Why transparency in data is key to building trust

Gaining audience trust was fundamental for The Guardian, last year’s Data Storytelling Awards Grand Prix winner, its director of consumer revenues Julia Porter explains why this triggered a strategy of balancing privacy with a compelling data-driven understanding of its customers.


When former ITV marketer Julia Porter joined Guardian news and Media in 2012 the brand was beset with difficulties. Revenue streams from its print circulation were in decline and it faced problems in monetising the digital audience, which was compounded by Facebook and Google’s dominance over the UK’s digital advertising market.

In order to survive the newspaper needed to make its existing audience more profitable and engage with them in a personalised and relevant way – data was a key component in achieving this.

“Advertising isn’t going to be the only revenue stream and we need to find other ways of improving our income and that has to be transacting with our readers and finding things to sell that they’ll find of interest,” says Porter. “You need to understand who those people are and how to build valuable relationships with them on a one-to-one basis.”

Capturing more data is easier said than done. “At the time, the Edward Snowden story was big and there was a real danger that you ended up conflating that focus on ‘bad people doing bad things with data’ with our legitimate activities, in terms of asking people to share data and being transparent about why,” she says.

The brand aimed to explain why it needed customer data in a relaxed and open way, knowing that trust is incredibly important to the relationship with the customer. In 2014, it launched its customer charter ‘Why Your Data Matters’ with a video demonstrating its transparent attitude to data, explaining what that information can do for the paper.

Information including, how data allows the newspaper to be able to charge premium advertising revenues and how that is central to funding the paper’s journalism going forward were relayed. In addition, how that data deepens The Guardian’s understanding of who their readers are, therefore allowing tailored messages with content that can be valued by those readers.

“One of the reasons this was an award winning piece of work was [because] we decided to go down the road [of] being very open and transparent but also moving away from ambiguity and complexity of legal language,” says Porter. “It felt to me that we did something quite innovative with that video and it took a lot of effort to get to that point because it got us talking about the importance about being transparent with our customers.”

The video was just the first part of the journey that The Guardian and its agency MRM Meteorite has been on to become customer driven. After obtaining all of its valuable data currency, the media owner then needed to extract value from it. The depth of data enabled a very powerful model to be built that drives what to say to who, when, where and how.

Segmenting the audience

The brand created a detailed segmentation to understand its customers. Understanding the different audience profiles and preferences means it was able to see what different products and services it would target at different cohorts. “The Nirvana – and we haven’t fully succeeded in doing this, is being able to understand how you can create a sweet spot between what people do and why they do it,” says Porter.

“If you are able to marry up transactions and behavioural data with attitudes and demographic data, then you will be able to understand what life stage people are at, what they are interested in buying and how they will respond to messages.”

Personas that gave texture to the audience analysis included ‘John the hipster’, who buys the brand’s masterclass courses and is a potential customer for the digital subscription pack. Also, ‘Zoe the professional’ who buys books and might well buy holidays.

Having ascertained who its different cohorts were, The Guardian was able to do a mapping of what topics readers would be interested in. This allowed it move on and start developing its products and services, its subscription business, membership business and to relaunch the bookshop ecommerce site.

Guardian Books

With work on propensity modeling the brand was able to improve its conversion rate, its unique click-throughs on emails increased by 50% and revenues from email marketing by 100%.

It also improved engagement and retention through RFM value analysis and achieved a 24% reduction churn over two years in its subscriptions business. When it relaunched the bookshop in 2014, sales went up by 60%, unique purchases increased by over 130% and the mobile conversion rate rose by 137%.

Combining editorial and commercial activity

Going forward, the central challenge for the brand is to marry up its reader focus with its customer focus. “There is an internal challenge on driving engagement with our content and learning to figure out the appropriate point at which we should be introducing a membership offer or a subscriptions offer,” explains Porter. “Readers read and customers buy but actually they are the same people.”

This strategy is challenging because historically editorial and commercial have been quite distinct areas that don’t cross over. Pulling those two things together is a valued goal so it is important for The Guardian to design customer journeys that incorporate both editorial and commercial activities.

“The prize is to build horizontal journeys where you are moving from one channel to the other based on the preferences of the consumer,” she explains. “We are not there yet but that is the sort of thing we should be aiming for.”

The paper’s journey is a complex one and requires further adjustments for the information age. Like all media owners, The Guardian’s long-term success depends on owning customers and thinking of them in terms of their lifetime value.

The newspaper’s marketing team also needs to embrace an ‘always on’ way of doing marketing. This means testing and learning, deciding what the control is, finding something else to test and so on. In this way, Porter argues, you get into a more incremental ‘agile’ way of doing your marketing activity based on the data. “If you have a bucket of data, then use the technology to help you target better,” urges Porter. “It is all about fine tuning your service and your offer so you get a better response to your marketing and then you get greater profitability further down the line.”

Back for a second year, the 2016 Data Storytelling Awards will take place in November. Bought to you by Marketing Week they celebrate the industry’s outstanding data strategies, people and brands. If you want to enter the awards this year the entry deadline is Tuesday 19 July 2016.

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