INMA 2019 Story: Why journalism should sell a service — not a product

If you want an insightful, well-researched perspective on the evolution of news media, Grzegorz Piechota is a good place to start.
A researcher at the University of Oxford and Harvard Business School, Piechota studies how technology forces change on established industries. He is the researcher-in-residence at INMA, served on the boards of major journalistic enterprises, and has spoken as a thought leader at WMEMC and WAN IFRA events the world over.
At the INMA World Congress of News Media in May, our own VP of Marketing, Martin Pietrzak, met with Piechota, who made the case that audience engagement and data-driven editorial can rebuild journalism’s place in society by presenting the reporter’s craft as a service to invest in —  rather than a product to sell.
Martin Pietrzak: You called your presentation at the INMA congress “Reader-first Newsrooms: From content factories to service providers.” How do you see the evolution of the news media business?
Grzegorz Piechota: When media switched from advertising-based revenue to consumer-based revenue, that transformation involved changing other parts of the business model as well, not only the revenue source. When you change who pays, you need to adjust your value proposition to the needs of that different payer. And then, of course, you also need to adjust your operating model to be able to deliver that value proposition.
[Publishers] were using one single product to get as many readers as possible so they could aggregate their attention and send it to advertisers — the primary customer. We were chasing reach. Now, we no longer want to sell our products to as many people as possible because we know it is impossible. Content has become a commodity. Instead, we need to sell to the people who are the most profitable. Suddenly, we need to segment our consumers based on, for example, their profitability, and adjust our products to the consumers that you want to reach.
Pietrzak: You said content is a free commodity, which stuck with me because I’m not sure every journalist would agree.
Piechota: Content is a commodity because it is available everywhere. The tools are free. Anyone who wants to spread any kind of message can do it. In capitalism, the market determines the value of content, which on Facebook, Google and other platforms is virtually free.
But the way we deliver news products today makes it possible to think about journalism not as a product, but as a service. Two articles about a certain news event can have the same value from the perspective of company economics, but one was provided by professionals that actually verified its information. So I’m not paying for the piece of information; I can find a free alternative, right? But I cannot find a free alternative from somebody professionally trained in verifying this information. If I actually want to make a better decision based on facts, I want somebody to actually verify the facts.

"The way we deliver news products today makes it possible to think about journalism not as a product, but as a service."

Grzegorz PiechotaResearcher-in-residence at INMA
Pietrzak: You mentioned managing this shift from selling a single product to selling a subscribable service requires deep audience development skills. What do publishers need to think about when developing these relationships?
Piechota: When you make decisions about your content output, you must also data mine which target groups would be interested in this content, because your business model is based on finding the most profitable customers and putting a price tag on your service for them. You have to ask if [your content] is the best fit for the segment that are actually willing to pay for it … Suddenly, the decisions about content become decisions about audiences.
Pietrzak: Is this not simply pandering… producing what people want versus what they need? You’ve raised a few of those questions showing tension between loyalty to citizens versus loyalty to “customers.”
Piechota: It’s about needs. If I want to develop part of an audience, do they need content for themselves, or do they believe in that content? The Guardian is famous for charging its users while making content available for free. How the hell does that work? They look for customers who actually want to sponsor content for other people. Its readers might think climate change is the most important problem in the world, but that most of the public doesn’t see it that way. So they want to help The Guardian develop this content to spread the message. On the other hand, I may subscribe to the Financial Times’ content to understand the market and be smarter than my competitors. These would be very different needs. But what is common is we believe that factual, verified information moves communities to make better choices.
Pietrzak: So we’re not talking about chasing big Google search trends, which we’ve seen newsrooms do a lot of in recent years.
Piechota: When you think about your audiences, the core of the service that you want to provide should be wanting audiences to stay with you. The idea that newsrooms needed to grow and maximize their reach made them focus on people who didn’t actually visit their sites. “Oh, no. On Google, people are looking for information about this singer, so we need to have a story about them.” But we’ve since realized that people who want to pay for news are people who actually already use the product. And if you want to make them pay, you need to make them use the product more. We want to focus on driving the frequency of visits, maybe the depth of visits. We want to maximize the time that they spend on a page.

"We want to focus on driving the frequency of visits, maybe the depth of visits. We want to maximize the time that they spend on a page."

Grzegorz PiechotaResearcher-in-residence at INMA
Pietrzak: This has had a huge impact on how we measure success in this business, hasn’t it?
Piechota: We’re shifting from measuring past profitability to future profitability. In the past, profitability was about measuring individual products. But now you need to look at the profitability of individual customers because some customers will be buying more products. And then, because you shift from a single sale to [ongoing] subscriptions, it means that you can plan for future revenue. You can actually, based on your data, predict the future profits from the customer relationships that you start.
Pietrzak: This is where average annual revenue per user (ARPU) comes in.
Piechota: Yes. This absolutely gives you new opportunities. Because when you know the value of your customer over the next three years, you can rethink costs of acquisition. You can think about spending more because you know that this customer will most likely not just give you $10. The right person might be worth $300. And that means that you can outspend your competitors on acquisition and use this revenue to actually improve your product.
Piechota’s newsroom is a changed newsroom — one that’s shifted from content production to audience development by providing a service to communities. Building trust through engagement, he says, will be key to future success.
Read more about how media companies can drive retention, loyalty and trust in our guide.

How The Philadelphia Inquirer is Building an Audience-First Newsroom

The Philadelphia Inquirer gave Kim Fox a big job: help transform it into an audience-first news organization.

Sure, lots of newspapers advertise themselves as community focused, but for the Inquirer it has to be more than a marketing tactic — it’s a public-benefit corporation owned by a nonprofit dedicated to “preserving local journalism.” Community engagement is its official mandate.

Serving a city of nearly 1.6 million but lacking the resources of an international news organization, the Inquirer has had to be tactical in its approach. Its success, so far, has come from focusing on a few community news fundamentals and putting a new kind of editor in the newsroom.

Fox, the Managing Editor of Audience and Innovation, saw big challenges in connecting with readers when she arrived in 2016 from Bloomberg.

Just one example: reporters were being doxxed by trolls in a comment section so toxic, the mayor had publicly called it out. That problem was solved with investment in Viafoura’s moderation and engagement tools. It was one step of many in a longer-term challenge: the paper’s 240 journalists needed to make community engagement part of their day-to-day.

The fact that “editor” is in Fox’s job title shows how the Inquirer decided to approach this: as something championed by journalists rather than imposed on them from the business side or the organization. “There was some debate whether this kind of job should live with the product team or in the Inquirer’s newsroom,” says Fox. “The newsroom was the right place to make sure journalists bought in.”

Armed With Information

To help reporters adopt the tools of audience engagement and keep this change rooted in editorial, Fox created three editor positions overseeing SEO, newsletters and analytics. She describes them as coaches and advocates for their respective engagement tools, but says they are primarily there to help make stories better, discoverable and more relevant to the community.

“I like to say we’re data informed, not data led,” Fox says. Their approach is more than just seeing what stories are most-read and doing more of the same. They try to contextualize audience data, including from their moderation and engagement tool, to find opportunities for new products and services.

The Inquirer’s new Curious Philly sub-brand is showing early promise on this front. It lets residents ask questions about the city through an automated online audience platform. Asking about a city’s curiosities is a familiar concept to anyone in local news, but Fox sees it as the first step in making the Inquirer the “listening post of Philadelphia.”

“I like to say we’re data informed — not data led.”

Kim FoxManaging Editor of Audience and Innovation, The Philadelphia Inquirer

“We’ve been really successful with Curious Philly, getting more than 2,000 questions in the last six months,” she says. And while there are plenty of questions about local quirks (“What happened to the Hunting Park carousel?”), it’s starting to encompass broader, complicated issues (“I feel like the rest of the country’s economy is recovering and Philadelphia’s isn’t”).

“Think of that as 2,000 story assignments directly from the community,” Fox says. They tend to outperform other news items in terms of pageviews in part because they remain relevant longer than a typical news hit.

“We’re able to bring them back for recirculation on our site and promotion on social over a longer period of time, and some have been able to get a steady drip of evergreen search referral.”

The Ongoing Conversation

The success of Curious Philly drove more community outreach through a handful of workshops wherein Fox’s team connected with diverse groups of non-subscribers. Those sessions spawned We The People, another online sub-brand that profiles interesting, everyday individuals around the city. It also performs well from a traffic perspective and earned its reporter, Stephanie Farr, a Keystone Press Award in April.

The focus on community engagement is paying off. Online subscriptions have grown past benchmarks during Fox’s tenure, and she says the Inquirer has “some of the top retention rates for the industry at the metro level,” though she’s keeping exact figures close to her chest.

“At the end of the day, I want to tell readers, ‘We’ve got your back,’” Fox says. “Whether that’s with city hall, or figuring out where to buy your next house. That’s our service.”

Read more about how media companies can drive retention, loyalty and trust in our guide.

How Audience Engagement Tools Impact Revenue

Engaged users increase your pageviews, time on site, and ultimately, revenue. But what is an engaged user exactly? Simply put, it’s a website visitor who…

Last updated June 14th, 2018

Engaged users increase your pageviews, time on site, and ultimately, revenue.

But what is an engaged user exactly?

Simply put, it’s a website visitor who is actively involved with or interested in your brand. In a study led by researchers from Google and Yahoo, they categorized user engagement in four ways:

  • Bounce: user did not engage with the article and left within 10 seconds after arriving
  • Shallow engagement: user stays and reads 50% of the article
  • Deep engagement: user reads more that 50% of the article (means he had to scroll down which indicates commitment)
  • Complete engagement: user posts a comments or a reply on the article

We would define an “engaged user” as anyone who likes, dislikes, shares content or comments, posts a comment, replies to a comment, or follows content/authors/other users. The more actions they complete, the higher their engagement.

It’s also important to note that some actions are “worth” more, or signify higher engagement. For example, a user who posts a comment is more engaged than someone who simply likes content, because they are taking more time to provide a personal opinion. A user who follows an author, story, comment or other user is more engaged than someone who shares an article because they are proactively choosing to be informed and updated in real time, showing significant interest.

So how do you engage your users or encourage them to perform these actions?

Audience engagement tools increase social interactions

Audience engagement tools give users more opportunities to engage with your brand and other community members, much like social media.

Media brands and publishers using these types of tools can expect to see significant increases in comments, replies and likes. One such brand, Graham Media Group, saw the following results after implementing engagement tools across seven of their news sites:

Increase in total comments & replies
increase in total interactions
Increase in commentper user
Increase in repliesper user

We also found that users who visited pages with engagement tools produced a 248% lift in weekly pageviews per user and a 364% lift in time-spent on site per week.

Total Weekly Pageviews
Per User
Total Weekly Attention Time
Per User
Did not view engagement tools 2.07 4.07 minutes
Viewed engagement tools 7.20 18.80 minutes

*From analyzing the data across 600+ media organizations

Additionally, across our network of 600 media brands, 80% of all user registrations occurred on pages with engagement tools. And users who register generate 5x more return visits per week compared to non-registered users.

Now we come to the final question: how do these KPIs impact revenue?

Increased ad revenue

Research from data scientists confirms that not only do pageviews per visit increase ad revenue, but so does session time per user, as depicted in the graphs below. It’s also evident that getting users beyond the first few pageviews or seconds offers exponential revenue potential.

You’ll notice that session time has a surprisingly similar positive correlation with revenue as pageviews. Increased attention time means that there is more time for the ads to load on the page, and there is also a greater chance that a user will see an ad and potentially click on it.

Increased subscription revenue

Researchers Zalmanson and Oestreicher-Singer found that a user’s willingness to pay for premium services is more strongly associated with their online social activity than their content consumption.

In other words, users who engage more with other community members and with content are likelier to subscribe. In order to raise engagement levels, Zalmanson and Oestreicher-Singer suggest content producers should invest in a platform that provides the social engagement tools necessary to encourage active participation.

Doing so can increase subscriptions significantly, as witnessed by a New England media company that saw digital subscriptions jumped by 410% over three years after implementing automated audience engagement and targeting tools. Additionally, by displaying relevant content to anonymous visitors, they were able to increase the number of registered users by 9%.

Interestingly, Zalmanson and Oestreicher-Singer also found that users are more likely to subscribe if they have connections with other subscribers. The more subscriber friends that users have, the likelier they are to pay for premium services. This is likely due to the psychological phenomenon of social proof or social influence, where people mimic the actions of others because they assume it’s the “correct” behavior. Knowing this, publishers may want to consider how they can highlight their subscribed users so that their followers or friends are aware of their purchase decision.


If you have the right audience engagement tools in place, your audience will return to your website organically and regularly. It’s also less expensive to encourage your current website visitors to engage than it is to purchase new eyeballs on an ongoing basis. Not only will you save on marketing and advertising costs, but you’ll also increase your pageviews, attention time, online interactions and – most importantly – your advertising and subscription revenues.

Interested in learning more?

Connect with us today to learn how Viafoura can help you build, manage and monetize your audience.

Connect Now

Quit Counting Clicks

In the early days, as print publications moved to the web, one of the key metrics companies and advertisers cared about was pageviews – how many sets of eyes …

Last updated June 14th, 2018

It’s no longer just about eyeballs.

In the early days, as print publications moved to the web, one of the key metrics companies and advertisers cared about was pageviews – how many sets of eyes scanned a page, even if only for a second or two. In doing so, they effectively took the same measurement tool used for print – reach, which was measured in part by circulation – and applied it to the digital landscape.

In the print model, media companies earn revenue from the reach they have in their distribution channels. Their reach allows them to sell advertisements that exist alongside readable content such as news stories. In digital, reach was translated into the number of pageviews – or clicks – that a piece of content achieves, a metric that helped drive advertising sales in digital media’s inception stage.

Except reach quickly became outdated in the digital world, as advertisers came to realize that the number of clicks an article receives doesn’t take into account how many people actually read or interacted with the content or advertisement. The rise of bots and clickbait has also artificially inflated the number of clicks some sites receive, leaving behind numbers that are basically meaningless.

With that in mind, a growing number of advertisers have turned their backs on pageviews as a way of determining where to spend their advertising dollars, instead prioritizing audience engagement over the breadth of audience reach. The best indicator of content quality isn’t how many people see it, they believe, but how much time those people actually spend with it.

The rise of bots and clickbait has also artificially inflated the number of clicks some sites receive, leaving behind numbers that are basically meaningless.

Today, engagement is what pays

This shift from media distribution to media consumption dramatically lowers revenue capacity and puts significant pressure on companies to deliver a compelling value proposition to advertisers.

Consider media organizations like The Financial Times and Say Media, both of which clearly understand the relevance of engaged time and have placed it at the center of their value proposition to advertisers and users. Like a growing number of websites, they are showing they understand that just boosting traffic isn’t enough. Not all traffic converts.

As a user becomes increasingly engaged, they become more willing to pay for a digital media organization’s content or services. The MIT Sloan Management Review report, Turning Content Viewers Into Subscribers, asserts that engagement is the key to turning casual readers into paying subscribers, using a ladder model to frame how companies can boost engagement over time. Using what the research dubs the “Ladder of Participation,” you can prompt site users to progressively accelerate their onsite engagement to become paying subscribers.

Implementing an engagement model promotes readers to return, register and subscribe – all of which is good for your bottom line. But engagement is driven by a commitment to identifying who your audience is and giving them what they want, when they want it – not just by spraying and praying on social media, which is the path chosen by many media companies today.

In fact, social media is being used by many media organizations as a way to solve their digital publishing dilemma of increasing engagement with their community, website, brand and content creators. But this means media organizations are handing over a huge opportunity to platforms that have their own business goals.

Social media sites are looking to solve their own audience development challenges, by creating interactions with their brand, community and content – interactions that often overlap very little with media organizations’ engagement goals. Facebook’s recent change to its algorithm is just one example of this, placing greater priority on posts from family and friends than on news feeds and content from companies. The social media giant acknowledged this when it announced the change, saying that “this update may cause reach and referral traffic to decline for some pages.”

Get the most out of your audience engagement

The solution comes down to owning your engagement platform, in order to take full advantage of your audience and drive engagement to meet your business goals. When media organizations commit to engagement and take ownership of their channels, instead of relying heavily on social media sites that have their own agendas, they can focus their efforts on increasing and owning their audience’s interactions, connections and relationships.

With Viafoura, you can grow your audience and increase revenue using your own customized solution. This is the first step in moving past counting clicks, to a process and platform that is specifically built to work in today’s engagement-driven digital world.

Interested in learning more?

Connect with us today to learn how Viafoura can help you build, manage and monetize your audience.

Connect Now

Jesse Moeinifar

Founder & CEO
Jesse Moeinifar

Founder & CEO of Viafoura, is a serial entrepreneur with multiple successes spanning a range of industries, including real estate, digital media and software. Dedicated to disruption, Jesse is passionate about game-changing ideas and credits his accomplishments to assembling teams of smart individuals committed to solving challenging problems.

Viafoura helps empower Graham Media Group Online Communities

Graham Media Group implements the Viafoura Viafoura Engagement Cloud across its seven digital properties to uphold its commitment to celebrating local communities and giving voice to the stories that matter.

“Viafoura is a much needed and welcomed enhancement to Graham Media Group, improving the user experience and increasing audience engagement across our sites,” said Jon Beard, Director of Digital Product Development.

"Having a single platform to support all our audience development needs is a key strength to empowering our newsrooms and unique local communities.”
— Jon Beard, Director of Digital Product Development

Graham Media empowers enables on-site interactions with a frictionless user registration, an easy-to-use content share bar, and real-time commenting across its websites. Viafoura’s engagement tools further allow users to create a personalized experience and receive real-time notifications for breaking news, social activity, and new followers.

Benefits to Graham Media’s new capabilities include:

Graham Media’s moderation efforts are drastically improved with Viafoura Automated Moderation. It provides 24/7 real-time moderation using natural language processing and machine learning to detect, flag, and eliminate spam and abusive comments before they are seen by online audiences. These algorithms ensure Graham Media’s community guidelines are upheld to the utmost precision across its seven digital properties. Jon Beard confirms, “We’re able to focus on participating in the conversation and rewarding positive discussions across our websites.”

Connect with us today to learn how Viafoura can help you build, manage and monetize your audience.

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