The GNI Data Lab — a partnership of Local Media Association, the Google News Initiative and Deloitte Consulting that enables news organizations to transform their businesses through strategic data use — kicked into high gear in recent weeks, hitting two major milestones.

First, each of the six participating media companies received a data maturity assessment from Deloitte following a week-long, in-person visit to each company and over 75 interviews with key business leaders. The report includes an assessment of how well the company strategically uses data in consumer and advertising business facets, as well as in-depth analysis of data-related opportunities in digital advertising areas such as yield management, audience segmentation, and sales channel optimization.

The second milestone featured a gathering of 30+ senior local media executives, along with Google, Deloitte and LMA, at Google’s Chicago office July 22. The cohort participants, a mix of newspapers and broadcasters, learned where they stood in benchmarked key performance indicators, such as digital revenue as a percentage of total ad revenue, direct sell-through rate, and direct vs. programmatic ad yields. Deloitte summarized high-level observations and recommendations across the group, and participants shared insight from the areas in which they excelled, including business analytics and Salesforce [customer relationship management platform] effectiveness.

These were the top challenges as well as some notable best-practice approaches among participants.

Culture issues

Companies often lack clearly communicated vision about what the business could or should become. For some media companies, tension exists between consumer audience and the drive for digital subscriptions, and digital advertising/marketing or business-to-business revenue. Local media company representatives offered up specific challenges related to culture:

“We do extensive A/B testing for content, but not as much for ads.”

“Advertising presence in digital experience is completely the opposite of what it is in print. Consumers don’t want it. We need to minimize it.”

Conan Gallaty, chief digital officer, Tampa Bay Times, calls out a few best practices that can help with the culture shift to digital:

  • Have a clear strategy with KPI alignment across functions.
  • Communicate a central goal consistently and often across the organization and to all levels.

Data issues

While most participants are strong with data strategy, they struggle with execution.

Publishers need to standardize all collected consumer and business data, then apply data science. Many are missing the massive opportunity to create much greater value using data. Here’s what local publishers had to say:

“We are the land of 1,000 dashboards – a lot of data, but we need to find North Star.”

“TD Bank internally requires all new data elements be structured so they can feed their internal data lake. We need to take the same approach.”

Participants said they need data to be shared across functions, and to relate it to other data sets to become richer. Breaking down functional silos is critical.

“We have five or six consumer data collection vendors on-site. We should have one collector, then others could access. We haven’t made investments in business intelligence and tech, i.e. data warehousing.”

“Non-advertising people should be getting Lotame [data mangaement platform] education.”

Participants reported that substantial manual reporting soaks up scarce labor hours, preventing the organizations from getting to higher-value work.

Reader lifetime value is a big focus within digital subscription acquisition for newspaper companies, but many are lacking plans for retention and a clear sense of customer lifetime value for subscription revenue.

As far as business analytics, Mark Loomis, director of analytics at The Philadelphia Inquirer, offers some of the best ways media companies unlock the power of data.

  • Align on KPIs as an organization, define them clearly, and maintain them for some time.
  • Establish a separate analytics group to support all functions.
  • Set up a recurring newsletter and regular office hours to highlight the team’s capabilities and what’s being developed.

Sales effectiveness

For many publishers, there’s tension and a lack of transparency and collaboration between direct and programmatic sales channels that hinders yield optimization, the ability to identify larger sales opportunities, and margin analysis.

The evaluation of participants also reveals a lack of CRM use to the manage sales pipeline. Additionally, there’s an inconsistent ability for sales reps to articulate the digital value proposition up front, as well as explain results and value received.

The Seattle Times has been able to use Salesforce effectively to offset this challenge. VP of Advertising Gary Smith shares this insight of what’s worked:

  • Eliminate the crutch for multimedia sales reps while empowering and challenging top digital resources to grow business faster.
  • Host weekly digital sales training consistently. The Seattle Times has done this for the last 2+ years.
  • Add an account management function for pre- and post-sales analysis and support.

These challenges all present opportunities. In the next phase of the GNI Data Lab, each participant company will build on two to three priority initiatives emanating from their report and the Chicago cohort meeting. We will summarize those plans and ongoing progress in future LMA updates.

LMA’s work with the GNI Data Lab is part of Accelerate Local, commited to reinventing business models for news.