How U.K.’s Trinity Mirror Negotiates the Intersection of Journalism and Local Tech

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Trinity Mirror is the largest news publishing company in the United Kingdom. In November, 109.2 million unique viewers visited its network of sites, which include internationally known titles like the Daily Mirror and smaller organizations that serve local communities. In 2014 the company launched a hyperlocal mobile ad platform called pinpoint that allows brands to send highly targeted campaigns to smartphone users.

Street Fight recently caught up with Trinity Mirror’s director of new businesses, Matthew Colebourne — who will take the stage at our upcoming London conference, LOCALCON — to talk about pinpoint, business models for journalism, and the opportunities technology brings to the local media landscape. 

People’s curiosity about what’s happening in their neighborhoods and towns — something that was previously satisfied by checking out the local paper — is now satisfied by a quick look at social media. Has this behavior changed the content that appears in local media?
Very much so. When we publish national stories, that’s something a reader can get from multiple sources, so there’s a lot of competition. When we publish local stories and target the stories directly to the user, we make it highly relevant, and if you have as many of those local publications as we do, you end up with a national audience that is accessing through content that is very place-oriented.

Is technology evening the playing field — so that local news outlets can reach more consumers — or is it just catering to the already-dominant digital media organizations?
I think the fact that technology allows you to create a countrywide or statewide audience made up of a lot of small groups linked to individual publications, and that there’s the option for local publications to do things like join our pinpoint network to sell their apps and ad inventory, provides smaller players a level playing field. There’s a way to monetize that gets away from the old paradigm where national outlets would take the big advertisers and the big budgets, and all the local publications would take promotions from local businesses and services and didn’t have access to those bigger campaigns and revenues. So I think there’s certainly a democratization.

As you move toward individuals and location, then the value is in individuals and location. That means that if you can offer a publication or service that builds up sufficient numbers of individuals in a sufficient locale, you can monetize in ways that you couldn’t in the past.

It’s been a little more than a year since the launch of pinpoint. How has it developed, and what insights have you taken from it?
When we first launched, it was pretty small — we had probably around half a million app users, and we could only target about 100,000-150,000 of them. Now, we’re over two million downloads with typically 1.2-1.3 million actives, which gives us a countrywide audience that we didn’t have before.

The model is one that advertisers really like. It took us a little while to convince them; one of the big issues we had to overcome was that we were tending to recommend relatively small campaigns, because we were achieving higher impact than a typical ad. The cut-through was so much more that we had to go and explain to a restaurant, for example, “No, you don’t want to hit 20,000 people, because on any given evening, how many can you actually take in? If you send this out to a whole bunch of people saying, ‘Come and eat here now, here’s a special offer,’ you can get some very high response rates, and if you send it out to too many people you won’t be able to satisfy the demand.” So it was [shifting] a mindset where people would think they must send out to very big audiences to finding a way to quickly focus down on the part of the audience that is really interested and would appreciate being given offers and directions. We’ve got some big advertisers [on pinpoint], and typically they’re multi-outlet advertisers who are there for promoting thousands of stores, but each store is being individually used as a basis for sending out to an audience around them.

Another interesting thing we learned about was the juxtaposition of different media. In the past, banner display ads and print didn’t always work together, and if they did, they were not really done in a joined-up fashion. We found out quite early on that what worked really well was to print where you want to build brand, and then pinpoint where you use it as a reminder for a specific event. For example, say you’re opening a new car showroom — it’s really good to build brand about that in the local print media, and then on the morning of the opening, get that message out to everybody’s phones: “Remember the opening today, here’s additional incentive to come.”

What we’ve focused on is refining audiences — building an audience that’s interested in a certain leisure activity, for example. We ran a campaign for a motorcycle showroom that had the newest superbikes in. What they did was figure out all the people that had attended rounds of the British Superbike Championship. Because they knew where and when those were, we were able to run a query on the database to find out who was there, and then who was also within a reasonable radius of the store in question. That was a very successful campaign, because what we did was determine people’s interest in a very non-intrusive, highly accurate way, which has fed into a lot of the campaigns we run on pinpoint. What we tend to do is pick slightly bigger areas to start with, but very quickly zoom down to the people who react and are interested, and start to build custom audiences and send stuff that they respond to. We’re only sending, on average, one message a day per user, to make sure that we don’t get the usual user fatigue from being bombarded with so much stuff.

As digital evolves, a lot of media companies are experimenting with different new types of advertising, subscriptions and paywalls. What’s most promising to Trinity Mirror in terms of business models?
We’ve not yet decided on that. The reality is, like everybody, we’re hit with significant numbers of people who are using ad blockers, and we haven’t taken a firm action on that. We’re going to continue to just move with the market and react, rather than trying to come up with a definitive model. When you start adding in some of the purchase-type business models — CPA, for example — the impact of an ad blocker is much more than if you have a CPM or display-type campaign. You end up having to be quite reactive and smart in terms of how you deal with making sure the advertiser gets what they want in a way that doesn’t wreck the site and the user experience.

That’s a conversation we have every week, when we have our digital management meetings and put together editorial and commerce. We’re very cautious about making sure that we look at user feedback and engagement as much as we look at the commercial model.

Trinity Mirror’s audience reach is growing and hitting record numbers. What do you attribute this success to?
It’s absolutely a focus on our digital journalism. Obviously, it’s much easier for us to reach an international audience through digital media than it is through print — we don’t have a lot of readers outside the U.K. who’ve come through our print product. The big change from our side has been integrating the editorial team so that, as a business, we are essentially platform-neutral. We’re a content producer, that’s fundamentally what we’re about as an organization. We don’t actually care that much what means people use to consume our content — what we care about is that they consume it. What we’ve done is make the adaptation to a given channel, whether it be print, mobile, desktop, or e-edition, the last part of it. It’s about great content and journalism, then making sure it’s available across all channels and adapted to suit those channels.

In the past, the team may have held back certain breaking news or big stories from our digital offerings because we wanted to run them in the paper first. That’s gone. We’re now an organization that will distribute [content] as it comes in, rather than trying to manipulate the audience to behave in a certain way.

Annie Melton is Street Fight’s news editor. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Hear more from Trinity Mirror’s Matthew Colebourne at our upcoming conference in London. Click below for tickets!