Utilizing a new visual, map-based email newsletter allowed for the Daily Press, a news organization in the Hampton Roads-Tidewater (VA) area, to increase unique clicks by 36% over the control email. The results of a six-week test suggest that allowing individuals to see where a story occurred on an interactive, visual map drives higher levels of interactivity and elaboration, which may offer the possibility for the Daily Press to charge higher advertising rates.
The purpose of this research was to test digital subscriber interactivity and elaboration from a new visual, map-based approach to email newsletter versus the current text-based email newsletter for the Daily Press, an extremely successful community news organization located in Newport News, Virginia. Higher levels of interactivity and elaboration by digital subscribers will ostensibly enable the Daily Press to charge higher advertising rates for visual, map-based email newsletter versus the standard or current text-based email newsletter, thereby increasing overall advertising revenue.
Eight years after the Great Recession sent the U.S. newspaper industry into a tailspin, the pressures facing America’s newsrooms have surprisingly not abated, especially in community media organizations. While national digital circulation in 2016 increased 2% over 2015, advertising revenue continue to be under pressure (Cao, 2016). Therefore, developing new streams of revenue without also increasing fixed costs, is imperative to the sustainability of local media organizations.
Situation and Context
The Daily Press organization has three print newspapers, along with a tourism magazine, phonebook, and e-newsletter, in its portfolio. The local economy, however, has stalled, with many jobs (both military and blue-collar) leaving the area – and those that have returned being lower paid. According to Abernathy and Sciarrino’ s Digital Transformation Map, The Daily Press are in quadrant 3 (Figure 1) – a tool that highlights where an organization is in terms of available resources and involvement of its audience. Is a majority of the audience actively involved and interacting with the content they are consuming—creating and posting comments and actively saving and sharing material? If so, this is what is referred to as a dynamic media environment. In such an environment, customers want to be active participants in conversations with each other and they want to interact with the content they consume.
As an organization in quadrant 3, the Daily Press should be following rapid prototyping to continue to innovate and introduce products and services, or marketing and distribution efforts, that add value for either subscribers or advertisers. The prototyping in quadrant 3 typically involve the creation of more highly targeted offerings for a myriad of audiences. These activities will help to facilitate an eventual move to lucrative quadrant 4. Additionally, news organizations in quadrant 3 should continue efforts to reduce, streamline, or eliminate costs through improvements in business processes and supply chains. By expanding products and services and developing new marketing capabilities such as with the creation of a new map-based email newsletter to increase interactivity and elaboration, the Daily Press can charge higher advertising rates, the surplus of which may fuel other, new products and services.
Map-Based News Content
In 2012, work by Lindgren and Wong argued that to help advance journalism, the use of presenting the news in a mapped format can help audiences understand what, why, and how local news gets reported, and the potential values of such a change. In 2015, the Global Database of Events, Language, and Tone (GDELT) launched a map that cataloged and geolocated every news story around the globe (ignoring sports and entertainment) – even updating every hour. Users can see what stores are moving across state and country lines, as well as which areas are experiencing a boom in each day.
Taking things to a more local level, news organizations have experimented with allowing users to find stories by clicking a map. For instance, WRAL, an NBC-affiliate television station in Raleigh, NC has News Near Me, a map-based system that allows a user to click on a given area and see what news has occurred over a selected period. A recent study suggests that location-based news in mobile news apps continues to grow. Even so, newspapers continue to lag broadcast news organizations in terms of location-based services (Weiss, 2018). The current landscape for combining digital media and location-based services suggests that things are still in the experimentation phase (Goggin et al., 2015).
Digital Media Subscriber Interactivity and Elaboration
Today, the average American spends almost six hours each day consuming media (eMarketer, 2017). The value of editorial content online remains strong, with nearly 60% of Internet users’ time spent online consuming original content (Medich et al., 2011). The potential value of a strategy that leverages relevant content has not been lost on publishers (Holcomb & Mitchell, 2014). To access whether an organization’s content strategy is relevant for consumers, publishers rely on a measurement system focusing on elaboration and interactivity.
Recipients who experience higher elaboration—or “self-generated thoughts” (Stiff & Mongeau, 2003) — which has been linked to improved retention of a message (Leigh & Menon, 1987), recall of message details (Mitchell, 1983), and an overall increased affiliation towards the message and provider (Burnkrant & Sawyer, 1983). Interactivity typically describes how the audience read, interact, or even share content.
Elaboration and interaction are measured using a number of metrics, provided by web analytics software, that are not limited to clicks, time on page, scroll depth, click-throughs, video views, and video complete. Specifically, scroll depth, which measures and records the amount of message content a recipient navigated through on a webpage, would be particularly helpful to ascertain whether the user experienced higher elaboration with the content.
Daily Press Research Method
The research method conducted for the Daily Press map-based email newsletter was a classical A/B test, whereby the control or “A” version of the test measured digital subscriber interactivity and elaboration from the current Daily Press text-based email newsletter, versus the visually mapped email newsletter format or “B” version (Appendix 1) for a period of six weeks. Approximately half of the digital subscribers for the Daily Press received the “A” version, while the other half received the “B” version of the weekly newsletter. Each week, performance on the following metrics for both the “A” version and the “B” version was recorded to test the level of interactivity and elaboration: clicks, time on page, scroll depth, click-throughs, video views and video completes. It is important to note that no changes were made to the landing webpages or web template for the Daily Press, as the “A” and “B” versions of the newsletter were the only variables being tested.
The research test period launched on February 18, 2018 and ran through April 3, 2018. During this test period, email newsletters were sent on 27 individual days. The “A” and “B” versions of the email newsletter always went on the same day, at the same time, with the exact same subject line. This rigor allowed for a true A/B test, allowing for all aspects of the email to stay constant, except for the content presentation.
The Daily Press has a monthly average of approximately 10,400 email subscribers, which allowed an even split of a randomized 5,200 subscribers in the control group and 5,200 subscribers in the mapped format. The sample used during this test was representative of the demographics and subscriber characteristics of Hampton Roads – Tidewater region. The overall demographic makeup of the sample can be described as conservative, Caucasian, and transient, due to the nature of the area’s reliance on the military (60% of the employment market related to Department of Defense jobs). The average age of the email subscriber is 35. Of the known information about the sample, 29.5% subscribers have 4-year college degrees. There are children (under the age of 18) present in the household of 36.3% of subscribers.
The results of the A/B test suggested that the “B” version (mapped e-newsletter; aka “Variation”) was a better driver of clicks than the “A” version (“Control”). Both versions were almost identical in terms of numbers of daily emails sent, delivery rate, and open rate (18%) (Figure 2).
However, there was a marked difference in terms of the unique click and total click rate between the two emails. This was observed at each distinct time period evaluated: daily, weekly, monthly and at overall completion. During the six-week trial, the “B” version of the email had 36% more unique clicks than the control email.
To evaluate the difference between “A” and “B” for the duration of the six-week test, a Chi-Square Test (non-parametric hypothesis test of significance) was used. The visitors and unique clicks were used to produce a conversion rate and standard error (Figure 3).
Then, the conversion rate and standard error were used to produce conversion rate limits (also known as confidence intervals), which suggests that the true conversion number resides in this range, depending on statistical significance level (Figure 4).
Finally, the conversion rate and standard error were used to create a z-score (-11.63), which produced a p-value of 1.5E-31, meaning that the results were statistically significant at the 95% and 99% level. This suggests that the results of the test were not due to mere chance. Moreover, this suggests that the significantly higher unique and total click volume from the “B” email visitors was caused by the new, map-based format.
The daily results showed a similar trajectory in terms of click volume increase with the “B” version of the email. For instance, March 20, 2018 had the following results (Figure 5):
An almost identical number of emails received, with a sizeable increase in the number of unique opens. The results were again statistically significant at both the 95% and 99% confidence levels.
The map-based visual treatment of the “B” version (“Variation”) resulted in statistically, significantly higher clicks and click-through rates versus the “A” version (“Control”), indicating a higher level of interactivity and elaboration for the visual, map-based email newsletter.
There was no statistically, significantly higher difference in the open rates between the two versions, although this was as expected due to the identical nature of the distribution, subject line and time of day for the newsletters. The data shows that once the email was opened, subscribers interacted with the stories more frequently with the “B” version (“Variation”). Specifically, the behavior of clicking on map-based stories boosted unique clicks (the number of individuals clicking a link to the Daily Press website) from 1.7% to 2.3% — a nearly 40% increase in web activity over the course of a week or month. The results of this test suggest that individuals are more likely to click on a link to a story based on a mapped location versus text.
Why individuals are more likely to click on a particular link tied to a location is something that deserves more attention. Is it because it is closer to where the individual lives, works, or has relatives? Or is it due to being able to easily put a headline together with a location. Similarly, digging further into the website metrics, including how long individuals stay on the website, whether they continue to dig further into content our bounce after clicking one link, and if they watch and consume video content, should be measured in future tests. The engagement of the visitor, who is now more likely to visit the website through a web-based email will become the focus of future research in this area.
This test occurred in one specific metropolitan area with one news organization. In smaller markets, it is unclear if map-based emails would be beneficial as the major area is smaller. The Daily Press also sent out three to four emails weekly – a number that may be unsustainable for a smaller news organization.
Additionally, we had hoped to look at the scroll depth, video views, and video completes of the “A” (“Control”) and “B” (“Variation”) versions of the email newsletters. However, at this time, the Daily Press could not accurately track and measure this due to a new digital reporting system that occurred during the test. While these additional metrics were not required to determine interactivity and elaboration for the “A” and “B” versions of the email newsletters, they will be extremely helpful in future research to better understand subscriber elaboration.
JoAnn Sciarrino, Knight Chair of Digital Advertising and Marketing, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
John Prudente, Research Associate, Center for Innovation and Sustainability of Local Media, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
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