Developing Your Audience Vs. Chasing Clicks: A Lesson From 'New York Times'

To cap off 2014, executive editor of The New York Times Dean Baquet sent a lengthy note to his newsroom staff titled, “Charting the Future.” I was struck by Baquet’s transparency around the challenges The Times and the publishing industry in general are facing. And while mine were certainly not the only eyebrows raised by this bold and honest assessment, one solution to the problems in particular rankled some editorial purists. The New York Times has created a new audience development department. Its “purpose is not to chase clicks but to expose as many people as possible to our finest work.” And guess what? It’s working. 

The still-nascent “audience development” effort has resulted in a 20% increase in new readers in just two months, and we all know what more readers means: more subscriptions and more advertising.  Publishers and brands alike will surely be talking about what audience development really means and how it’s best achieved.

The notion stands in stark contrast to the way most businesses are still thinking about reaching new prospects. Sure, brands are creating personas and typifying their audiences, but only as a precursor to the thing marketers are really focused on: creating a campaign and buying media to support it. This new audience development function sounds a whole lot more like traditional product marketing: charging a team with deeply understanding a product’s attributes, whether editorial or widgets, and getting them in front of audiences who will care. 

I’m not interested in rehashing the overdone brand-as-newsroom construct. It is 2015. We all agree brands need to be better creators and curators of content. What is interesting to explore, however, is the idea of building versus buying audiences — and where one would find said audience in either scenario.

Ironically, publications like The Times have traditionally been the channels brands have turned to whenever the best way to reach new audiences was to buy them. It’s no secret that publishers are no longer the lone source of access to new audiences via interest-based targeting. Today, the social Web is the best place to purchase exposure to very specific audiences. Yes, brands can still communicate to and through their existing audiences on social, but unless you spent 2014 in a media blackout, you realize that both Twitter and Facebook continue to necessitate paid media to maximize new audience exposure. 

The point for brands here is simple. Inbound marketing is a key driver of efficiency, but it is not enough. Yes, the habit of social sharing has made referral a much bigger piece of the acquisition puzzle, but it has not eradicated the need for outbound marketing — also known as paid advertising. Of course, Google has leveled the playing field for those who hope to meet new audiences by simply lining up with the answers to questions their prospects are asking via search. But if your business can grow fast enough to win purely by engaging in SEO, then you must be the most differentiated business on the planet — even more so than The Times.

In an increasingly competitive marketplace, exposing audiences to your products and services efficiently means striking the right balance between paying to reach audiences and reaching them organically through social and search. That The Times is investing in a team of people to focus on systematizing that process demonstrates great vision. 

In the absence of insight about who consumed content, let alone real control over audience segmentation, marketers have historically had to deal with a two-step process; building the campaign and executing the buy. Today, we can begin and end with the audience. If you’re a marketer chasing clicks for your campaigns, you might want to consider taking a page from The New York Times.

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