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How Gannett/USA Today uses voice of the customer to achieve key business outcomes

News organizations are using CX strategies to retain subscribers

Kindra Cooper

Gannett customer experience

As news organizations weather a general decline in ad revenue across print and digital, they’re leaning heavily on growing and maintaining paid subscriptions to shore up their bottom line.

Hence the customer experience has never been more important, especially for a media outlet like the Gannett/USA TODAY network. The media company reaches over 50 percent of the US digital population with over 160 local news brands like USA TODAY, Journal Sentinel and Detroit Free Press.

At Gannett, a dedicated Loyalty & Membership team develops personalized, customer-centric marketing strategies to increase subscriber engagement, loyalty and retention across its brands.

This means keeping a close eye on customer insights and data to increase engagement with subscriber benefits, because customers aren’t always fully aware of all the perks that come with their subscription and how to make full use of it.

Publishers must constantly adjust to consumer demand 

In recent years, the company has designed and sent dedicated onboarding and retention communications to inform subscribers of key account management features and increase awareness of newsletters, podcasts, mobile apps and provide subscriber-exclusive lifestyle content and programming.

Gannett/USA TODAY“When we were starting our CX journey we first had to prove a business case for our CX practice,” Adam Shapourian, director of customer experience at Gannett/USA TODAY said at Verint Engage 2019 in Orlando, Florida. As a public company, stock price and total shareholder return are some of the key metrics that senior executives on the board look at, so proving the relationship between delivering great CX and positive financial outcomes is a critical first step. 

Today, Gannett’s leadership realizes the user experience is paramount to subscriber retention – hence the bottom line. Shapourian runs the company’s voice of customer program, using text analytics based on keywords to understand customer sentiment and effort as leading indicators of whether or not subscribers will stay or go. 

Read more: Here's How Cutting-Edge Companies Use Voice of the Customer Data

Recently, the company has poured investments into digital-only brands like and that attract a younger audience, as well as viral video franchises like Humankind, which publishes feel-good videos of everyday people performing acts of kindness, like the teenage boy who jumped out of a car as a tornado approached to push a man in a wheelchair out of harm’s way, or the school that hosted a parade for little boy about to undergo heart surgery.

Humankind USA TODAY

Shapourian acknowledged that Gannett, like many news organizations, has been accused of bias – in this case, liberal bias.

“We also do operate in a number of conservative markets as well – Florida, Texas, Ohio, Indianapolis,” said Shapourian, “so we are uniquely positioned in that way to showcase a broad set of views that our consumers expect to hear from us.”

Tie your CX metrics to concrete business outcomes

While subscriber retention is a key business outcome, it’s not the main metric to be measured, because there are supporting metrics that cause it. As any CX strategist knows, each business has its own key metrics, and thought leaders have attacked the supposed universality of CSAT.

“We identified leading indicators of satisfaction – specifically sentiment and effort – that we could track on an ongoing basis and provide to the folks in the business to be able to design new improvements,” explained Shapourian.

From there, the CX team designed an overall measurement framework of metrics to watch for that would indicate retention by combining operational data with “experience or perception metrics” like sentiment and effort.

Read more: The Latest Innovations in CX Automation from 2019

In the contact center, operational data consists of measures like first call resolution and average speed to answer; in a web interaction it’s return frequency and number of active days, which the organization has found strongly correlates with retention and loyalty.

This means aggregating data from different sources – IT to see how customers are interacting with the site, editorial to monitor content engagement, and the contact center to gauge customer support quality – no small feat for any CX operation. Combining disparate data sources into dashboards that show statistical trends was one part of the fight; the next is tying those trends to business outcomes.

“That’s something that’s ongoing for us but it’s the holy grail of what we’re trying to work towards at the moment,” said Shapourian. Another key priority, he added, is collecting feedback on the digital interactions customers have on the website, mobile app, and account manager. Currently, the team leans heavily on a customer relationship-based survey administered twice yearly, but there’s little real-time feedback. That’s where the Voice of the Customer comes in.

Read more: 4 Ways to Engage with Gen-Z By Becoming a Mission-Driven Organization

“We also look at implicit feedback collected through our live chat transcripts and post-interaction surveys as part of our overall Voice of Customer program,” said Shapourian. “We look at the efficiency and quality of the interaction as well as trust – all of these ladder back to the attributes of the customer promise.”

Gannett's DFM system examines each interaction for sentiment and effort and returns an effort rating on a scale of -5 to 5, and filter ratings by topic. Sub-zero means the customer had a hard time achieving their objective.

Rooting out customer pain points in real-time

Common pain points for a news site like Gannett are difficulty logging in or staying logged in, long hold times, missed deliveries for print products and customers having to call to cancel their subscription because there’s no option to do it online.

“This is a really sticky one for us,” Shapourian says of the latter. “While we do strive to enable customers to self-serve whenever possible, cancellation is one of those things where we want to have the opportunity to engage with you and prove the value of that subscription in hopes of saving you as a customer.”

A dedicated save team in the contact center works to re-woo customers who threaten to break up. But California legislators have pushed news organizations and other subscription-based companies to enable customers to unsubscribe online if they also purchased that subscription online to protect consumers from being locked into subscriptions they no longer want or need because the company bureaucratized or complicated the cancellation process.

For Shapourian and his team, collecting more data also means having to find better ways to communicate it to the rest of the business. Sometimes, this means using emojis. Thumbs up, thumbs down, smiling and frowning faces to denote good or bad, hard or easy.

“It’s funny, I always have to laugh,” Shapourian chuckles. “Although we have a ton of great data and these extremely robust tools in the toolkit we sometimes need to distill the data when we’re communicating this out to the business.”

The emojis feature prominently in the quarterly State of Customer Report that’s shared with the leadership team.

Given the continuous cycle of design, test, learn and iterate based on the voice of the customer, it’s important for the business to prioritize based on RoI and urgency.

Shapourian and his team built an impact prioritization framework based on feasibility and impact, from high-impact, high-feasibility (i.e.: act upon right now!) to low-impact, low-feasibility (ignore). Items labeled labeled high-impact, low-feasibility are what Shapourian terms a “danger zone.”

“Then comes the fun part: we hold quarterly prioritization workshops where we’ll gather a diverse group of stakeholders to discuss the current slate of proposed CX initiatives that we’ve been developing over the course of a quarter.”

Marketers, product managers, IT, editorial convene to score projects based on their business impact and feasibility, so that the teams who will actually work on those projects are the ones judging whether or not they can or should be done.