Building Customer Experiences at the New York Times

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The below is based on the first episode of the Outside In podcast, which you can listen to here.

The New York Times is one of the world’s most iconic newspaper and media brands. Its journalistic standards have delivered more Pulitzer Prize winners than any other publication.

But, like all global media organizations, the “Gray Lady” – the newspaper’s nickname – has faced significant challenges throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Declining print readership, the migration of advertising revenues to online formats, and rapid changes to the way readers consume news have forced media brands to re-think their customer-engagement strategies. Tech-savvy consumers want news that’s personalized, immediate, and delivered 24-hours a day across a wide range of web, video, and mobile sources.

At the recent Chief Customer Officer Exchange, I met Ejieme Eromosele, The New York Times’ first-ever Managing Director of Customer Experience. Ejieme is a pioneer in many ways, and she’s on a mission to make customer experience the focal point of The Times’ future.

Much of the focus on customer experience has emerged following the newspaper’s switch from an advertising-based to a subscription-based commercial model. “Advertising made up most of our revenue base before,” explained Ejieme. “Readers and customers were just an avenue to getting more advertising revenue. But that’s changed. Folks like Google and Facebook have these broader platforms and can oftentimes offer advertisers different things than an individual, single domain like The Times can.”

Indeed, a new media landscape is forcing the industry as a whole to look to customers as a source of growth. “We are now a lot more heavily reliant on the customer to subscribe and to be a revenue source for the business,” Ejieme said.

This reliance has also forced the organization to build stronger relationships with its subscribers – many of whom have “higher expectations” than non-subscribers – and align the “journalistic mission” of the newsroom with what people actually want from modern day news products. “It’s not only about acquiring new customers and making sure that we can get them to our domain,” Ejieme pointed out. “It’s about understanding who they are, what they need, and what they’re getting out of The New York Times, and making sure we can provide that.”

What struck me about the progress made at the NYT is that the prioritization of customer experience now cascades down from the top-tier of management through to senior journalists in the newsroom. Mark Thompson, the former Director General at the BBC, is now the NYT’s Chief Executive – and has personally endorsed the organization’s customer-centric strategy.

And it extends all the way to the newsroom, where even the busy journalists responsible for day-to-day news output are actively encouraged to interact with readers. They engage directly through news comment sections – responding to the views, questions and concerns of those who matter most: the customer. Doing so builds an open, honest two-way dialogue that strengthens the relationship between the newspaper and its readers.

At The New York Times, “customers” are core to the organization’s, and Ejieme’s, mission. And, depending on which department you ask, “customers” have different names – they’re “readers,” “users,” “subscribers,” “consumers.” Ultimately, it makes no difference. The Times owes them all the same thing: a superior experience seamlessly coupled with outstanding journalism.

As Ejieme summed up: “They’re citizens of the world. And we have a responsibility to them and the journalism we produce.”

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