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    Ask the experts: How can I unlock the value of my audience?

    Last updated: July 9, 2024

    Editor’s note: This post was adapted from our June 2024 webinar with Jacob Donnelly, Amanda Phillips and Dustin Titus. We’ve edited their quotes for length and clarity. Check out the full recording here

    Audience = revenue. We all know it, but it’s harder to implement the workflows and infrastructure that’ll help you grow, engage and activate your audience. Our research bears this out: 81% of media professionals say they’re maintaining or increasing their audience investment, but 65% of them don’t have a formal audience development plan. 

    So how can you unlock the value of your audience? What structures and systems do you need to create memorable audience experiences while still driving revenue and growth?  

    Streamline your tech stack: Boost efficiency, unify data & retain talent! Get expert tips now:

    This month, Jacob Donnelly of A Media Operator sat down with Amanda Phillips, Vice President of Marketing at enthusiast publisher Active Interest Media, and Dustin Titus, Chief Digital Officer at Zoomer Media, to discuss: 

    • The state of and the role of audiences in today’s media, publishing, and content business.
    • What an audience-first strategy looks like.
    • The critical ingredients of an audience plan and strategy
    • The essential skills, culture, tech, and data environments required to ensure your audience and business thrive.

    Read on to learn how to execute an audience-first strategy 

    Donnelly: Why do you believe an audience-first mindset is so critical for businesses today? And how does it impact the overall growth and success of your brands? 

    “Without the audience, we wouldn’t be around,” Phillips says. “They should be top priority and even more so these days. And in the future, there’s more noise to fight through. So we need to find better ways to reach them. We’ve got to get around the noise of social and AI and web and all those things that are out there. And there’s more competition at different levels, right? So it’s more important than ever to focus on audience growth and development and hygiene and really keep them clean and healthy.” 

    Prioritizing audience helps Titus create more contextual, successful experiences that deliver value for Zoomer’s users and their advertisers.  

    “It goes back to advertisers for us. I think that by focusing our content on contextually relevant conversations in the target market, specifically from a local media perspective, we’re engaging audiences that advertisers are struggling to get to through their own content programs. And by increasing frequency and capturing and motivating our audience, we’re driving more value downstream for our advertisers and building a larger audience overall. So for us, context is super important.” 

    Who should manage audience at the company?

    Titus says Zoomer is rebranding its consumer marketing function to be more audience-centric. So instead of optimizing for circulation, they’re seeking to grow, develop and monetize digital audiences.

    “So now the old-school marketing and subscription departments are really reinventing themselves to become our audience and a membership or subscription isn’t just a physical or mailing piece anymore,” he says. “For us, it’s an email membership, it’s an SMS opt-in, it’s a social media following.” 

    Phillips and her team at AIM are also rethinking the role of Omeda. After switching from HubSpot to Omeda for their audience development needs, they rolled audience development into the broader marketing team and shifted to a growth-centric strategy.

    “We even have marketers that are titled Growth Marketers. So their focus and KPIs are related to growing our audience,” she says.

    But Phillips has realized that audience development transcends one single team. Everyone in the organization has a role to play in crafting a cohesive, memorable audience experience — and Phillips seeks out their expertise. “That said, though, it’s not just marketing. It’s become very apparent that editorial is involved, web and product development is involved. Our research entity too, those folks are involved because without everyone, we can’t be successful.”

    As we move into an audience-first approach, what are the specific KPIs for these growth people or audience people more broadly to judge whether it’s “working”? 

    Phillips uses a combination of depth and breadth to evaluate AIM’s audience development efforts so far.  

    “We’re still defining that. But high level, we still want our email opt-in list to grow,” Phillips says. “That’s probably number one because that’s a big piece of our advertising dollars right there — our digital audience. We’re still looking at subscription and membership growth in those areas.” 

    “We also don’t want the [audience to] fall off, right? It’s not only getting new people as part of your growth strategy, but keeping them there.”

    Titus approaches this from a data perspective. 

    “But frequency and frequency of use has become our number one KPI,” he says. “When I look at each property and how engaged the user base is, I’m really looking forward to figuring out how much of our audience is coming back and how actively they’re coming back. Are they opening our stuff daily? Are they listening to our podcast daily? What is the share of media attention I have when comparing ourselves  to the Metas and Googles of the world?” 

    But this formula will evolve next year and beyond. The team has more data at their disposal than ever — and their ability to collect and activate that data will determine how well they can connect with their audience. That means increasing the percentage of known users and building more robust audience profiles from there. 

    “I’m interested in watching a lot of different KPIs on my side — unidentified users, identified users, how quickly I’m moving someone from unidentified to identified, and the amount of data points I’m collecting. Am I actively growing data points in that time?” Titus says. 

    “I might be at 20 data points per day, but by the end of the year, I need to be at 30. And I need to have a certain level of overlap in my audience of how many data points I have per user.” 

    What data points do you care about besides first, last and email? How are you increasing those data points? Are you explicitly asking the audience for this information? 

    Titus uses a multi-layered approach to collect first-party data through their website, browser tracking and more. 

    “Beyond first, last and email, we’re working through things like addresses and postal codes for Canada through contesting, for example. We’re starting to progressively profile using polls and quizzes on site in content that’s contextually relevant to the content we’re feeding.” 

    “Then we’ve integrated our data layer into our commenting system called Viafoura,” he adds. “That helps us track how engaged someone is in the comments, what articles they’re reading, how long they were on that article, how many times they came back and shared it. I’ve got a lot more engagement points through my engagement platform, which Viafoura helps with as well.”

    “Then I’m able to pull out a lot of other things through the data layer in my browser — IP address, which is helping me get geo. And I’ve got a number of data points that depending on how tight the user has their browser locked in, I can pull those data points out of their browser as well.”

    That’s a lot of ground to cover. What is Titus prioritizing as he continues to build his data model? 

    He wants to perfect the logged-in experience for registered users. And that means creating a reg wall that will allow him to take in the first-party data necessary to customize the logged-in experience for each audience member.

    “If there was a priority for me over the next 12 months, it’d be the logged in experience and making sure I have an awesome one. And if we need to start reg walling or paywalling, I’m not going to start paywalling immediately, but I do want to place a regwall.”

    “Then I can start to collect at least little bits of data every time somebody logs in. I ask them another question before they get to their profile or they get to their saved bookmarks and articles. So I’m trying to find more and more engagement points throughout the website that give me that user interaction and then allow me to add extra data points to their profile.” 

    Phillips is taking a similar approach. She and her team are distributing surveys at the earliest touchpoints of the process, so they can quickly learn about their new audience members and use that to deliver more relevant experiences. 

    “We’re also using what we call first-party data surveys as part of our welcome series and initial engagement pieces. So when someone comes into the fold, we ask them certain questions.” From there, they can tailor future content to each individual’s needs while also driving more leads and context for advertisers. 

    What are the critical components that should be included in an audience development plan? Do you have a formal audience strategy document? 

    Titus has a single strategy that encompasses data and audience since, in his words, they’re one and the same. 

    “I know a lot of people separate their data strategies from their audience strategies. But I did it a little bit differently because as a publisher, my data is my audience and my audience is my data,” he says. 

    That’s built on several guiding principles, including, “what it means to collect the data, how I’m doing it, and the relevancy to the practices that I’m going to use to look at and manage that data.”

    Layered on top of that is his tech stack, which accounts for both present and future needs. He’s also adding specific features to meet evolving advertiser needs and help them spin more product off of their content. 

    “I’m adding specific functionality that’s going to allow me to meet the different demands from an advertiser perspective that are coming. And those are,’ How do I productize my audience strategy?” Titus says.

    “So I’ve got a productization section here too. So it’s not just,’ Here’s my data. Here’s my tech. And then here’s the products I can build based on that. I think that productization part is where we can sit in the middle between our audiences and vendors and try to figure things out.”

    From that foundation, they can address individual parts of the audience experience, like optimizing the login process or implementing progressive profiling.

    “Like how do we pull certain products out and give them to advertisers to buy? Then we start getting into specific things like,’ How am I going to handle SSO? How am I gonna handle data collection? What does my progressive personalization look like? How am I going to accomplish certain tasks as far as data enrichment, productization, and then processing that out into my campaign management teams, and my integration teams across TV, radio, print and digital and social?” 

    Phillips says AIM doesn’t have an organization-wide audience development plan, but individual teams have their own strategies set to paper. As these plans have become more sophisticated, and their goals more ambitious, Phillips realized that they needed to incorporate editorial and other teams into their audience development work. 

    “We’ve been working through those needs and trying to say. ‘These are the KPIs, now how do we meet them?’ That goes right into,’ Well, now we need editorial. Now we need to involve product development. Now we need to involve the web team.’ It grew and it’s been growing, and it’s clear we can’t just put it right here in this little marketing section. We’ve got to include the bigger team across the whole company, honestly.” 

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