The Guardian on its journey to become a supporter-led organisation

The Guardian’s chief customer officer explains the strategy behind its redesign and rebrand and how it is “building the science” around its membership.

The Guardian tabloid format

Pick up a copy of The Guardian newspaper or head to its website and it is not difficult to spot major changes that have been taking place over the past two months. In January, the news organisation made the move to tabloid format and as part of the shift took the opportunity to totally redesign the brand – updating its logo, changing its masthead and revamping the look and feel of the newspaper, website and content.

The rebrand is just the latest sign of a major rethink at The Guardian of its brand, business model and the role it plays in the media space. It is well on the way to convincing 900,000 people to pay for its content (the official figure is 800,000), but chief customer officer Anna Bateson believes the company is only at the start of that journey to become a “supporter-led organisation”.

“There is still so much we can do. We’ve learnt so much and I feel we are just beginning to build the science of a really supporter-led organisation. We have come to the end of the first stage, which was about experimentation, discovery and to some extent convincing people internally and externally that we could make it work and it was viable. Now we are building the science around it,” she explains.

Bateson is giving one of her first interviews since she took on the chief customer officer role in June last year. She joined The Guardian as vice-president of platforms and partnerships a little under a year before that, and has spent most of her career marketing media companies – whether that be ITV, YouTube or MTV.

It has certainly been a baptism of fire. She has played a pivotal role in all the recent changes at the company and been responsible for how they are presented to readers, advertisers and commercial partners.

She admits that has been both “exciting and slightly terrifying” from a marketing perspective, in part because the marketing part happened “relatively late and was very confidential”. That, she says, presented challenges because the campaign to mark the changes needed to launch at the same time as the rebrand and switch to tabloid format. “They didn’t want to reveal it out of context of the paper and the ‘wider message’,” she explains.

The Guardian Space for campaign

The ‘Space for…..’ campaign is its biggest marketing push for seven years and aims to highlight The Guardian’s place as a global news organisation and a place for people to feel “hopeful in a time of crisis”. It supports the wider “restatement” of The Guardian brand and “rearticulation of its values” and place in the media landscape.

“We were redesigning the paper and therefore the brand from the context of having become a global news organisation,” she explains. “There’s a bit of growing up and maturity and authority that has come through in the redesign. That does not just mean we are more serious, although there is a lot of seriousness in journalism, and that is not to lose the wit and the humour that I hope come through in colour in certain aspects of the design. But it reflects a new era.”

That new era is an admission by The Guardian, alongside other news organisations, that the internet and technology may not have offered the opportunities they expected. And the rise of fake news, the election of Donald Trump in the US and the Brexit vote in the UK have led to growing questions about the role of social media, platform responsibility and the place for journalism in society.

“It now feels that we’re in a very different place which is not that technology isn’t an enabler but that perhaps we are all more realistic about what matters now and how we should be using technology,” explains Bateson.

“In that early expansion, many thought it was about distribution and being as broad as possible, getting big numbers and the money would come sometime. That now isn’t our thinking and our strategy has been evolving for some time around this idea of the primacy of our own platforms and destinations, the importance of relationships and how they are built on respect, familiarity and knowledge, and a focus on trust through transparency and consistency and honesty.”

Becoming a ‘supporter-led organisation’

That has also led to a shift in The Guardian’s business model. While keen to avoid putting up a paywall, there was a growing realisation that convincing readers to pay would be crucial if The Guardian’s owner, Guardian News and Media (GNM), was to meet its goal to break even by 2019.

And so The Guardian turned to what Bateson calls “native ad units that use the voice of editorial” to ask readers if they would consider making some sort of payment to support the content they were reading. That opened up a whole new category of readers that were willing to pay because it tugged on the emotional reasons to support The Guardian’s journalism, not just a transaction reason such as providing them with an app or access to events.

Early signs are that this focus is working. In 2015/16, GNM made an operating loss of £57m, but cut that to £38m a year later and expects to make a loss in 2017/18 of £25m before reaching its target of breakeven in 2018/2019.

Marketers care about the marketing they make, they care about the campaigns they run. I don’t think anyone goes to work to optimise digital investment.

Anna Bateson, The Guardian

It now makes more money from readers than advertisers. It’s membership scheme has grown from 75,000 to 300,000 and digital subscribers across print and digital are up to 200,000. There have also been a further 300,000 single donations, people who have responded to appeals at the end of articles and within live blogs to support its journalism.

With hindsight Bateson admits it all looks “wonderfully easy”, but in reality it has been a long journey to understand its readers, who would pay and what they would pay for. To get to where the company is now has meant collaboration between the editorial, product, commercial and marketing teams to ensure it meets the needs of those three groups of readers and convince all of them to give again.

There is, of course, still a huge swathe of The Guardian’s more than 150 million unique monthly visitors that don’t pay. Bateson is convinced more will, if it can find the right way to appeal to them. For example, one new strategy, more akin to crowdfunding its journalism, asks people for donations so The Guardian can focus on particular topics such as gun control in the US.

The Guardian also wants more data on its readers. Currently just 1.5 million people have registered on the site and browse while signed in. The Guardian isn’t particularly pushy on asking people to register at the moment, but that is “something we are thinking about a lot”, says Bateson.

“We want to accelerate knowing people and beginning to have a known relationship with people, which is important as we come through GDPR, that sense of permissioned conversation and trusted conversation,” she explains.

“The world and behaviour is changing. The idea of being asked to log in is becoming increasingly comfortable to people, as long as you are honest about why you’re asking them and what you’re going to do and you are trusted to respect their data.”

The role of the chief customer officer

Bateson is just one of a growing number of chief customer officers; just yesterday (13 March), the BBC appointed its first customer chief in Kerris Bright. At The Guardian, the role brings together its membership, subscription and contributions programme, partnerships with technology businesses including Facebook and Google, syndicating and licensing, consumer revenues including live events, and overseeing The Guardian brand and its marketing.

Bateson says the introduction of the role was a “very deliberate thing” to shift the focus from readers to supporters. “It was a very deliberate way of trying to affect organisational and behavioural change. Excellence in how we treat our readers, who are our customers, is important in everything from how we ask them for money to how we devise products to how we think about what it means when you transition from being a reader to someone who is supporting us.”

That is the same way it thinks about its advertisers. Newspaper organisations may be finding it difficult to attract ad dollars in the digital world given the dominance of Facebook and Google, but Bateson believes that “environment, context and trust” are becoming important again and that this plays into the brand’s strengths.

It’s in the blended model that we’ll unlock something that is unique and special for us.

Anna Bateson, The Guardian

“Marketers care about the marketing they make, they care about the campaigns they run. I don’t think anyone goes to work to optimise digital investment. It’s necessary and important and you want to reach audiences efficiently and effectively, but sometimes you want to see your ads in beautiful places and you want to know people are seeing them and talking about them. That is why print, outdoor, TV, they hold up,” she says.

The Guardian does not place much of its own media budget in digital, instead focusing on its own media and social channels. It came off YouTube when the brand safety issues hit the headlines a year ago and it hasn’t gone back, although Bateson doesn’t see that as a “statement” because video isn’t a huge part of its media mix anyway, although where it does spend there it does so with “great care” and typically with ITV and Channel 4. Outdoor is also important due to the link between out-of-home and newspaper sales, particularly in cities and metropolitan areas.

READ MORE: Why some brands are still refusing to advertise on YouTube

She admits to having “complicated relationships” with partners including Facebook and Google and she is particularly “cautious” about Facebook.

“Fundamentally Google’s business model and its belief in the open web and its values as an organisation are probably quite close to ours in many ways. Mostly it wants to genuinely serve up the highest quality relevant results. It may not always get it right but that is genuinely what [Google] wants to do,” she explains.

“Facebook’s model is less aligned with ours. Fundamentally, they want people to stay within their environment and they don’t really have a very long strategic interest in news and that is fair enough. We are just a little bit more cautious in our relationship with them. We have become less dependent on Facebook and slightly wary of the fact that in the end it is absolutely within their purview and strategic rights to change their algorithm and I’m not sure you want to build a business or distribution or access to audiences on someone else’s criteria.”

As for what comes next, there is a focus on continuing its “reinvigoration” of print and building new digital products that can deliver content to readers in new ways and generate revenues. From a marketing perspective, Bateson plans to develop its new platform and think about how The Guardian ensures it is relevant among younger audiences. “We want to find the right way to connect with people that is more thoughtful than just ‘young audiences are on Snapchat so we should be there too’.”

There is also more to explore on the supporter side, with a plan to really dig into what drives people to support across various markets.

“If you have a paywall you cap out on the number of people you can persuade to subscribe. Equally, if you only allow people to give or donate you are limited. It’s in the blended model that we’ll unlock something that is unique and special for us.”

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