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Interview from Irish Marketing Journal

The former managing director of Independent News & Media’s digital arm talks to IMJ about the group’s growing digital footprint and its plans for 2015.

by in Interview

Interview

With 80m page impressions and 9.1m unique monthly visits from all around the world to Independent.ie, the site has been powering ahead in the Irish digital landscape for the past couple years and now forms the centrepiece in Independent News & Media’s growing portfolio of digital assets.

The group’s digital footprint now spans a variety of properties both in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Apart from Independent.ie, it includes Herald.ie, SundayWorld.com, BelfastTelegraph.co.uk, CarsIreland.ie, GrabOne.ie, the Northern Ireland recruitment websites, NIJobfinder.co.uk and RecruitNI.co.uk as well as PropertyNews.com and NICarfinder.co.uk. It also includes websites for the group’s local and regional newspapers, many of which are undergoing a makeover, as well as an investment in the online holiday website, ClickandGo.com.

Ramping Up Our Digital Investment

The growing importance of digital advertising to the group is evident from its accounts. In 2013, for example, the group reported combined digital and print advertising of €82.4m for the full year.  At €9.3m, digital advertising accounted for 11.3% of total advertising revenue in 2013. This compares with, €8.3m or 9.13% of advertising revenues in 2012.

The most recent interim results for Independent News & Media show that digital advertising revenues were up a healthy 30% to €3.9m during the first six months of the year while the group’s management statement in November noted that the year-to-date increase was in the order of 33%. At a time when print advertising and circulation revenues remain under pressure, any increase that the digital division brings is most welcome in the group’s Talbot Street HQ.

“With 80m page impressions and 9.1m unique monthly visits from all around the world to Independent.ie, the site has been powering ahead in the Irish digital landscape…”

For the past few years the group has been ramping up its investment in digital. In its annual report for 2013, it was noted that €10m had been set aside for investment over the 2014/2015 period.

The investment is clearly evident across the board and is an integral part of the group’s so-called “digital first” strategy which has repositioned it as a platform agnostic media group with digital at its heart.

“This has involved a complete reorientation of the business,” says Fiona O’Carroll, managing director of the group’s digital operations and who has been leading the digital charge for the past 18 months. “Historically our journalists wrote first for our newspapers, which of course are still our roots. Then we evolved to a stage when we looked at what bits we could put online. That was more or less stage one of our evolution. Now we are producing content in a platform agnostic way and we would take a story and decide how it will that translate into a print format or how with it translate into an online format, and ultimately a mobile format. So we configure the content for consumption on the different platforms while at the same time trying to understand customer behaviour at the various points of consumption. When I’m on my mobile, for example, I have a different behaviour during the day compared to when I am sitting with my iPad at home or reading the Irish Independent at my desk.  So for us, it’s really about understanding the audience and then getting the content written in a way that enables them to consume it when and where they want and by whatever means they want. That’s really what digital first means for us,” she says.

The reorientation and investment has manifested itself in a number of different ways with a substantial increase in the headcount being the most obvious, says O’Carroll.

“The expansion has been in a number of areas with a particular emphasis on expanding our talent pool and we have been busily hiring new staff across the board. The team we have put together is hugely experienced from a global perspective. Some of them have come from the tech sector, some from digital content experience while others have important data and analytics expertise. Data analytics, for example, is very important to us because it allows us target right down to what individual readers like and want and how they are reading our content. It also allows us to provide a better content experience for them while at the same time offering advertisers a much more targeted approach.  We actually have three staff who have PhDs in data analytics, so that’s an indication of how we are taking data seriously.

The investment has led to the creation of 40 new jobs over the past six months bringing the digital team to around 80 staff. Add in the 40 or so staff at GrabOne, and the digital headcount rises to 120.

“We’ve also invested heavily in design; we are very design-centred in our thinking because the user experience is so important across both desktop and mobile. We have also been investing in our commercial team and we are looking at being much more consultative in how we work with our brands and our agencies and trying to add a lot more value by seeing how we can collaborate with them.  We do our best to bring them solutions for their needs and we try to deliver the KPIs that brands are increasingly looking for.”

Digital of course has many advantages over print particularly when it comes to rich media like video and audio, and most news brands have been investing heavily in video not least because pre-roll and post-roll video advertising is a lucrative source of ad revenue for them. In many cases, news brands like Indpendent.ie have invested in high tech studios where they can make and shoot their own video content.

“We are a multimedia business and video is playing an increasingly big role in how we tell stories. We have invested in setting up our own in-house studio and editing suite and whereas in the past we had journalists that specialised in the written word, we now have journalists that are trained up to shoot and edit video and get it online. So that’s been another big development for the group,” she says.

A good example of the type of video content it is developing is the Windmill Lane Sessions, a TV quality production that interviews and showcases bands and musicians that record in Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin.

“It’s a very different multimedia experience and it’s very exciting for us to be involved in it,” says O’Carroll. “Essentially we have partnered with Windmill Lane studios to interview and record some of the big acts, Irish and international, coming in to Ireland to do original content. They would go to Windmill Lane and we do a very original piece of video footage with them performing one of their songs but in a very original way with an interview. It’s a really rich multimedia experience and it could lead us into other areas in the future.”

Beyond its flagship brand, Independent.ie, the group has been investing in its other titles like SundayWorld.com as well as a number of local newspapers it owns around the country.

“The Sunday World has a fantastic team which more or less grew up in there and while they are part of the group, they are autonomous and driving their own brand. If you go online and look at Sunday World it feels very much like the Sunday World experience but the differentiator is that they are able to leverage the technology and the data science that we have centrally.”

The digital first strategy also applies to its local newspapers some of which are already up and running with newly revamped websites.

“It follows the same model as we have here and they are now gradually coming on board.  You will see that Wexford People is a good example of what we are trying to achieve. It went live in November and like the rest of the titles, it is platform agnostic. So we are looking at scaling it out across other titles in 2015 and it will be the same model across the whole of Ireland,” she says.

“It’s also important from an advertising point of view as advertisers will be able to reach locally targeted audiences around the country in addition to a national reach as we can drill down or scale up across the whole of Ireland and this is where our data and our analysis of that data will play a big and important role in what we can offer advertisers and brands. So this will be a big focus for us in 2015.”

Another key area for the group in recent years has been the growth in the number of verticals which it owns or has invested in. GrabOne.ie , CarsIreland.ie, ClickandGo.ie as well as the recruitment and property websites in Northern Ireland are the most notable. But it could also be argued that there are gaps in its portfolio of verticals in the Republic of Ireland, most notably in property, recruitment and classifieds, areas where other media groups have a foothold.

“I think as we look to the future there is no question that the digital platform we have created presents us with plenty of opportunities and we can enter new areas quicker than before,” says O’Carroll.

“But you will see by looking at Independent.ie how we are starting to be very vertically focused.  What does this mean? It means that we have a big focus on specific content for each one of the different categories and this will evolve in 2015. From the point of view of the audience and the advertiser, the content strategy is much more aligned now to the specific audience which in many cases has a specific set of interests when it comes to consuming content whether it’s style and fashion or business.  We have been working on tailoring our content strategy and our team structures to align to those verticals and then obviously for advertisers and brands it’s much more targeted because we are able to present specific messages to those audiences. But we have a lot more to do and you will certainly see us continue to focus on this as well as looking at new opportunities as they emerge over the next 12-18 months.”

Another key area that has been singled out for its development potential over the coming months is content marketing and the growing interest brands have in telling their story to their target audience.

“Telling stories is in our DNA,” says O’Carroll. “It’s what we are good at and we have the platforms to do it. There is a sea-change going on in the marketing world at the moment and more and more marketers are looking to content marketing and how they can leverage content to tell their story but there is a really fine line between doing it well and reaching the people you need to reach and doing it poorly.  We can partner with brands and help them tell their story through video, through the written word or through infographics or whatever format they want. We can pull it all together in a rich media format that is engaging, interesting and informative. It’s a new product for us to bring to the market for advertisers and brands and we’ve already started that a little bit but we’re really looking to have big focus on it in 2015. Done right, content marketing can be really effective for a brand,” she says.

Another key area for the group is mobile and the growth of mobile usage amongst its readers. According to O’Carroll approximately 50% of all visits to Independent.ie come from either a mobile phone or tablet.

“Mobile is hugely important as it would be to everyone in the industry. Mobile is really exciting for a company like ours as the growth rate is substantial. Mobile is the great liberator and we can really improve the content experience that we are delivering to our audience because they have this mobile device with them as they move through the day and it allows us map their patterns of behaviour during that day. We can map what their content experience is during the day.  People don’t have just one content experience during the day. For example when I get up in the morning I’m looking for snackable content on my mobile- what happened overnight, the top stories that I need to know starting the day and maybe other specific things that I am interested in. And then when I am having breakfast or sitting on a DART, I may want some deeper analysis of an event and as I move through the day I might like updates on things that might be happening that are of interest to me or I might want to read some long-form article. And then on the way home on the train I might be thinking about what’s going on in sport tonight or what’s on the TV as I am in a different mode. So we would see mobile offering a hugely exciting opportunity for those who make content to really tailor the experience through a more daily view of the audience and their experience as they move through the day,” she adds.

With the sale of hand-held devices now outstripping PCs in most development markets, mobile’s importance to news brands is only going to increase she says. “Certainly within the industry, there’s talk of it hitting 75% by 2015 or 2016 and that is entirely possible, particularly for content heavy sites like Independent.ie,” she concludes.

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