Many newsroom analytics deal with quantitative data — pageviews, time on page, retention, etc — and find meaning by looking at these numbers at scale and over time. And while quantitative is excellent at explaining what is happening, it cannot necessarily explain why something is happening. Customer research — in the shape of interviews, focus groups and surveys — is an important tool to deepen your understanding of your audience and learn about their motivations, habits, and relationship to your content.
At the Financial Times, we use both types of information regularly in our newsroom to improve our understanding of a particular audiences and to develop specific strategies to grow reach and loyalty. Here we want to share three times we’ve used customer research to make better decisions around editorial, product and audience development. The lessons we learned doing this work aren’t unique to the FT, though — there are strategies here that any newsroom, regardless of size, can take on.
Surveys for Product, Platform and Content Strategy
Six months ago we shifted our editorial strategy for the FT’s WhatsApp channel from a broad sampling of content across topics and sections to a focus on markets new and analysis. This strategy shift resulted from the combination of quantitative data — we looked at what content was most engaging through click throughs, onward journey and return visits — and also qualitative surveys.
We were able to analyze the survey data through many different angles. For instance, we looked at the differences between those who were likely to recommend us and those who weren’t. Indeed, we found that people who were more likely to recommend us were more likely to request more posts, more regularly. We also discovered that our users’ most common criticism was a technology issue we weren’t aware of, which we were then able to work with our product team to fix.
Altogether, the survey helped us to improve our users’ experience and change our strategy to align with our audience on that channel. Since we changed our strategy, quality visits — a proprietary metric we use to gauge propensity to subscribe — have grown by 24 percent.
Crucially, data analysis alone would not have led us to these conclusions.
Surveys to Aid Editorial Decision Making
We also do surveys that are directly tied to our journalism. An example is the FT standing survey (we keep a link to it onsite and check it regularly) that asks readers three questions:
What struggles do you encounter at work that this guide could help solve?
What experts, executives or entrepreneurs would you like to read an interview with?
Do you have a particularly good piece of career advice for others?
Responses from this are informing the packages we curate for readers on our career guide, which is helping us to meet the needs and interests of our readers.
Interviews and Focus Groups for Audience Development
Surveys offered great solutions to the first two problems. They are often the default for customer research for good reason: a survey allows the researcher to write specific questions and get responses at scale. But surveys can also be limiting. There is only so much nuance they can convey.
Along with surveys, we turn to interviews and focus groups. These customer research methods give us the two-way communication we want. And a lot more data.
Last year, the audience engagement team worked with colleagues in marketing to create a microsite targeting a specific audience segment: lawyers in the US. Our quantitative research showed that among our existing subscribers, lawyers over-indexed on certain specific topics, so we initially built the hub around those topics.
After a few weeks, however, performance was below expectations. We added new content, including Lex (our premium commentary and corporate analysis product), fastFT (our rapid news wire), and even a “Random” topic tab.
But still, performance lagged.
In order to find out why the new lawyer hub wasn’t working as we’d expected, we set up a focus group in our New York office about how they use both the FT and news more generally. These interviews were hugely informative. We found out that the content we chose was too broad; the lawyers we are targeting as future readers tend to have specialities that are quite niche.
It was a valuable process that showed us we hadn’t taken the right approach initially. Now we bring customer research into our thinking earlier in the process whenever we develop targeted audience strategies.
At the FT, this is how we have incorporated customer research into our audience development and editorial practices. It is an increasingly important method for us to understand more about our audience.
Alyssa Zeisler is an engagement strategist at the Financial Times. She leads multidisciplinary teams in creating audience strategies and developing new editorial products, formats and distribution methods to grow reach and engagement. Follow her on Twitter @a_zeisler.