How the San Francisco Chronicle Uses Personalization to Create Fierce Customer Loyalty

A Q&A with the Chronicle's Internet Channel Manager, Matt Dickow

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The San Francisco Chronicle has a 150-year history documenting its city’s booms, busts, and everything in between. In addition to keeping up with the news, the paper has also been in front of media trends. In 1994, the Chronicle became one of the first major city papers to launch an online site, called SFGate, which now boasts 12 million unique visitors a month. In 2013, the paper launched a second digital site, SFGate, for subscribers.

As the Chronicle’s Internet channel manager, Matt Dickow has a wide range of responsibilities: digital marketing, email campaigns, content distribution through social media, and retention and membership programs. We recently had an opportunity to talk with Dickow about the distinctive qualities of the paper’s digital properties, and how he addresses retention in today’s competitive media market.

SAILTHRU: What is unique about SFGate and its readership?

MATT DICKOW: While our core value is keeping the people of the San Francisco Bay Area and Northern California informed and up-to-date on local news, we have a very large, global reach. Our SFGate brand is very popular all over the world.

Our readers are fiercely loyal. We’ve been part of their lives from childhood through adulthood and they are not afraid give us feedback, positive or negative, about how we are doing and what that means to them.

SAILTHRU: How important is retention to the success of the paper and SFGate?

MATT DICKOW: Retention is a huge aspect of our business; it has an obvious financial impact. At the same time, if you can retain readers, it shows that your content is reaching them in a meaningful way. When subscribers stick around they are saying, “We like what you do and you have meaning in our lives.”

SAILTHRU: What are you doing to maintain or increase the loyalty of your readership?

MATT DICKOW: We recently introduced a membership program for subscribers, which provides free or discounted access to events as well as discounts for our online store. We’re trying to give a little something back to our loyal readers with this program.

SAILTHRU: How are you using technology to help retain readers?

MATT DICKOW: We are using Sailthru to really personalize our email newsletters instead of relying on a vanilla information feed or asking our newsroom to curate something. We learn what our readers are looking at through our websites and then tailor email newsletters to those interests. With this strategy, we’re giving readers more of the content they care about and improving our KPIs around open and clickthrough rates.

It’s important to understand the difference between personalization and simply segmenting out your audience. When you ask readers about broad interest categories and then put them into buckets, you’re effectively making assumptions about what their interests are. But when you actually pay attention to and collect data on what they care about based on their activity, the information you have about them is much more real.

SAILTHRU: How do you implement your retention strategy?

MATT DICKOW: We handle our retention marketing primarily through email. You really need to keep innovating with email. Never assume that you’ve figured it out. There’s always going to be some trick, whether it’s in personalization or even design, that’s going to improve performance around email.

SAILTHRU: As an online media property, what’s your biggest challenge today?

MATT DICKOW: We have a big challenge in getting readers to go directly to our site. There are so many aggregators on social media now, and while we’re actively using some of them, what we ultimately want is for readers to come to our site and stay there. Our primary challenge is training readers to go to our site so we can monetize them. It’s business, so it’s crucial.

SAILTHRU: What are the opportunities in the marketplace today?

MATT DICKOW: I see an opportunity for media companies to think digital first. You can’t just slap everything from your print media into a website, you’ve got to do something more to really make your website sing. Video is one way to make that happen. People love video content and you can do a lot of interesting things with video that don’t translate well into written form.

Kristine Lowery, Content Marketing Manager at Sailthru