“As a news business, we need to be able to react as situations evolve,” said Tom Hunter, Head of Audience Planning at Guardian News and Media, at last month’s Festival of Marketing.

Before 2018, the publication was struggling to execute this reactive strategy in its customer engagement strategy.

“We had a lot of siloed data – we were reliant on third parties for some of the things that we wanted to do. Internally we were quite disjointed; channels and teams were siloed across different parts of the customer journey.”

Hunter broke down how the Guardian has overcome these issues, eventually building a successful culture of experimentation and testing to engage loyal readers.

Creating connected journeys

To overcome silos, the Guardian decided to bring in campaign management tool, Braze, in order to build connected journeys across channels, and crucially, hold all of its data in one place.

“I think an important part [of this process] was putting these powerful self-serve tools into the hands of the marketing teams,” Hunter explains.

“The first 12 months or so was about migrating a substantial amount of our existing email journeys – because a lot of them were performing well, adding revenue – so they needed to be replicated as a first order of business.”

Since then, Hunter says the Guardian has made more of the platform’s wider features as well as integration with other channels. “Braze is now powering messages within our apps, we’ve created integrations with telemarketing via SalesForce, we’ve got a connection to our direct mailing house, web messaging – so for signed-in users we can now personalise messages on platform which is a really big one for us given the huge reach that we have on web,” he says.

Implementing insight-driven personalisation

When it comes to executing personalisation across channels, Hunter says that the Guardian’s approach is “insight-driven”, based on “understanding the behaviours [that we can see] and how they relate to business outcomes.”

“Probably a good example is that one of our core products is our digital subscription – where you get access to our Editions app and Live app – and insight showed us that around a quarter of subscribers weren’t using any of our benefits that they are entitled to, and we saw a correlation between benefit usage and churn that you’d probably expect.”

In response to this finding, the team set up a campaign to encourage early life usage of specific benefits, resulting in “substantial reductions” to churn as per the aim.

Hunter says that avoiding a ‘one size fits all’ approach to customer engagement in key. “Our onboarding journeys – not just on digital subscriptions – are becoming increasingly personalised,” he says. “If we know somebody is already using a particular benefit, we certainly don’t want to be pushing it to them again and again if there’s an opportunity to show them something more relevant and useful.”

Another example, says Hunter, is the Guardian’s patrons programme which is a “a product with by far the highest price point – so we don’t acquire a lot of them but they are very valuable to our business.”

“Our data and insight team did a great bit of analysis where they understood tenure on different products and likelihood to become a patron, so we were able to target our readers at the right point in their lifecycle and tailoring that to each product for a patron’s upsell ask…” Hunter also says that this work uncovered the insight that email was a more effective channel for this than previously thought.

Increasing sophistication of personalised messaging

While a certain amount of personalisation has already been achieved, Hunter says that there is scope for “sophistication” to be increased by making use of the data points available.

“That’s something we are going to be building out more and more, allowing us to do personalised testing of the promotion of things like newsletters and various subscriptions,” he says.

Hunter continues: “We know that app users represent a relatively small proportion of our total browsers but they are super engaged. So, we know that getting the right message at the right time is really important. They have great potential to be paying supporters.”

Hunter also says that Google AMP for email is a new area of opportunity for the Guardian, as is a more heightened focus on editorial newsletters overall. “There’s a real flexibility to creating engaging, interactive experiences and lots of room for creativity which is always good…. Historically, newsletters have been treated like a bit of a shop window to try and get people to click through and hit the site, but I think increasingly they are becoming platforms in their own right and so that’s something we are looking to do more with.”

Internal comms is key when choosing the right martech stack

When it comes to choosing the right marketing tech stack, Hunter suggests that “internal collaboration and communication with internal teams” is vital in order to be “clear about what parts of that wider problem your tech stack is trying to solve and how they fit together.” This, he says, makes it easier to build consensus amongst stakeholders at a later stage.

“It’s also worth looking beyond just the technical side of what a particular tool can do,” he suggests. “You’ve also got to consider… is this a company we can work with as a partner? Is the product developing in a direction that suits us? How important will we be to them if we need problems escalating, or if we want to influencer their roadmap? All of these things are important to consider alongside the technical capabilities.”

Understanding the customer “is a never-ending, relentless task”

It’s clear that the Guardian has made progress is establishing a healthy and successful culture of experimentation. Hunter says that this has been achieved through a combination of process and culture, with the former feeling “consistent and robust and easy for people to access and understand.” Furthermore, he says, “not everybody is going to be super technical – and to do good testing they don’t necessarily have to be. It is about encouraging people to be creative and to develop hypotheses based on the behaviour they are seeing or the insights that are being uncovered – also trying to make it fun.”

So, what advice would he give to marketers or brands trying to be more ‘audience-centric’?

“I’d say to just carry out a really honest assessment of their organisation currently,” he says. “Understandably, decisions are very often primarily driven from the business first, you know, there’s a new product that we need to sell or we’ve got revenue targets that we need to hit. Sometimes, then, audience-centricity is sometimes given lip service to…”

Hunter says that identifying blockers to being audience-centric makes it easier to work out a clear plan to improve, and to convince the key decision makers why it’s the smartest course of action.

“Another thing I would say – and it may be more obvious – but genuinely understanding the customer is pretty fundamental,” he states. “And it’s a never ending, relentless task, so make full use of any research or analysis or customer feedback or any other sources of insight you can get your hands on… you can’t be audience-centric unless you really understand your audience.”