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The Future of Media & Entertainment: Part 3 – The best practices of major publishers

Edited By: Julie Geller Last updated: June 25th, 2021 9 min. read

  • Behavioural Science

Read Part 2 – Subscription Media Services

The first two articles in our series focused on digital transformation and the science and theory behind what M&E companies can do to leverage it for success. In this final article, we look at a few examples of how publishers are translating theory into practice.

HBO, home of Game of Thrones and Big Little Lies, offers online media streaming to paying subscribers.

You had this Zeitgeist show that also happened to appeal very much so to a digital-forward generation of consumers at the same time we, as a brand, were going out and launching [a platform] so that you can watch our content in a variety of different ways. Very quickly, and very easily, it became this tentpole in the digital space.

– Bernadette Aulestia, Executive VP of Global Distribution at HBO (via Vulture)

The company’s “Get HBO” CTA delivers you to a pricing page that outlines the three different plans:

HBO’s CTA demonstrates an understanding of users’ desired outcomes rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. The three different plans target distinct audience segments with unique motivations, desires, pain points and behavioral patterns.

There is also a section of the HBO site that streams select free media and is curated to entice visitors to start a free trial, but also enables sharing. This demonstrates that initial shift from “one and done” to “curated media hub”. Sometimes the goal is not simply to get a conversion (i.e., money) as quickly as possible. Often, it’s about collecting behavioral data and positioning yourself as a media hub, a destination.

A section such as this could be where a dynamic paywall is introduced based on propensity modelling and behavioral science. How likely is a viewer who arrives at the section to start a free trial right now? Should the CTA be shown now or three videos from now? Should the CTA be for HBO Go or HBO Now? In aggregate, this data can be used to inform the default journey or better define audience segments.

Fashion publication, Elle, takes a hybrid approach to media and monetization. You’ll notice paid advertising throughout the site, including within individual articles.


Paid advertisement on the homepage of fashion publication Elle.

Modern digital advertising allows for retargeting, of course. This serves media publications both in the sense that visitors have already demonstrated intent to click and that it’s a form of personalization. If the goal is to keep visitors engaged and coming back to your publication, every little bit of customization counts.

Elle tries to engage the visitor, to shift from a “one and done” interaction. First, there’s the reader Q&A format. Second, there’s the option to weigh in with your own opinion. You’ll notice that Elle has print subscription CTAs throughout the site as well.

Elle doesn’t have a paid digital subscription model like HBO, but that doesn’t mean the publication isn’t beginning to adapt to the industry-wide digital transformation. There are many different pricing models and ways to tackle this industry evolution, but all of them must prioritize one thing: an incredible user experience.

Finally, consider Medium, a text-based medium, like Elle, with a paid digital subscription model, like HBO. Readers are given a certain number of free Medium stories per month. If you sign up for a free account, you get an additional free story.

Currently, it’s three per month, but we are always experimenting with different numbers of stories (and different ways of presenting the meter) to understand how it impacts how much people read, and our subscription business.

– Michael Sippey, VP of Product at Medium (via Medium)

Note that the sign-up flows rely on Google and Facebook. While it’s difficult to say for certain, it’s likely that this access to supplementary personal data powers increased customization for readers. Once you reach your article limit for the month, you’ll be hit with a mid-article CTA.

Like HBO, Medium is working to provide upfront value to readers with a layer of free content that piques interest, before asking them to subscribe.

All of these companies take a slightly different approach to monetization. None is inherently better than another. What matters most is that they’ve started exploring the heart of the digital transformation and addressing the root issue: identifying and catering to their unique user’s desired experience.

But that’s only the beginning. From there, the goal should be to iterate and learn through continuous optimization.

Experimentation and optimization at The Motley Fool and The Wall Street Journal

The Motley Fool, a financial content site with a premium services model, recognizes that optimization is a full funnel affair. It’s not just about acquisition and how many new customers you can get through the proverbial door. It’s also about how much those customers spend and how long they stay.

Across teams, we’re all really focused on customer lifetime value (LTV) for every stage. Whether it’s someone’s first product with us—getting them into a higher tier. And on the product side, the more we get people to renew, the higher their lifetime value. It’s a win-win for both the customer and us: They get great stock advice and recommendations and we get to retain them as a customer.

– Nate Wallingsford, Head of U.S. Marketing Operations & Optimization at The Motley Fool

They also prioritize learnings and insights over uplift. The strength of your optimization program, regardless of your industry, is in how much you’re learning with every single test. It’s less about how many experiments you’re running and how many of them are “winning” than most marketers imagine.

For example, The Motley Fool was experimenting with a well-known persuasion principle: social proof. They ran several experiments. Each time, adding social proof decreased conversions, despite the fact that adding social proof is a widely-accepted best practice.

Still, they persisted with iterative tests to ensure they had a clear understanding of how social proof was impacting their users. After two experiments where adding elements of social proof had a negative impact, Nate and the team decided to test removing elements of social proof. He explains:

“We ran another experiment, this time on the order page—the stage of the funnel that includes the point of purchase. In the variation, all customer testimonials [another form of social proof] were removed. This variation performed terribly, decreasing transactions, average order value, and revenue per session. That was really interesting to see. Even though we had a decrease in conversion rates across all three [social proof] experiments, they generated this insight that social proof and testimonials are huge at the point of purchase, but may need to be avoided at the top of the funnel.”

A focus on learnings and insights is especially important in the M&E industry, where increasing performance KPIs (e.g., session to lead conversion rate and revenue) is never the only goal.

The Wall Street Journal recognizes how experimentation in the media industry is a delicate balance between performance and engagement.

It really depends on what kind of test you’re running and what the purpose of your test is. For a test on our newsletter center, we would measure user engagement on the number of people who subscribe for newsletters or end up toggling on their subscription to The 10-Point (or whatever newsletter we might be pushing). For an article test, we might be looking at user engagement as number of articles per session. What we try to think is, ‘What is the most important thing that we can drive for this particular piece of real estate?’ and then measure against that as our main KPI.

– Olivia Simon, Optimization Manager at The Wall Street Journal (via Optimizely)

Digital transformation is not something new to The Wall Street Journal. They’ve been tackling the evolution head-on for quite some time now.

Once a media organization has the initial optimization foundation in place, overall goals will likely begin to change. It should become less about small changes and more about cultural shifts, about automating and growing to the next stage of the digital transformation:

As far as I’m concerned, the discipline of experience testing for digital businesses is akin to discovering plutonium. It’s just an exponentially more powerful way of making business decisions over anything, honestly, in the history of mankind. […] This is the only way to make business decisions in the future. This is how every business decision will get made going forward for a digital product, wherever possible.

– Peter Gray, VP of Product Optimization at The Wall Street Journal (via YouTube)

Exciting times for M&E marketing

Despite the acceleration of the M&E’s digital transformation, these are no longer the early days of digitalization when countless companies were sideswiped by the rapid changes and many of their efforts to adapt were largely based on guesswork. Today, solid science, knowledge, methodology, technologies and best-practices exist to help M&E companies and marketers accelerate their success alongside the rapid changes and unleash an unprecedented power to connect with and stay connected to customers.

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