In the two and a half decades that I have worked in newsrooms, I have constantly been surprised by our readers. They are willing to pay for what? They pay us more than what they pay Netflix every month – and then spent most of their time reading what?
Here are four lessons I’ve learned that anyone who produces content should be aware of:
1. What you think is your most valuable content really isn’t what your readers think is valuable. I am amazed at what our readers take out their credit cards for. Policy-changing investigations that we spent 20 months on? Sometimes. How to sleep better at night? Often. A story on something marginal, obscure or secondary? Good god, a couple of hundred times a month!
We only realized this to be true after we let an intelligent algorithm that uses Natural Language Processing, which we call Sophi, scrutinize every article that we publish and predict what we should paywall. It turned out that we were leaving millions of dollars a year on the table because we, as editors, didn’t realize the value of all of the content that we put in front of our readers. We were too busy looking only at the biggest stories that we, as journalists, took the most pride in. But readers don’t always share our sense of pride in holding the rich and powerful to account – they just want to be smarter or richer or healthier.
The moral here is that content editors should not be the ones trying to figure out what readers consider valuable. Let a machine that doesn’t have your biases do that work objectively and intelligently to best understand your readers.
2. What brings them in the door isn’t what keeps them as paying customers. Ok, so now you’ve committed to paying us 25 bucks a month. Surely you’re spending your time on our site reading thoughtful journalism that helps build a stronger nation.
That’s what we’d like to believe, anyway. Actually, our subscribers like to read a lot of frivolous stuff. Our tv critic’s views on three new thrillers on Netflix are right up there at the top of the list, next to headlines on grim COVID news and fretting about the runaway real estate market.
Once we understood this at the Globe, we decided to experiment with serving two different versions of our section pages and article pages – one that offers anonymous readers a mix of content that is optimized for driving conversions, and another that serves paying subscribers a mix of content that is optimized for retaining them as paying subscribers. We were pleasantly surprised to find that this kind of segmented optimization was very successful.
3. Perfectly polished copy is not essential. When I first started at the Globe, our writers’ copy would go through four pairs of eyes before it made it to print. Then we got into blogs and breaking news – two pairs of eyes were plenty. And now, you can read star writers’ raw, unedited copy through media such as Substack – and readers don’t seem to mind one bit.
4. Fresher is not always better. If you’ve worked in the news business, chances are that you automatically assume your readers always want fresh news. If it ran yesterday, then why would anyone read it tomorrow? When we automated our digital content placement using Sophi, we were surprised by how often the algorithm would surface content that was more than a few hours old. Surely it was broken? But, no: many of our readers actually do want yesterday’s news tomorrow – and sometimes even next week. It could be because they weren’t glued to their computer screens for eight hours a day reading the news the way we were. They may have only just heard of something (such as the mystery of why butter is harder in COVID times) and come to our site looking to understand why. Or maybe they stumbled upon it serendipitously while browsing altogether different content, and it’s still interesting to them.
This is why pages where content is in reverse-chronological order are full of lost opportunities. A smart algorithm sees this, and can find your buried gems for you.