This year, the Financial Times (FT) hit the 1m paying digital subscribers milestone, a goal the company had been chasing for a decade.
Both are examples of north star goals in action, according to Tara Lajumoke, the managing director of FT Strategies, the FT's consulting arm working across media, arts and financial sectors, speaking on the Journalism.co.uk podcast.
The north star goals are an essential part of digital transformation, which she defines as the process of evolving an organisation to a point where it can use technology, data and strategy to fulfil its mission.
Three steps to digital transformation
Start with the problem
Think about your newsroom and your readers. What are their pain points? For example, lacking representative voices, key formats not on offer, or pricey subscription tiers. Do your own audience research or look into wider media trends.
For the readers of the Financial Times, the biggest problem was that quality journalism seemed threatened in the digital age. So its digital news subscription is - in addition to being a revenue source - a way to ensure readers are getting regular, trustworthy information.
Understanding the core problem helps to set strategy and audience approach, such as how to motivate people to try out subscriptions or not to cancel them. These questions will set the tone for work culture, leadership style, hiring focus and performance reviews.
Take stock of your situation
When FT Strategies works with media organisations, it will do a stock take of current data and analytics, wider customer market data and competitor performance.
Ask yourself: given your current situation (workforce, budget, tech stack) and broader environment (audience trends and regulatory framework), where do you need to get to in three years' time? This is not to be confused with where you want to get to.
Create an audience proposition
What combination of products and services do you then need to improve or bring in to make this happen?
Take FT Edit, for example, the FT's latest app that rounds up must-read stories of the day. It is much cheaper than a subscription and its objective is to pull in sought-after social media audiences.
Having a clear audience proposition is essential. The FT realised that if it wanted to reach this new audience, it needed to provide a news product that was more affordable and easier to create.
Creating your north star goal
Be SMART and focused
Now you know what your audience needs, what resources you have available and what else you need to get there?
North star goals can be thought of as a top-priority, long-term, shared goal that every single department of the company is working towards. It prevents everyone from getting distracted, confused or disillusioned.
North star goals should be SMART: specific, measurable, ambitious or aspirational, relevant and time-bound. Make sure it is a goal that every department can support and will be hard enough to last between three to five years.
Your north star goal will also be underpinned by two or three sub-goals that you can start working towards tomorrow, not in six months' time.
If your north star goal is a subscription milestonem, that could mean having specific sub-goals around a) decreasing churn, b) creating positions for specialist roles, and c) adding new users per month.
Committees and champions
Normally the CEO and/or managing director of a news organisation set the north star goal. It is an executive decision. But they should be receiving listening to people from all layers of the company.
You can go as far as to set up north star committees, an A-list team of heads of departments: advertising, HR, subscriptions, communications etc. But also involve people on the shop floor, like well-respected and well-connected journalists. This helps executives understand what is risky, realistic or not considered.
"You want to have champions who can go back and, if you will, preach the gospel of north star," says Lajumoke.
Reviewing and changing
It is good practice to have annual reviews of your north star goals to ensure these are still relevant and on course.
They can change along the way due to circumstances. When the pandemic happened, the FT shifted its focus away from subscription growth and towards creating value for subscribers.
If a north star goal was unsuccessful, it may mean that it was not SMART enough. Go back to the drawing board and revisit your steps. If a north star is successfully hit, set a new one.
Lessons from retail
It might give you some comfort to know the news industry is not the only one wrestling with digital transformation. The retail industry, for instance, faces a similar problem with brick-and-mortar stores being threatened by online shopping. However, the retail sector is looking to link the two experiences, such as giving you options to go online and reserve items or collect in-store.
This trickles down into organisational management. Many clothing stores now have incentives for staff who are able to complete sales in-store or show customers how to complete an order online.
The takeaway for newsrooms, Lajumoke suggests, is how individual reporters could play a role in fostering digital transformation. For example, some newsrooms provide reporters with unique discount codes for subscriptions. But could this have a physical-world equivalent, like QR codes in your newspaper or magazine?
"Think about individual contributions which add up to something potentially quite substantial," concludes Lajumoke.
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