It’s delusional, but at times I feel hope and inspiration for free news media is receding far behind the magic doors to Hogwarts. And it needs nothing less than magical prowess to be found.

Just as the ad-tech evangelists were so charged up about the programmatic saviours, the GDPR came crashing down. The party getting high on free-flowing booze of user data is now quickly getting back on its heels. The tap will get tightened very soon.

News media companies can creatively harvest audience data suited for both print and digital.
News media companies can creatively harvest audience data suited for both print and digital.

But the booze — flowing over monstrous, interconnected networks through unmonitored, open nodes — has already intoxicated many beyond a cure. Have you ever wondered how many publishers gave in to a platform- or agency-controlled programmatic ad-serving system and forgot its own sales muscles — the strength of direct selling accumulated over so many years?

Maybe I just don’t get it, or maybe it’s due to the lack of an efficient, cross-platform, industry-wide measurement system. But I wonder why so many news organisations are still happy bragging about print and digital audiences separately?

Also, they have been fairly OK outsourcing the task of print media intelligence gathering to external agencies. However, in countries like India, a loyal print subscriber is still about 12 times as valuable as a digital reader. For the digital ventures, the same organisations would have well-knit processes in place with all checkboxes for data security duly ticked.

So, essentially, what we have in such media brands is, on the one side, being uber-sensitive about user intelligence while on the other, just the opposite. Isn’t that baffling? Especially considering the same technology the new media uses can equally benefit the print side, too!

Big Data analytics systems in these places can easily provide better guidance to alternative selling processes. And I mean the traditional selling system, for both print and digital.

But newspapers don’t fire code snippets to send usage data to analytics servers. That’s where the cliched-yet-haloed process of Big Data engineering pales in comparison to data collection innovations.

Being second to digital in entering the data orgy, some publishers mimicked the digital data collection processes only to gain bitter learnings. The hard-learned rule of thumb is don’t expect the product to give you a lot of reader data. Create an array of tools around the newspaper to understand the target audience.

Many news media companies, while selling subscription plans, still provide hand-written receipts. That is a big opportunity loss, since hardly any data can be retrieved from paper receipts written by newspaper delivery boys or local agents.

Some are experimenting with GPS-enabled point-of-sale devices, which can result in a big change by providing SMS receipts to readers who pay by credit or debit cards. Plus, they can get mobile number information in the process. For those who don’t, using a specially made app can work.

The question is, can these programmes be modified to collect some consumption preference data as well? With innovation, yes!

In disguise, can events be arranged in target geographical areas to collect information about media consumption preferences? Do the attendees of the events visit your Web sites too? Did they download the apps? Which sections do they typically visit? Which ads do they typically react to? Will they be slightly kinder to divulge additional information online on the spot? Yes, we just created their client and user IDs on the spot with atmosphere information.

Even if they don’t go online on the spot, their e-mail IDs and mobile numbers can be asked for in a legitimate manner. That will create targetable audiences.

It’s time to rethink the retail and over-the-counter sales process. The size, exclusiveness, complexities, and super sensitiveness of news media distribution systems demand extreme care in planning any change favouring data collection.

But it’s time we do small experiments. The lure of small cashback or price benefits through mobile wallets may work. User loyalty experts can easily design such schemes where actual cashback rewards are provided by an advertiser or sponsor, but the news media house may legally keep its share of data.

And there are so many more techniques that would depend on the audience type and communication needs.

In most media houses, data collection happens in silos. Collected data never reaches a central repository that enables reuse and/or repurposing in multiple formats. That’s why creating a data warehouse is so essential. I would assume most have built one already but have never used it for this purpose.

Identifiable user data from print audience sources can be stored, processed, and matched with user IDs collected from digital products. The idea is to pick up scattered pieces and melt them together. While data from a newspaper can be combined with data from Facebook or Google for the purposes of selling digital ads, demographic information can be leveraged for special targeting. There would be other exciting benefits, too.

Using the system, an ongoing and reliable process can be built for mining loyal users interested in serious news items set against the enormous bias created by Facebook or Google toward entertainment and lifestyle frivolity.

Once the overlap of digital and print audiences is established, dimensions of content consumption can be used to identify print monetisation and content optimisation scopes. For example, if overlap zone “A” (a combination of geography and demography) shows significant consumption of an FMCG segment, it can be used to create pre-sale strategies, research, and/or offerings for print.

Do we ever talk about upselling print products to digital audiences who read the Web site or app for free? Isn’t that value creation? Can we send communications to readers to encourage them to adopt the print publications, too?

Digital news media, in many countries including mine, is paying for not having been conceived as a producer of loyalty. Remember when we so keenly coined the term “snacking?” The bad news is we all are not The New York Times. The good news is, print may be failing here too, but readers still buy over the counters or renew subscriptions.

A fact we often ignore is, while print-to-digital conversion must be achieved, it’s also important to lend agility to a user where he or she can consume on any medium of choice or convenience. Taking a medium agnostic stance is probably the only way to reinforce brand loyalty.