What are the brand assets of a news organisation?
How do we move one of the world’s most vitally necessary industries from being buffeted by disruption to charting a path through that disruption?
Most news publishers are steeped in strong traditions and principles of independent, objective and impartial journalism but, it is clear that the traditional business models of the past can no longer sustain these critical building blocks of our society.
The Oxford News Marketing Programme was created in 2021 by Oxford Saïd, with sponsorship from Meta. It aims to help news executives around the world compete more effectively in today’s rapidly changing business environment by learning new principles of marketing and sparking a discussion around its newly necessary place in the news business, bringing the science and practices of today’s marketing to an industry we all need to see succeed.
As a part of the programme, which ran over two months in late 2021 for executives from European news organisations (and will run again soon for even more news executives from many other parts of the world, including Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa), we set about identifying some of the core brand assets news organisations must cultivate in order to market themselves while still maintaining their standards as objective and impartial, mission-focused organisations. Our framework has eight brand asset dimensions.
Brand asset 1 - purpose
Staff inside news organisations are generally aligned on the purpose of their journalism, but rarely do those organisations publish a deliberate statement of purpose for internal and external audiences to hear. A clear statement of purpose, while it may seem rudimentary, can serve to redefine, distinguish, and reinforce the quality of the news offering. Some may feel that they ‘shouldn’t have to do this’ or that their years of work speaks for itself. It is important to keep in mind that we are talking about marketing to the millions of people who are not already engaged and persuaded enough to have been moved to make a purchase. If you are not defining your news product, it is highly likely others will do it for you on social media.
Brand asset 2 - credibility
It is clear that consumers, and particularly those who become paying subscribers, are buying because they believe that the newsroom they have chosen is exercising best practices and intentions to deliver trustworthy journalism, expert analysis and informed opinion. With many media companies laying false claim to being in the news business in the effort to profit off of sensationalism and division, those who truly operate as objective and societally beneficial have a defining asset in their own reporting and the standards behind it.
Brand asset 3 - reputation
Reputation and credibility are clearly intertwined in the news business but they are not the same thing. Being credible is about reporting the facts and being trusted to do so. Reputation can rest on a number of additional factors including word of mouth, perceptions of objectivity and impartiality, the external manipulation of those perceptions, and transparent, effective responses when challenges inevitably arise. Credibility is the product of the journalism, reputation is often the product of the way that journalism is published, repeated, labelled (eg as an op-ed or something else), shared and defended.
Brand asset 4 - audience understanding and actionable insights
News organisations own a wealth of information about their readers. They don’t always know how best to capitalise on it. With customer (or reader or audience or visitor) centricity always top of mind, it is helpful to remember the marketing ‘STP’ framework.
- Segmentation: Understanding behavioural and demographic groups
- Targeting: Clear platform strategies to reach the right audience with the right message to drive engagement
- Positioning: Modifying marketing messaging itself based on the audience with whom you wish to connect
Brand asset 5 - audience and performance data
For the media industry, this has become as essential as electricity. Data comes in many forms, and the ability to process, understand, act on, and sometimes monetise it can be highly impactful. While not every organisation sees the inherent opportunity or its sense of priority, those that utilise this data, while respecting standards of privacy, stand to improve their offerings, formats, and messages. Some forms of data that news organisations can use for marketing include:
- Behavioural and demographic data for advertisers to target
- Trends of reader behaviour to guide product changes, innovations and launches
- Monetisable data as a service
- Data that improves internal and external processes and functions
Brand asset 6 - partnerships
News organisations often view each other as competition when they may be missing the opportunities inherent in mutually beneficial alliances. Trevor Kauffman, CEO of the digital customer platform Piano, spoke to the class last year, highlighting that there is power in partnerships. For instance, subscribers to one platform can be ‘gifted' trial subscriptions to likeminded sites to drive sampling among a specific target audience. Reciprocal partnerships can lower customer acquisition costs and enhance the perceived customer value of the original subscription.
Brand asset 7 - technology
It is clear that digital media companies cannot operate without an effective stack of integrated tech. In recent years, that tech was focused on advertising value and targeting. Today’s news sites need also to think like direct-to-consumer e-commerce platforms. Tech that simplifies and speeds payment (like Apple Pay) can be a critical element in driving conversion, particularly on mobile devices. Ease at the point of purchase is just as important today as it was at the newsstand of old, except today’s well-executed decision point can lead to years of recurring revenue at the tap of a screen.
Brand asset 8 - people
In a digital media environment, each of our organisations are only as good as the talent we secure and the context we create for them to do their best work. Key to these considerations are talent, human resources, diversity, management style and proficiency. This can be even more challenging with largely remote work arrangements, in which defining company culture takes even more deliberate diligence than in the past.
In our class discussions, a clear issue in this area was also the organisational structure. Many teams voiced concerns of feeling siloed and unable to effect change across their larger organisations. Clear divisions between business and editorial functions have long maintained (and ideally safeguarded) objectivity and necessary journalistic independence. We discussed whether or not the walls put up between divisions can evolve in this new era without sacrificing that critical element. Having great talent but weighing them down with unneeded bureaucracy and division can feel akin to buying a Ferrari and leaving it in the garage.
Your retention efforts are in direct opposition to your competitor’s customer acquisition efforts
Marketing is not only communication between the brand and its potential consumers. Trade and industry marketing will be key as digital regulation evolves and corporate partnerships hold the potential for generating needed revenue. Retention marketing will also grow in importance among news brands as subscriptions mature and readers feel the occasional urge to trim their recurring charges. Oxford Saïd’s own Associate Professor of Marketing Felipe Thomaz reminds us ‘your retention efforts are in direct opposition to your competitor’s customer acquisition efforts’.
Internal marketing remains of premium importance as the battle for talent will only become more of a struggle as lucrative roles in other industries abound for the best tech, creative and business minds, while the reputation of news continues to be eroded by the growing wave of news imposters and autocratic regimes spreading misinformation and disinformation.
As the news industry continues to evolve and face challenges on multiple fronts, its ability to act with skill and agility as digital marketers may well be a critical key to its survival.
Professor Andrew Stephen and Associate Fellow Seth Rogin are Co-Heads of the Oxford News Marketing Programme. The programme was developed in partnership with the Meta Journalism Project to support publishers in marketing their journalism.