Gaining audience trust was fundamental for The Guardian, last year’s Data Storytelling Awards Grand Prix winner.

I spoke to the company's director of consumer revenues, Julia Porter, to ask why this triggered a strategy of balancing privacy with a compelling data-driven understanding of its customers.

When Julia 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 its 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 of 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.

This article was originally published on Marketing Week.

The Data Storytelling Awards is now open for entries. The deadline is Tuesday July 19, 2016.

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Published 4 July, 2016 by Maeve Hosea

Maeve is a freelance writer for Econsultancy. You can follow her on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn.

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