Credit: Photo by Shahadat Rahman on Unsplash

Newsrooms continue to rack their heads on how to make news pay. While memberships and subscriptions have been in vogue during the pandemic, (and continue to be important), brands and commercial partners can also contribute to the bottom line.

That was the central point discussed at a panel last week at the Future of News Conference 2022, organised by the Society of Editors.

At a time when we talk so much about the need to diversify newsroom revenue streams, branded content campaigns were identified as a way to both advance editorial content and commercial revenue. That can take various forms. But data lies at the heart of the strategy.

Partnering up

At the regional news group Reach plc, for example, many of its titles have strong communities, think Manchester Evening News and Liverpool Echo.

Editorial teams must think carefully about the right commercial partnerships. The National Lottery has proved to be a valued partner for them, resulting in local news stories about how funds from the lottery have supported the local community.

Elsewhere, its national title, The Daily Mirror has found that a major emerging beat for them is around the cost of living crisis, so much so it has its own team and vertical.

Content around this sought-after topic is an opportunity to make prosperous commercial partners. A Facebook Live video (below) on the topic features a link to The Trussel Trust, a national campaign to end food banks in the UK.

Becky Clay, head of invention, Reach Plc said that page views are not the only metric that can tell you what's working. Her teams use sentiment analysis tools to better understand what readers care about, and to advance conversations with advertisers and partners. Ultimately, both sides need it to work because advertisers will not renew deals if campaigns flop.

Swapping notes

Getting that balance right is also key at the London Evening Standard. Many in the capital will automatically know the newspaper distributed for free on the underground, but it has found that virtual events can conjure up sponsored leads.

During the pandemic, it organised its free London Rising event with a range of sponsors in tow.

Louise Close, head of events at the London Evening Standard says that a dedicated insights team gathers site data before any campaign is launched. It wants to know which topics the audience is interested in to provide valuable data for potential sponsors. There is lots of scope as well to work with its sister newspaper, The Independent.

The team meets with editors once a week to brainstorm ideas about what readers want and seeks to bring those to life across print, digital and live events. It is a pitch to close the gap between editorial and reader.

Virtual events are going through a decline in interest with a return to normality after the pandemic, so the publication wants to focus on physical events. Moving forward, its West End Final newsletter is seen as a good marketing tool, which ordinarily serves readers the "very best of the paper", from culture and comment to features and sport.

From freemium to premium

When Ireland's INM (Independent News & Media) was taken over by Mediahuis in 2019, it set out to transform the title from print-first to digital-first.

Such a change resulted in a freemium title now putting up a paywall in 2020 and asking readers to pay for content going forwards. In 2021, it reported profits of £51.8m and 1.7m subscribers.

If you want readers to get out their wallets, however, you have to live up to the heightened expectations in quality that come with the charge, Edward McCann, deputy publisher at Mediahuis Ireland explained.

There has been a rethink in its output in response, starting up live Q&A events around the Northern Ireland election and venturing into the podcasting world. Deeper engagement and direct relationships are seen as the way forward. After all, people are not suddenly going to start paying for the same content they have long been receiving for free.

Appealing to the masses

The Guardian is the flagbearer of the voluntary donation model and has enjoyed much success with it, now surpassing the 1m 'subscriber' milestone. At the end of 2021, this was reported as 580k recurring donations (no perks) and 420k digital subscriptions (with perks).

It was introduced as a way to bust assumptions made about the typical reader after it found out that people donate not to support the paper's political stance, but as a position on keeping journalism free and open. That has been the centrepiece of its marketing and messaging efforts to grow the donation pool.

The Guardian has even created a role, reader revenue executive editor, specifically to understand its readers' editorial priorities and feed that into its editorial coverage. It could be considered a bridging role between editorial and analytics.

Jessica Hayes, deputy director of global supporter strategy at The Guardian says that the priorities remain communicating to readers that quality journalism needs funding and hanging on desperately to the ones who already donate. To achieve this, a supporters newsletter goes out weekly to keep people engaged once they have already subscribed.

We continue the conversation of future business models at Newsrewired on 24 May 2022 at News UK HQ, in London. We will hear more from the Guardian, Financial Times, Tortoise and Sifted on ways to continue reader revenue growth. Check out the full agenda here and buy your ticket here.

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