Audience development: New roles, new challenges
Audience development has come a long way from managing the circulation file. Today’s audience development teams face an ever-expanding job description, with oversight of such wide-ranging tasks as subscription management, search marketing, email newsletters and social media.
“Audience development has been turned upside down,” says Gloria Adams, senior vice president of audience development at PennWell, a B2B publisher of more than 40 trade publications. “It used to be pretty simple: Pay attention to the audits, set your BPA statement goals, and when you met those goals, life was wonderful. Now, there are so many other things we’re involved in. I’ve rewritten the job description twice in the past year.”
As the scope of audience development increases, so does the opportunity to have a greater impact on the business.
“Audience development is becoming much more important,” says Chris Wilkes, vice president of marketing and audience development for Hearst Magazines Digital Media. “There’s more demand now for getting audience beyond an organic level. That represents an opportunity for audience developers to make more of a contribution to the business.”
To help deliver that growth, audience development teams are being asked to act less like circulation managers and more like consumer marketers. Direct marketing, email marketing and other promotional activities have become core activities – and critical drivers of traffic. Wilkes estimates that 70% of the more than 40 million unique visitors to Hearst Media sites is generated by some sort of promotion.
“It’s all about understanding how to speak with a consumer, getting them to take action, and then analyzing and optimizing it,” says Wilkes.
Sounds simple, but the challenges of audience development in the digital age can be daunting. Let’s start with those consumer marketing skills. Successfully cultivating, attracting and retaining customers requires a deeper level of expertise in core areas such as brand messaging.
“Audience developers have to pay more attention than ever to clarifying the brand,” says Lou Ann Sabatier, principal of Sabatier Consulting. “There are more players, and the competition is changing. So your value proposition and how you message that have never been more critical in promotion. Traditionally this was PR, but it’s coming to the fore now for audience development.”
Adams echoes the call for consistent messaging – and the role of audience development in shaping and delivering that message. “We really have to be involved in all aspects of marketing to our audience,” she says. “We need a unified approach to what we’re saying and how we’re communicating it – through editors, marketing, etc. The message has to consistent and reflective of the brand.”
Another increasingly important aspect of audience development is consumer research. Some publishers are looking beyond the traditional focus group and reader surveys to develop a better understanding of what their audience wants – and what they’re not getting from the publication.
“Publishers need to understand the experience users are looking for,” says Andy Feldman, senior consulting director and leader of the media practice at Creative Good, a customer experience consultancy whose client list includes the Los Angeles Times. “That experience should focus on what their unmet needs are, and how those unmet needs overlap with the business objectives of an organization.”
Those insights can lead to better decisions about promotions that drive not just more traffic, but more valuable traffic. Some tactics are fairly obvious – such as promoting content across brands that have overlapping audiences.
Hearst, for example, does a lot of cross-brand traffic promotion. Syndicating content from newer brands such as Real Beauty on more popular sites such as Marie Claire, Good Housekeeping or Redbook can drive more traffic back to those smaller sites. The key for Wilkes and his team is finding ways to convince those new visitors to come back for more.
“We can show significant results from marketing for a site like Real Beauty, but once you stop those efforts, there’s not a lot of staying power,” he explains. “So instead of just measuring the initial boost of driving traffic from Marie Claire to Real Beauty, we want to look at how much repeat activity we can drive, so we can measure the longer-term value of these promotions.”
This measurement aspect is the key for Wilkes. "We track any kind of editorial and marketing promotion, and we're using that data to make our next decisions about programming," he says.
About those skill sets
Unfortunately for many publishers, deep consumer marketing expertise is beyond the current grasp of many audience development teams.
“The people who are good at circulation aren’t necessarily the right people for all these new tasks,” Adams admits.
And it’s not like publishers have a lot of extra money to invest in building out those skills, either with new hires or with training programs for existing staff. “Audience development directors have more to manage, more to measure, but in this economic climate, not always more dollars to invest,” says Sabatier.
So there’s a lot of organic, on-the-fly learning going on, usually the result of much trial and error. “Once you start realizing what you need to be doing, you start figuring out how to do it,” says Adams. “We’re just scrambling to stay on top of that.”
There are cultural barriers as well, as print publishers continue their often difficult transition to a digital-centric mindset.
“Some publishers still think audience development is just about selling print subscriptions,” says Sabatier. “It’s hard to tell someone 'don’t try to sell – just get their email.' That conversion in thinking is very difficult for many people. But that’s what audience development has become.”
It’s also become something that more people throughout the organization need to think about. Audience development is a task not just for audience managers, but for editors, producers and designers as well.
"Everyone's job is overlapping,” says Eric Rutter, vice president of audience marketing with Reed Business Information, a B2B publisher. “Editors never cared about audience data before. Now we aren't sure where one [job] ends and the other begins."
Sean Blanda contributed to this article.