Reach is hoping that its Google-backed investment in email newsletters will build on its huge audience scale and lead to a deeper relationship with readers, according to chief audience officer David Higgerson.
Return of the parish council dispatch
“The reason for doing that was [that] what in old money we’d call ‘daily newspaper news’ is as relevant in areas that only have weekly newspapers as it is in Birmingham or Manchester.
“That worked very well for us – indeed, continues to work well for us. It’s given us the scale, the foundation, that we need to get local news back into growth.”
Now Reach has breadth, Higgerson said, it is going for depth.
“What the newsletters do within that is they enable us to deepen our relationships with readers, so that we aren’t just expecting them to visit us every day.”
Higgerson said Reach has had hundreds of newsletters “for years, ticking along as just a collection of links at a certain point in the day”.
Approximately 18 months ago, however, it began focusing on them as products in their own right.
“What’s really encouraging is the types of stories that people will read on the newsletters are the stories that are populist – so the stuff that’s generally doing quite well on the websites – but also the stuff which people perhaps aren’t going out and looking for.
“So the council stories, the court cases, the public interest journalism – when you get it in front of people, they’re interested in it, and they click on it, and they read it.”
‘We’re breaking the perception that every interaction has to lead to a click’
Higgerson said newsletters were also useful as they allow Reach to better personalise its content, something the company is actively pursuing.
But the most novel thing about the approach, he said, was “moving the newsletter away from driving traffic to the website. It’s much more a self-contained experience you read within your email, and that’s where your relationship with the MEN or My London is.”
Higgerson said the resulting loyalty creates readers “who are most likely to then come onto our websites anyway”.
He added: “I guess what we’re breaking a little bit is this perception that every interaction with the reader has to lead to a click. It’s about building the relationship, and then the visits to the website automatically follow after that.”
Reach versus The Mill
When news broke last month that Reach would receive money from Google for its local newsletter efforts, it drew some unflattering attention from independent Manchester newsletter The Mill – fueled, perhaps, by Press Gazette’s David versus Goliath headline framing of the story.
The Mill has used Reach’s expansion to call for more sign-ups and greater support for independent media.
What did Higgerson make of the comparison between Reach and The Mill?
“It’s for them to talk about what they’re doing. What we’re doing through the Email Innovation Lab is responding to user research that told us two things,” he said.
“One: that people don’t have time to come to our websites every day and we operate in a 24-hour news cycle, which means that you aren’t guaranteed the most ‘important’ story of the day to be right in front of you. And secondly: there were therefore stories that would be lost in the news cycle.
“So the plan for us with the email launches in Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol, Nottingham and London was to meet both of those demands. And the response has been really positive so far.
“Candidly, from our point of view, it’s not a competition. We’ve always said: if people want to come in and launch journalistic enterprises in towns or cities that we’re in, we’ll always welcome that.
“Our experience of moving into other people’s markets, when we launched titles like Yorkshire Live, Leeds Live and Belfast Live – that was very much seen by the industry as Trinity Mirror, latterly Reach, moving into other people’s territories.
“But all we found whenever we’ve moved into a market is the overall size of the local audience grows as well, and I think the other publishers would testify to that. So the competition thing – I don’t really see that… The Evening Standard is not any smaller because of the existence of My London.”
The fight for/with social media
Social media has become a big competitor for eyeballs across the news industry. Because of this, Higgerson said: “The single biggest challenge that we’ve got is making people interested in local news, full stop.
“We’ve got some launches coming up as email newsletters that will turn some of our weekly newspapers into, essentially, seven-day brands for people across print and online. Because that’s where you feel the social media pressure the most.
“If there’s a helicopter swirling above your house on a Tuesday, and the paper’s not due out until Friday, by the time the paper comes out on Friday you’ve heard every conspiracy theory about the incredibly dangerous armed robbers hanging out in the local forest. And it actually turns out that [the police] were dealing with something far less sinister.
“And that’s what we need to do – create relationships with readers so that at least once a day, they’re checking in with us because we’re coming to them and that helps them better inform the conversations they’re having on social media.
“And that is where the real battle for attention, and indeed revenue, is. It’s far more between social media or search companies and publishers – big or small – than it is between any two publishers of any size.”
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