America’s Newspapers: Using Automation

America’s Newspapers: Using Automation
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Our-Hometown, Inc. president & CEO Matthew Larson gave a live presentation on Using Automation to Increase Audience Revenue & Engagement earlier this month as part of a Online Media Campus & America’s Newspapers webinar event.

The session focuses on some of our latest technical innovations, such as our Audio Articles Podcast and Social Media Autopost features. Matthew also discusses some more traditional techniques, like using recurring subscriptions to retain more subscribers and using automated newsletters to reach your audience more directly.

Check out the full replay!

As always, be sure to keep your eyes on our Virtual Conferences page for information regarding upcoming conferences and webinars by Our-Hometown and our partners!





So today, what we’re going to be talking about is some of the ways that the publishers we work with at Our-Hometown are using automation to increase their audience revenue and engagement.

My name is Matt Larson. I’m the president and CEO of Our-Hometown.

Just for a little bit of background on us so that you know where we’re coming from with all this, we work exclusively with newspaper websites, hundreds of them across North America, we manage their websites.

We do it all on WordPress, and we also host native apps that are connected with the website. So everything is updated in one shot. Again, this is a WordPress based platform that we’re using, and it’s been customized for newspaper publishers.

So right out of the box you have a working website with all the features that you need to monetize your content. We are a family business founded in upstate New York in 1997 and our number one priority has always been customer support. And I think that is most clearly reflected in our main offering, which is our PDF to HTML conversion service.

So for the past 24 years, we’ve really been in the automation business and we’ve been helping local community newspapers automatically publish their print content online. Technically, it’s not fully automated. We do have people involved in the process, but from the publisher’s perspective, it is automated.

And the other thing about being so tuned into the customer support and customer feedback is that the WordPress platform is constantly. evolving, and the feature set that we can offer is constantly growing based on publisher feedback. And that’s a benefit of using WordPress, which is an open source content management system.

So I’m going to say this will probably take 30 to 45 minutes, depending on the number of questions we get. And in that time, we will discuss auto renewing subscriptions. Newsletter marketing some of the opportunities there for automating that.

Social media marketing. This is something that we all kind of recognize that we need to be doing, but it’s a big time sink. So how can we automate some of those things? Automated audio content. This is probably what I’m going to spend the most time on this topic because it’s also related to this process that we have for turning out our customers newspaper websites into podcasts. We turn the text articles into podcasts on the website, and so it’s a way for people to get into podcasting in an automated way.

But I’d really love to hear more about you all and if you could tell me the name of your paper and maybe the circulation. Or the monthly pages that you get on your website, I just love to hear a little bit more about the size of the operations that you guys all have. Because we normally work with small community newspapers, often times mom and pop shops.

And that’s why we’re so focused on automation because we’re all expected to do so much with such a little time. It seems like every year there’s more expectations put on newspaper publishers.

You know, more platforms or more social networks that they need to publish on. And it’s just it’s getting to be well, it’s it’s been too much for a long time. And so that is why we’re so focused on automating processes wherever possible.



So first topic auto renewing digital subscriptions. This right here is an example of the subscribed page from a publisher we work with in North Dakota, the

And I think she’s got a really nice model here.

It kind of blends the traditional newspaper model of charging annually but she also has this month to month subscription that auto renews.

And that is the key. You’ve got to offer auto renewing, so that’s my first question for the audience. How many of you offer auto renewing subscriptions on your website? It doesn’t have to be month to month if it’s annual or every six months. Just do you have the ability to have your subscriptions auto renew?

Because as far as we can tell, and I think you all can kind of relate to this personally, just in the services that you use month to month with auto renew with auto renewal is the. Norm, for accessing digital content, it is it’s kind of unusual to not offer that these days.

If you. look at the big digital content providers that are leading this space, I mean, specifically like video, like Netflix, HBO, they all have that model where you sign up.

Actually, the model for them is usually you sign up for the first month for free and then it. auto renews at the full price. But that auto renew is key. And they’ve kind of paved the way for us on that. So we can just take advantage of it and offer it to our readers.

The first step is just to set up a merchant account.

In order to do this, you would need some type of a merchant account like Stripe, PayPal or

And again, I just think it’s key to consider the Netflix model, which is to either offer that first month’s discounted or free. It doesn’t really matter what the first month is. You know, that’s almost like a write off, you know. It’s just the cost of acquiring the customer ao you could go as little as free, but it requires them to put it in the valid credit card.

They’ve given you something. And you know. It is true that they could cancel at the end of that first month. You know, if we can deliver value to them in that first month and convince them to stay and then continue to deliver value week after week, month after month.

Then they will let that charge just continue to run on their card. So the idea then, is that when they sign up also.The way our sites are set up we would get them on a newsletter list. And that’s how we kind of reinforce the value of the subscription. I’ll talk about that more in a minute.

But the thing about these auto renewing subscriptions is you can cancel at any time. It’s not like you have to jump through a bunch of hoops to cancel. You would just go into the account and you can just take your credit card off. And that is. Important.

We don’t want to make it difficult for them to cancel. But the way I look at it is the default should be auto renew, rather than having the default require them to continually put in their credit card to stay a customer.



So this segues nicely into newsletter marketing. I look at this in four phases. And each phase has more and more benefits to it. But with phase one? Well, before we get into this, I’d be interested in any feedback. Does anyone have a newsletter that they’re sending out regularly to their subscribers?

Because that would be phase one sending a regular website update to your paying digital subscribers. Again, this reinforces the value of the subscriptions. So when they see that credit card bill every month, you know, they recognize that.

You know what? I read several articles each week, and it’s because of the newsletter. They don’t necessarily make that connection. But that’s the fact.

And you know there’s just going to be continue to be a happy customer if they can continue to to read stories. But we’ve all had this experience where you sign up for something that auto renews and you kind of forget about it.

And then a couple of months go by and you realize you haven’t used it in three months. And then you immediately cancel just because you’re annoyed. So we want to avoid that situation. So there’s a lot of different services you can use for this third party systems like MailChimp or Constant Contact are great solutions.

Usually they will integrate through an RSS feed ideally, you would have something that’s integrated into the actual website itself. So that there’s not multiple accounts to manage. That’s what we do for our customers. The newsletter plug-in is built right into WordPress now.

Phase two is to widen that funnel.

We’ve got our customers and we want to hold on to those customers, but they’re at the bottom of the funnel. They’ve already given us the credit card and they’re active subscribers, but for us to grow the subscriber base, we suggest offering a free newsletter sign-up.

This allows for maximum reach of your newsletter. You know, people will sign up for the newsletter just to see those headlines in their inbox, and maybe that’s all that they use. Maybe they’re clicking on a couple of those links each week.

They come to your website and they may hit the hard paywall. If that’s the approach that you’ve got or if you’ve got a metered paywall, maybe they’re just using one or two articles a week and kind of stretching that metered allotment out. But either way, they’re coming to the website, they’re engaged, and this is a way to build a list of leads.

This is the way I look at it. These are all highly qualified leads. If they have given us an email in this day and age, it’s like everyone’s been burned by so many email lists.

And, you know, they’ve probably spent a lot of time on subscribing to stuff. So if someone is willing to give you their email in exchange for this. The service is a free newsletter that isn’t really giving away any more than the typical person coming to the website would get.

You know, they don’t get any more by signing up for the newsletter and they just get the reminder every week. They’re clearly very interested in our products, so this is a list of leads that we’re building.

Then with phase three, we want to automate that process of sending the regular newsletters to the paying digital subscribers. So this is like your next phase, Constant Contact, MailChimp they both offer automated options so you can build a template and with the RSS feed populating it.

But like I said earlier, it’s better if you can have an integrated solution with the website and with the WordPress plugiins we use, they do auto populate the templates and then phase four. This is using the automation to grow the subscriber base through that lead list you know that signed up for the free newsletter.

So again, automate the sending of news updates and promotional offers to Nonipaying newsletter subscribers. So first of all, you want to automate everything that you can. And like I said in the beginning, we all are short on time. So all of these approaches and all these marketing tools should be automated if possible. But it’s nice if you can also offer some type of an automated coupon insertion.

A lot of our customers for a while, were doing this manually, which is better than not doing it at all.

And what they would do is take their newsletter list and basically export it as a CSV, and then segment it and compare it to the list of their subscribers because they need an email to purchase a paid subscription.

So they could figure out, OK, these people on our newsletter list are paid, these are not. So let’s separate them and send them two different emails. And let’s put a coupon at the top of the email for the people that are just free newsletter subscribers.

But again, ideally, all of that can be automated, and we have built the tools into our newsletter plug-in so that it will automatically identify and tag the newsletter subscribers that are not paying, and it will only send those emails a coupon for a discounted subscription.



Now, social media marketing. The fact is that we really do need to reach this audience. I don’t know the exact numbers, but., Facebook and all the social media platforms have significantly grown their traffic over the past year, with everyone staying at home and socializing through their platforms. So we just kind of need to accept this, but that it needs to be done.

We need to put our links out there to get the traffic and people that are on Facebook to visit the website. But you know how you do it. There’s several different ways you can approach it. You can hire a freelancer. A lot of people, just kids right out of college or even high school, you know, could probably do this stuff because they’re so familiar with the social media tools. But you could also add it to the list of the editorial tasks you know for your editorial team, or you could do it as a bulk scheduling process.

I guess you could have the freelancer or your editors do this. And that would definitely be ideal rather than doing it one post at a time as it goes out.

So a couple of options for this. Some of you may be familiar with these services. Hootsuite is a great tool for bulk scheduling, so let’s say you publish all your stories on the website on Sunday. Then you can schedule them all in one shot to go out over the course of the week. And you know that way you have traffic coming in from Facebook every day rather than a spike in traffic a couple of days a week when you post everything at once, you can kind of embargo it and spread it out over the week.

Buffer is another service that does the same thing and then Facebook Scheduler. You don’t even really need those services for Facebook. You could use just the built-in Scheduler tool, but ideally we would just be able to automatically post it from the website.

Right? I mean, this seems like it should be possible. All these platforms have the APIs published and readily available. They definitely want you to publish as much as you can on their platform. So they do make it easy, and it’s just a matter of getting the connection. So that’s what is possible with this WordPress plug in. And this isn’t. Out of proprietary plug in, if anyone on the call has a WordPress website, you could use this plug in yourself, it’s called Blog2Social.

And we’ve taken that plug in and enhanced it, added some features to it. The out of the box plug-in does everything that we have seen so far. It does the scheduling and it automatically posts all the articles as they go up on the website. So you don’t even need to do the bulk scheduling process. You don’t need to hire a freelancer. It’s just going to go out as you publish on the website, which makes sense.

It’s the most timely way to do it, rather than scheduling it out over the course of the week. So this would replace Hootsuite and all those scheduling services, and it is available on WordPress as a plug-in that you can purchase. And it would come with the WordPress platform. If you were interested in using Our-Hometown system.



So automated podcasting. We’re going to talk about is this feature called Audio Articles. I’m going to get to this in a kind of roundabout way, but I’m going to. Just tell you where we’re going first, and then I want to give you more background.

This is a tool that we’ve developed to automatically turn your newspaper website into a podcast. And I want to give a little more background on this one, because all the other features we talked about, the automation opportunities, there are probably a little bit the, kind of go without saying, you know, all those features you’re probably doing already or you offer those services like the newsletter, you know, you have paywalls.

So it makes sense why you would want to automate the sign-up process. Or the renewal process. But with this, it’s like, Well, OK, I understand I should automate everything I can and, you know, podcasting, that sounds good, but should I? Why should I even get into podcasting? So I want to make that case for you quickly here.

First of all, what is a podcast? Basically, when you boil it down, it’s an audio program that you can subscribe to on your smartphone. Very similar to talk radio, except it’s on demand so much more valuable than traditional radio.

And the content is presented as a playlist on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts. Those are kind of like if you were to really boil down the features of a podcast. That’s how I would describe it.

But why should you get into podcasting? Well, 60% of the U.S. population currently listens to online audio each week. And I like that metric because it compares (it’s kind of an apples to apples comparing with the weekly papers that we mostly work with). So they’re tuning into your print edition once a week, 60% of the US tunes into audio each week, which is a figure that constantly is growing.

And they saw significant growth last year, actually, despite the loss in commute times, and so the numbers there, from January to April 2020, there was a 28% increase in listening times across the US. And from January to September it continued to increase 51% and the news genre actually has the highest impressions of all the categories.

And so if you’re at all interested in some more information on this research, contact me. I’d be happy to send you links to Edison Research and the podcast trends report where I got this data.

OK, but from the advertiser perspective, here’s the opportunity. Why should we get into podcasting? Well, it now represents 19% of digital audio buys.

So, you know, looking at the whole audio space, it’s growing or steady, as we’ve seen since COVID. 64% of advertisers are spending more or the same in podcasts. And 78% of respondents, these are the people that are hosting podcasts currently monetize their podcast content.

And half of them are doing it through sponsorship or host read ads. And the other half, I believe, are doing more like ad network-type things. But those are the higher end podcasts that really have a huge audience. It’s tough to tap into that in my experience, so usually it’s going to be through a host-read ad.

But from the publisher perspective, this is what we’ve been talking about the whole time. We don’t have time to do everything that could be done. And audio Is just one more thing to add to that list. It’s also very expensive to produce it. I mean, both in terms of time, you know, the training involves the equipment that might need to be purchased to make it sound really nice.

It also requires experience with audio recording and editing. So it’s like a whole another skill set that you would have to develop. Also I think the biggest point here is that it could take a long time to grow a new audio audience that is large enough to monetize. So it’s the type of thing that you really have to be patient with.

And. If you’re going to put the resources into it, you know, it’s tough to make that case to manually produce the podcast. So I think with the growing audience there, it’s clear that we need to be getting into podcasting. We need to be thinking about it to get access to that audience and get our brand out there.

I don’t believe that the solution is to go out there and manually produce a podcast. I have a handful of publishers I work with that do that. They are larger operations, but for the small mom and pop, the solution is really to automate the production of the audio content.

The way we’re doing that with our customers is through Audio Articles, which automatically converts every article published on the website into a mini podcast. And the way it’s monetized is with audio ads that are inserted at the beginning of every audio article.

OK, so let’s just take a quick look at an example here of the mini podcast I’m talking about.

So I just want to be clear on this point. The player, as it appears here and the way that we’re presenting the audio in this example is only possible if you’re using Our-Hometown for your website.

But stay tuned because we’re going to talk about a way that you can get this feature on your website without changing anything about your CMS just through by putting some embed code on your site. So there’s definitely a way that you can get access to this feature.

This is a customer in central Arizona, and I just want to play this example for you so you can hear the quality of the transcription. So what you see here, though, is the format we have is basically a text ad at the top that usually matches the audio ad that will be read at the beginning of the story.

Then it’s going to just read the article back to us. So let’s take a look. OK, so as you can see, this is very high quality transcription. It sounds realistic. It’s super clear and easy to understand. So there’s tons of reasons that we’re hearing publishers motivation for adding this.

Sometimes it’s just to increase the accessibility of the website, maybe for the visually impaired. This is a way for them to get the news easily. It’s also just kind of a cool new thing to offer on your website to shake things up and get that audio ad in the beginning, as I’m going to explain in a minute.

I think the real value is in the new audience that we can reach on the podcast channels. So let’s get back on track here. Automated podcasting. That would be the next level. So audio articles on the website, that’s actually a feature that we’ve had for almost a year now. And we’ve had those players on the stories and they’ve been getting plays.

The thing that we recently realized is that one of the main characteristics of a podcast is that it’s in a playlist. So that is what we were missing for a while. This is what we can offer to anyone on the call. Again, just with your current website through an RSS feed, as I’ll describe. In a minute.

We can turn your whole newspaper into a podcast. And so with the automated podcasting, we’re arranging those individual audio articles into a playlist. And that has significantly increased the usage.

Playlists can be embedded on the website, as well as syndicated across the most popular podcast apps Apple, Google and Spotify. And when you have this playlist presentation, it’s cool because you can now you kind of have a new ad that you can create because the articles are going to be played back to back.

So you could just publish a sponsored content article on your website. It would be just like all the other articles. It would get turned into an audio episode and it would appear in the playlist. So now we can have those audio ads at the beginning of each story, though we can also have a longer-form ad that is really an article in the playlist. So kind of like the native sponsorship idea.



OK, we got some examples on the next slide to review. So we do a lot of collaboration with the different associations, we work with editor and publisher a lot. But the most recent podcast we did with MP and Mike Blender, the new publisher there, was on this feature. So you can watch that interview on our website, In that session, we actually spoke with two publishers and we presented two case studies.

The first one was Guy Ron Johnson, the executive editor of SignalsAZ, which is the website that we looked at earlier. He was the first to adopt the audio article technology and monetize it with an audio ad. So that was what we really highlighted in his case.

Kristen Weaver is the publisher of a weekly print newspaper in Wilson County, the Wilson County News. And so they are kind of a perfect example as SignalsAZ is actually a digital-only publication.

But Wilson County is a print newspaper that is selling their audio ads in packages with Facebook Live sponsorship. So they’re being very creative with it, and they’re selling these ad packages to the advertisers that really want to be on the cutting-edge.

They understand the effectiveness of Facebook Live and the effectiveness of these audio ads. Because if someone hits play on an audio article, they’re going to hear that audio ad. It’s not like a display ad on the website. It’s nothing like it. But those were pretty much 100%. blind to at this point.

People kind of tune out display ads, but if you’re going to hit play on an article, then you’re ready to listen to the story. You’re going to hear that advertiser’s message and it’s going to stick.

They were actually the first to automatically create a podcast for her newspaper and automatically upload those episodes to Spotify and Apple Podcasts. So let’s just take a look at these examples here. Spotify, for let’s see, any of you that aren’t familiar with it. The interface basically looks like this. So Spotify is really investing a lot in podcasting. They’re not just a music platform anymore.

Basically podcasts show through Spotify. People can follow it, which is the same as subscribing to it on Apple Podcasts. And again, the great thing about this is it’s in this platform that they’re already using for other things. Maybe they’re listening to other podcasts or they use it for music and they can listen to your episodes back to back.

And the cool thing about this that I really like, that’s different from other podcasts. Most traditional podcasts are a long form kind of interview format. So you’ve got like maybe 30 or 45 minutes of talking to listen to.

It’s not really indexed. You can’t skip around very easily. The way we’re doing it is each article is its own episode. So typically (this is. an unusually long episode, 13 minutes.), usually they’re one to three minutes long. And it’s great because you can skip around and just listen to the stories that you’re interested in.

So the other area, just to round that out, Is Apple Podcasts. You’re probably not going to come to this page to subscribe. You’re going to do it on your smartphone. Like I said in the beginning, podcasts are almost exclusively listened to on smartphones.

But this is the same kind of presentation of the playlist where you can skip around and just listen to specific stories. Another thing that they’re doing really well, I think, is cross-promoting the podcast with their print edition.

So they put out this article where they really just presented themselves as a very innovative publication by getting into podcasts They explain to their readers, What is the podcast? A lot. I actually got a lot of my content and my ideas from this article, as you saw earlier, just giving their readers some background on what is the podcast trying to introduce them to this new format.

They just did a really great job promoting it with their print audience. That’s something that I would definitely recommend if you’re going to get into the audio space.

I’m not sure if we’re talking to mostly weeklies today or dailies, but for a weekly news, this is definitely going to be what you’re looking at for your total cost and the way. It would work with any CMS. You can just continue publishing your articles exactly as you are today. You don’t have to change anything about your process. You just provide us the RSS feed and we will handle the automated conversion of those text articles into audio on our system. Then we’ll feed them out to all the podcast channels. Here’s the key point: we’re going to feed it back to you as a playlist that you can embed on your home page.

So let’s take a look at a case study of that – how to turn your newspaper into podcasts. The Sedalia Democrat is a daily newspaper in Sedalia, Missouri. We don’t handle their website. It’s a different vendor. But we were able to launch this podcast and the playlist on their site this month.

We’re really excited about working with them. They’re very enthusiastic. They’ve already sold some advertising on it, so they’ve paid for the feature and it’s already profitable. So without changing anything about their CMS, they can now offer their audience the option to listen to every article published on the website.

The audio ad is actually for a local car dealership. It’s automatically inserted at the beginning of every article, as we already described. This program is working so well, they’ve already expanded it to their sister weekly paper, The Warrensburg Journal. So let’s take a quick look at a live example here of the Sedalia Democrat.

So here’s the playlist, and you can put this anywhere on the site.

Most websites are going to have the option to insert embed code. And another way that you might be using this, embedding things, is with a YouTube video. When you embed a YouTube video, it’s the exact same process as embedding this playlist.

So they’ve got a lot of police reports and crime reports. These are slightly longer episodes, and I actually think these get by far the most listens. But let’s just listen to how this episode came out on Sedalia Democrat. That’s the audio ad and here’s the article . . .

Those episodes really get a lot of clicks, and the cool thing about this system is you can measure everything about it. You can measure how many clicks each episode gets so you can get a sense of what the articles are that people prefer to listen to rather than reading.

So that is our case study. Those are the main opportunities that we’re focused on for automation. We’re always looking for more ideas, just different things that publishers are doing that are unnecessarily manual. Sso we’ve got a lot more features coming related to automation. It’s been the core of our philosophy for a long time, as I mentioned earlier.

I really want to emphasize that we’re definitely looking for publishers to try this out. You can sign up at that link again or give me a call if you have questions about how this would work. But it’s again, it’s a totally noninvasive thing and wouldn’t require any changes of code on the website or anything about it at all.

So thank you for this question here and you’re welcome, Kevin. Thanks for join in. “On average, how long does it take to turn a newspaper into a podcast?” That’s a great question. Thank you very much for that.

So this is instant. It doesn’t require any time. The second that the article is published on the website, it goes to our system and we do the transcription. That’s the beauty of it, because that audio is created by a computer. Just to be totally clear, this is not a service that we’re doing manually where it goes into a queue and then we have a person read it. It’s all automatically produced on our end so it’s not just automated from your perspective. That allows us to instantly turn around those articles. Great question.

But I just want to thank everyone. Thank you, Erika, for organizing this, as always, and thank you to all the attendees that took the time to listen to us today. I really appreciate your attention. I know your time is valuable, so thank you so much for your time.

Thank you, Matt, for your presentation and we really appreciate it and thank you everyone who had attended this afternoon.


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