Ben Monnie, director of global partnerships for Google News Initiative, joined LMA’s Digital Revenue Summit on Aug. 9 for an engaging keynote conversation on lessons learned across three years of programs focused on digital revenue and sustainability.

GNI’s Innovation Challenges, Digital Growth Program, and Digital Subscriptions Lab aim to help local news organizations reach sustainability and revenue growth as they navigate the ongoing challenges of a digital revolution. Scalable examples from news organizations across media types show how the projects have helped to improve business objectives, use data effectively, and approach digital products.

Monnie shared four key takeaways for news organizations from GNI programs focused on reader revenue.

Ben Monnie

Practice ruthless prioritization

Especially when working with a smaller team and fewer resources, it’s essential to practice “ruthless prioritization,” Monnie said. This means carefully choosing only high-impact initiatives and focusing on consumer revenue from the top down so the whole company is aligned.

“It’s a mindset change, and requires a massive amount of organizational focus to get your head around what it means to be a reader-first and consumer-revenue-first organization,” Monnie said. “You definitely need that kind of leadership and culture change within all aspects of the organization.”

Understand the audience

Customer research — through surveys, focus groups and meetings — helps reveal how readers see the brand and product, their willingness to pay, and how they see a news entity among other digital information and entertainment options they’re potentially paying to consume. Involving both editorial and business teams in research can help the news organization think differently about how to deliver the journalism, and offer more depth to understanding audience segments and habits that inform digital product sensibility.

“You need to deeply understand your reader, and that isn’t always in the DNA of organizations,” Monnie said. “… We essentially need to meet the reader where they are as opposed to delivering things in the way we’ve always done it.”

Perfect the product experience

News organizations should have a great product and unique, differentiated journalistic experience, such as a fast-loading, mobile-friendly website that’s worth a reader’s subscription.

“Once you know a little about what the user wants — both current and prospective readers — you need to do the real work to make sure that going to the website, reading the site on mobile, etc., that it’s … not just pleasant but actually really good,” Monnie said. “… The idea being, you need to create a habit, which creates loyalty, which creates, essentially, the sense that this thing is valuable. And what do we do when things are valuable? Typically, we pay for it. So that whole experience needs to be a good one.”

Balance analytics with emotion

When building a subscriptions business, organizations should understand if consumer revenue is sustainable by analyzing the addressable audience, how many audience members would become paying subscribers, how to price the digital products, expected churn rate, and other factors.

Monnie said the biggest hurdle to maximize digital revenue is not to increase subscription price or add products to a bundle; it’s getting initial buy-in from a subscriber. Appealing to a user’s emotion — passion for journalism, their community or a particular topic — is crucial for the reader to take the first step.

“You really need to approach this with a hyper analytical focus and it really is a numbers game,” he said, adding that GNI has several tools like the Digital Growth Program to help. “On the other side of the equation, you need to make sure there is thought given to [create] a brand and product experience that people are going to fall in love with. And that’s about making sure you understand brand resonance and the overarching message for how can someone fall in love with [the brand] such that they’re willing to pay.”

Nancy Lane

“It was great to have Ben kick off this year’s Digital Revenue Summit,” said Nancy Lane, chief executive officer, LMA and moderator of the session. “Ruthless prioritization is hard work but the payoff is huge. As an industry we need to listen more and focus on user experience. Ben nailed it.”

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