within moments, my notebook was filling up with answers to the question of how to link “engagement” to improving the business of journalism. Content marketers use information to move people down the funnel, from awareness through to buying. They are trained to segment audiences and use automation to serve them the content they need when they need it. They sell by practicing transparency; building credibility and trust; sustaining attention through engagement, and much more — all things that journalists ought to excel in.

Last year’s keynote was delivered by Marcus Sheridan, who shared his experience turning his swimming pool company into a content marketing juggernaut. In 2008 he was compelled by recession to differentiate his company, and he did so with information. He turned River Pools and Spas into the “Wikipedia of pool companies.”

He spoke passionately about listening to customers’ questions and answering them. If people want to know how much your pools cost, tell them! If they want to know who your competitors are, list them! If they want to know why the pools you sell are (or aren’t) a good fit, be honest! It turns out that aligning the stories River Pools told with their customers’ genuine curiosity, they were able to spur rapid, transformational growth.

The takeaways? Every company needs to think like a media company. That is, every company needs to think less about selling and more about storytelling. They need to hire journalism majors who are relentlessly curious lifelong learners. And they need to think less about “marketing” and more about “connecting people to stories.”

Connecting the funnel to sustain journalism

Conferences and professional groups focused on inbound and content marketing are cropping up around the world as more businesses understand the need to act like media companies (and even hire journalists). I believe that news organizations could be far more effective at translating the profoundly valuable skills of journalists into developing their marketing funnel.

In journalism, projects like the Membership Puzzle and the News Revenue Hub and platforms like Hearken and Coral Project and (ahem) GroundSource are creating technology and services to sustain journalism with new, highly engaged audience- and community-centered models. But for these to gain traction, we need to accelerate shifting mindsets, practices, and strategies.

From Awareness to Action

My daughter attends a sports camp where they preach “AARP” (nope, not the organization for…mature people). It’s a mnemonic for kids to improve in athletics and life: Awareness, Action, Repetition and Persistence.

Right now, if I were to assess where most news businesses are in doing the hard and necessary work of reorganizing our business around “funnels” and engagement, I’d put them mostly in the Awareness stage (with some Action). Ever more media professionals are aware that the antiquated, ad-driven media business models are largely broken, and that we’ll be building on new, engagement-driven, relational models for the foreseeable future.

To move from Awareness to Action, we desperately need leaders who speak to both “sides” of the business and bring them together in the same meetings and as cross-functional working teams.

Teams drawing on diverse talent can develop new products and services that integrate the engagement business (cultivating new audiences, segmenting them, driving them to action) with our skills in attracting attention and maintaining interest. This is primarily a challenge of developing leaders whose backgrounds and instincts enable them to develop strong businesses while maintaining the highest ethical principles.

Ethical and process questions abound

These leaders will face a key (and growing) tension: the logic of content marketing and business development inevitably leads down a path of gathering and storing (and then making sense of) as much audience data as possible, including data people didn’t knowingly share with you. “Data warehousing” is the new oil industry.

One of the leading providers of audience analytics and management, Adobe, touts its Data Management Platform as analogous to an oil refinery for customer data: “Just as it takes work to extract oil from the ground, refine it, and turn it into something like gasoline that everyone can use, a DMP refines data into a single view of the customer for better personalization and great experiences.”

The value of developing a unified view of our audiences and customers is undeniable. The more we know who’s gathering around our work, the better we can serve them, the better we can call them to sign up, support, and subscribe.

How might we find a balance between better understanding our audiences through data and being transparent about what we know (and abiding by GDPR and future privacy standards)? How might we serve audiences who can’t pay for our services, but rely on them? How might we better segment audiences to engage them better and give them more pointed calls to action? These are but a few of the questions we’ll need to grapple with.

Those of us working in this space see a path forward (despite obvious and daunting obstacles). We see a future with multitudes of thriving audience- and community-centered media brands serving the public and making money. Like our current political moment, we’ll need to realize that it’s better to work across divides instead of holding onto the primitive idea that there are only two sides.

GroundSource: Notes

Thoughts & lessons on building inclusive, authentic community engagement through mobile messaging.

Andrew Haeg

Written by

Founder, GroundSource @groundsource. Crowdsourcing pioneer, design thinker, husband, father.

GroundSource: Notes

Thoughts & lessons on building inclusive, authentic community engagement through mobile messaging.

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