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Delivering engagement

While many traditional media owners continue to wrangle with transitioning their businesses online, Trinity Mirror have been busily launching new initiatives, and, says Paul Hood, the focus has been resolutely on creating high quality and highly engaging content.

By Paul Hood

For us, the biggest challenge we face digitally is getting users to pause and pay attention to our content for more than a few seconds. The sheer volume of content online is mind-boggling, so attracting meaningful attention for our articles is becoming more and more difficult.

In the time it will take you to read this sentence, it’s estimated that over 1,000 new professionally created articles will have been posted online in the UK.

When I first came across that statistic, I thought I’d got it wrong and re-read it to check. Just in case you did the same, it isn’t a typo. By now, the number of fresh articles created by professional journalists since you started the last sentence is now at 2,000+.

It’s an astonishing statistic.

And that’s just the surface layer of an enormously wide and unfathomably deep sea of content, analysis and comment that online users can choose from. The internet is truly awash with content. A combination of bloggers, (many of whom are experts in their field), digital media companies, print media companies and instant information outlets such as Twitter and Facebook mean that there is an abundance of immediately available news and content.

How on earth are traditional, established publishers meant to compete for audience attention amongst this white noise? From the head down certainly, but beware; many have perished from the exhaustion of trying to compete in the frenzied melee of simply ‘being first’ to publish.

Eighteen months ago, when most newspapers were still obsessed with topline ABCe figures as their key measure of success, we took the very deliberate step of focusing our strategy on a different and - at the time - new success metric: customer engagement. We’ve found that much of this engagement, measured by time spent on site, pages per visit, interaction with content as well as levels of sharing and recommendation of content – is to be found not in the content ‘head’ but in the long tail.

Heads? Tails? What?

I’m writing this article in August, just two days before the start of the new football season, and the transfer window is open. There’s feverish excitement about which clubs will sign the best players and for how much. On this particular day, according to Google trends, the most popular football-related search phrase is ‘latest football transfer news’.

A quick search of this phrase on Google UK reveals a mind-boggling index of 288 million articles. Those results that have made it onto page 1 of the Google results will be up-to-the minute news-based articles, and because most of us won’t search beyond page 1 results, it is these articles that will get the vast majority of traffic.

Second in the list of most popular football-related searches is the phrase ‘football transfer rumours’, against which 132m articles are indexed (less than half the volume of both searches and articles compared to the No 1 search phrase). And third in line, revealing ‘just’ 76m results is the search phrase ‘Manchester United transfer news’. As we look down the list, the number of articles associated with popular search terms drops away almost exponentially.

As is often the case, the ‘Head’ of popular football related search terms in this example turns out to be very short.

While many publishers of football-related content choose – understandably – to focus their editorial resource on producing content that reflects the highest volume of real-time ‘search’ popularity, at Mirrorfootball, we pursue a very different strategy. Rather than publishing content to compete in the incredibly busy ‘head’ of news-based content, we stick instead – resolutely - to what we’re best at.

So in the case of this example, if we had a unique piece of transfer news about Manchester United, that’s what we’d publish. But we would also publish ‘around’ the article to give it relevance, context, flavour and meaning. In addition to the news snippet, we’d typically include analysis and comment from our most high-profile football columnists and perhaps a colour features from our rich archive.

Given this scenario, we would wilfully eschew potentially tens of thousands of visitors to our site seeking general ‘latest football transfer news’, preferring instead to attract a smaller but more highly defined bunch of football fans who are seeking information around a defined topic that we have unique insight into – in this case ‘Manchester United transfer news’

We haven’t gone mad. Given the choice, we’d prefer to attract a single qualified, passionate Manchester United fan who is coming to read a piece of unique content about his or her beloved club, than three or four unqualified users who are simply searching for the latest general transfer news and rumours. These are ‘users’ in the true sense of the word. They’ll be back to Google for the next search before they’ve even registered which site they flitted onto momentarily for that snippet of general news.

OK, so that’s a bit of an oversimplification of a far more detailed publishing strategy. Of course it makes sense and is useful to keep an eye on trending topics, but the point is that we refuse to let the tail wag the dog. Our publishing priority is for engagement with our readers, not merely eyeballs.

Our philosophy: to be a digital anchor, not a digital windsock.

For us, that means a constant, conscious focus on our strengths, our unique assets.

New platforms launched

It was on this basis that just over a year ago we launched – a dedicated portal / home for all of our football news, views, match reports, columnists, archive and so on.

We applied the same publishing philosophy to, the edgy celebrity / showbiz brand that we launched a month later. as a standalone website was an obvious opportunity. The Daily Mirror has established an excellent reputation for its brilliant football coverage over the years, and as a result, attracts some of the best football columnists in the land. Because we’ve been at it for so long, we’ve built up a unique collection of match reports and photographs that stretches back to 1903 – this in itself makes it arguably the greatest British football archive in the world.

We found that it simply wasn’t possible to do this great archive of fantastic content the justice it deserved within the confines of a website designed for delivering news and features; it needed a dedicated platform.

3am was also crying out for a bespoke online platform. 3am was the brainchild of Mirror editor Richard Wallace. Launched ten years ago, it was the first dedicated showbiz gossip-oriented section in a national newspaper; it was hugely popular from the off and remains so today. The idea behind giving 3am its own platform online was so that it could live and breathe, so that it could develop an even more distinctive attitude and tone of voice. The appetite for celebrity-gossip online is colossal, and we saw the opportunity to extend 3am’s reach way beyond the traditional Mirror audience as an obvious one to embrace.

Crucially, in both cases, we still view content as king. By creating standalone platforms we’ve dramatically improved our ability to enhance the context (through creating web architecture dedicated to the content subject). Verticalising these two content genres has also allowed us to do a much more effective job of curating related content and managing the contributions from their respective audiences.

In comparison to when football and celeb gossip content was delivered within the Mirror website framework, rates of interactivity from readers have rocketed on and

Certainly both sites have rewarded our belief by reconnecting us to both readers and advertisers. Twelve months in, is averaging three million monthly unique users, 800,000. Both sites are still growing steadily month by month.

We’ve also seen consistently higher levels of engagement from the customers who come to us not from search engines but via informed sources. Twitter and Facebook both serve as excellent recommendation engines. We’re seeing that traffic from these sources generates far deeper levels of engagement than traffic from general ‘search’. High levels of engagement convert to a loyal userbase, and it is this attribute that has created a very compelling audience proposition for advertisers.

Commercial success

Having the courage to stick to our convictions and focus on producing outstanding content has paid dividends. Not just in terms of generating large, loyal audiences, but also in generating cold, hard cash – and profit.

Forward-thinking advertisers and commercial partners saw the explosive audience growth of Mirrorfootball from launch as compelling evidence that we had created something unique and special.

In its first year, Mirrorfootball has won some impressive exclusive deals. In October last year, Mirrorfootball was selected as the exclusive online media partner for distribution of the pre-release version of the world’s most popular virtual football management game, Football Manager.

For the two weeks before the release of the 2010 game proper, hoards of die-hard Football Manager fans poured into Mirrorfootball to get their hands on the game as soon as they could. Why did SEGA choose Mirrorfootball over all of the other choices they had available to them? Simply because they wanted the experience of their prospective customers to be as high-quality as possible from a content point of view.

Our focus on publishing for engagement was rewarded again in January, when Mirrorfootball was selected by Sportech plc to be the brand that would re-launch the historic Football Pools game. Again, our focus on quality of content was recognised and rewarded by a partner who valued a stand out position. Quality comes first. These are just two of many examples where the demonstrably high levels of engagement from its passionate fanbase have made Mirrorfootball a highly attractive destination for advertisers, from bookmakers, to car manufacturers and FMCG brands.

Similarly, 3am has generated more than its fair share of notable commercial wins. It’s distinctive and at times edgy attitude and tone of voice doesn’t suit staid brands, but for contemporary brands it’s perfect. 3am was short-listed for the extremely competitive category of ‘best commercial partnership’ at the AOP awards in May this year, and although it didn’t win, our partner, Samsung was delighted with the campaign we built with them.

So, the message is, even in tough times like these, there’s every reason to be cheerful if publishers remain focused on what made them great in the first place.

For sure, we’re having to work harder to find and exploit new revenue streams. Ten years ago, Mirror Group had four or five revenue streams. At last count, Mirrorfootball and 3am had 32. Not all of them will turn out to be the big businesses we hope, but we're working them all, hard, in the knowledge that our future depends on it.

The production of great content remains at the heart of our businesses. It may be an unpleasant fact that technology gives advertisers the ability to aggregate and buy our audiences at progressively more cost efficient prices. But that same technology can be used by publishers to identify their audiences, build databases and loyalty programs, enable direct communication to targeted audiences and motivate them to act in measurable ways.

Technology can not do those things on its own. It is content that inspires action and it is content that creates the engagement needed to motivate audiences to action. Ultimately, it is outstanding content that will allow publishers to take a position in the value chain of the alternative business models that generate revenues above and beyond what is available in the share-of-market and CPM game that many of us have relied upon until now.