Growing an Audience: Lesson #1 from the New York Times Innovation Report

Much has been written over recent weeks about the leaked New York Times Innovation Report. It is clearly the most revealing and honest assessment of where leading legacy media companies are today and what they need to do to go forward in order to compete. I think many marketing organisation’s are in exactly the same position as those legacy media companies and the lessons we can take from this piece of research can be directly applied to both the strategies and tactics of both in-house and agency marketers and communications professionals whose world has and will continue to be disrupted by the same forces affecting themedia industry.


In my opinion, in terms of brand publishing Contently’s Content Strategist  did a great job in identifying 5 overall learnings from the report

  • The homepage is dead
  • The “Church and State” rule is changing
  • Journalism skills are not superior to digital skills
  • There is untapped valUe in historic content and data
  • All publishers need to think digital first

and if you want a detailed view on the report head over to Nieman journalism Lab’s coverage of the report.

However in this post I will focus on the first theme in the report: Growing an Audience – as my first key lesson that marketers need to build into their future strategies and organisation’s as they innovate to future proof their own organisations.

Due to the decades long practice of renting an audience via various paid media channels many organisations have neglected to significantly invest in their own audience development. Whilst the effective use of data from your CRM connected to both your email marketing and newsletter activities have always been a key marketing activity it now becomes central to any marketing strategy in an age where search, social and data dominate. The lessons we can take from the Innovation report show that we should focus on three simple factors in audience development.


Brands need to ensure they maximize opportunities to be found. Website overhauls, optimised for search will not be enough. Resurfacing evergreen content, repackaging and pushing relevant content to relevant readers is at the heart of this and to power this brands will need to become even better at the unglamorous but essential work of tagging and structuring data.


Brands and all the stakeholders that contribute to any brand promise need to be better advocates of their own work. At the New York Times that means the journalists but at todays marketing organisation that means engaging the entire employee, supplier and customer base to share and promote stories of interest to community surrounding the brand. This will no doubt need to involve significant amounts of best practice identification and training at companies. In my view this should be the responsibility of the marketing and communications teams to ensure this happens as internal communication (and within this category I controversially include communication to your employee, supplier and existing customer base) is the key to promotion success in a world dominated by search and social.


 This third leg of audience growth is perhaps the crucial one, as the report states, 

“ Our readers are perhaps our greatest untapped resource. Deepening our connection with them both online and offline is critical in a world where content so often reaches its broadest audience on the backs of other readers.”

For me this means continuing the great work many brands have been doing over recent years since the emergence of social media to build communities and networks around their brands. In addition it means an increased commitment to creating quality content around our readers or users pain points and not simply promoting our product message. And finally it demands a new perspective in terms of the two way relationship between reader and brand where increased use of user generated content in all its forms is used to generate and increase engagement at all levels.

Following these three simple focus areas of discovery, promotion and connection will help marketers and communicators in their mission to grow their audience but as with anything in business if it can’t be measured it can’t be managed. So the two questions I would urge you all to ask yourself are, who is accountable for our audience growth and what metrics and KPIs do we have in place to ensure all the activities and contributing to our goals. The New York Times innovation Team recommends hiring a Head of Audience Development. However their first attempt failed after the star candidate Michael Wertheim, former head of promotion at Upworthy refused to take the job as he felt the organisation was not fully committed to this aim. Before you go hiring or setting KPIs ensure that everyone understands the importance of audience development to the companies overall marketing and business objectives – then it will be a no-brainer.

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