News & Opinion

David Pemsel: "We're exploring people's loyalty & engagement with our brand"

Speaking at Media360 to the global editor-in-chief of Campaign Claire Beale, David Pemsel discussed the Guardian's membership model, the title's three year plan and what he thinks of the digital duopoly. 

With the theme of this year's annual conference being 'Transform and Unite', Pemsel gave an insight into his three year plan to ensure that the Guardian is around in perpetuity. "We're almost re-planning our business every quarter... that's the world we're in" explained the publisher's CEO, highlighting the need for agility and adaptability to keep up with the pace of change.

One of the main areas of focus is being "more sophisticated in how we derive revenue from readers", he said. Pointing to the fact that the Guardian now has over 240,000 paying members (a 200,000 increase from this time last year), Pemsel continued: "What we're exploring is people's loyalty and engagement with our brand... we're at the foothills of experimenting with that."

Considering the Guardian's reach – 155 million browsers a month and with two thirds of its traffic outside of the UK – Pemsel is confident that "we're starting from a phenomenal base". Asked as to whether erecting a pay wall would be a possibility in the future, he said that the model feels contradictory with an 'open journalism' ethos.

However, the membership system is allowing for the creation of a known audience, with Pemsel adding that "data is everything, knowing your audience is everything... big numbers can create complacency". The overall aim is to create a "mutual relationship" with readers.

Addressing the Guardian's recent removal of its content from Facebook Instant Articles, Pemsel said that "with no ad return, why would you?". While he acknowledges that platforms like Instant Articles and Apple News increase the reach of the Guardian's content, the title "doesn't have a reach problem" and is instead prioritising direct reader relationships. On the digital duopoly in general, Pemsel said that "we will always be robust with both of these organisations".

Closing the session by returning to the subject of change, Pemsel said that "the speed of change means that [the industry] tends to only look at what happens tomorrow", but an obsession with short-term ad metrics is "ultimately going to be impacting long-term brand value".  

Later in the day, the Guardian's CRO Hamish Nickin took to the stage as part of a panel debate on how media owners are transforming in a digital era. Asked as to whether he's a transformer or an evolutionist, Nicklin said that "Silicon Valley would argue it's all about transformation, move fast and break things", but there is a growing recognition that this has had "some serious, unintended consequences", not least on "the load bearing walls of democracy". As such, he's an evolutionist.

Discussing the role of programmatic, Nicklin believes that it is "a fact of life and one we should embrace... however we think there's changes that we all need to make so that it works properly", by engineering algorithms to take into account quality environments and context.

Quoting the recent Enders report on short-termism, he went on to add: "Automation of course is a good thing, but if it just focused us on short-term metrics that lead us nowhere in the long-term, then that is a very bad thing." 

by Jessie Sampson 19/05/17

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