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Digital Transition Challenges

Gaining Insight into Reader Needs


Gaining Insight into Reader Needs


CommonWealth Magazine clearly understood its print readers after 37 years in the business, but it had somewhat less insight into online users. It had to find out what they wanted to make the digital model work, and data was the only way to get the answers.



Gaining Insight into Reader Needs

By CommonWealth Magazine
web only

Having published a magazine for 37 years, CommonWealth Magazine was well versed in the print side of the business. But the launch of a digital transformation challenged not only the skills of its workforce but also its traditional values and outlook.

Media observer Dennis Huang has said that media companies in the past were similar to concentric circles: An editor-in-chief was in the middle circle, the deputy editor-in-chief in the next circle, and division chiefs in subsequent circles, with reporters in the furthest ring. All the circles looked inward, the goal being to satisfy the editor-in-chief. (Read Dennis Huang: Five Keys to Penetrating the Facebook Echo Chamber)

In the digital age, however, that model has been turned on its head.

“Traditional media people have a sense of self-importance, thinking ‘news is my specialty.’ Now, they are starting to understand that media cannot beat the internet,” Huang says.

In the print era, brands were dominant. Readers knew well before they picked up a newspaper or magazine which publication they were going to buy and read. But in the internet era, these readers have come to be seen as “casual readers” who may come in contact with more than a dozen media in a week. When they browse Facebook, they may take a look at several articles but couldn’t care less which media outlets generated them.

As a media brand, CommonWealth is actually more interested in another kind of reader, the “engaged reader” who cares about the source of their news and brand image.

“The big challenge for media in this era is how to find your engaged readers,” says Huang, even if this type of reader accounts for only about 30 percent of the market.

That has trapped traditional media outlets eager to transform their business models in the dilemma presented in the Aesop Fable “The Miller, His Son and the Donkey” – they want to try to please everybody, but they cannot, no matter how hard they try.

To escape this quandary, understanding one’s readers is now more important than ever. So what kind of people are the readers of today and tomorrow? How different are they from readers of traditional media? What do they want? 

To answer these questions and get a better understanding of the digitally oriented reader, CommonWealth resorted to big data.

Step 1: Setting Up a Digital Innovation Center

To make use of big data, you first need data. But what data needs to be gathered and from where should it come?

Many traditional media outlets continue to have a “text-file” mentality, accumulating thousands of reports over several decades that continue to sit quietly as text files in editors’ computers.

Because the articles have not been digitized, they cannot be posted online, which means they cannot be used to methodically track readers and collect and analyze data on their browsing habits. Consequently, no foundation exists for predicting reader behavior and rolling out content or services that could be of interest to potential customers.

Many traditional media have yet to figure this out. Huang observes that they are still pumping excessive resources into generating content, while companies with only average content seem to be designing the best websites.

Systematically bringing in digital talent and adopting digital work processes could help media organizations reinvent themselves, and CommonWealth went in that direction.

Its first step was to establish a unit dedicated to digital innovation – the Digital Innovation Department. The new unit got its start in 2015 with financial assistance from the Industrial Development Bureau.

The department’s major responsibility is to generate user and product data to help management make good decisions. CommonWealth believed that the department could take bolder action than those adopted by divisions focused on daily operations, showing others in the organization the possibilities of the future.

Its first project was installing content recommendation software from the Taiwan-based ETU Corporation that collects user behavior data and directs articles to readers based on their surfing patterns. When readers finish an article, the targeted recommendation system automatically recommends other articles on similar topics.

The system helped answer CommonWealth’s concerns on how to get the more than 40,000 articles in its database seen and used by readers and generate added value.

When the digital content subscription officially launched in March of 2017, the Digital Innovation Department was given more responsibility, based on the vision of the digital transformation conceived by Chief Digital Strategy Officer Michael Chien.

The transformation he sought was not about eye-catching multimedia reports or interactive charts, but rather “using digital tools to come in contact with readers and better understand them.”

Having daily real-time data moved the organization toward a bigger emphasis on decision-making based on data and helped achieve three major transformation milestones: Data could be reviewed every day, an agile process framework could be used to optimize the product, and the editorial department, which had never paid much attention to traffic and orders, began to take note of data.

It created a feeling of numbers-driven “combat” that some editors, including Deputy Managing Editor Liang-Rong Chen, found appealing.

The weekly meeting at 10:30 a.m. every Wednesday serves as a kind of command center that updates everyone on how the battle for digital content subscriptions is going. People responsible for content, marketing, social media and data and top management, including the publisher, managing editor and editor-in-chief, all attend.

Beyond reviewing the previous week’s orders and web traffic, the meeting also features briefings on research into subscriber behavior. They answer questions such as, “Do readers and subscribers like to read the same articles?” “What types of topics seem to drive subscriptions?” and “How many articles do subscribers read a month?”

Attendees get access to the most confidential numbers and most insightful findings, leading to a spirit of “experimentation” to try new ideas and adjust basic operations.

The best example of applying data to decision-making are the “Charlie Indicators.” 

Charlie is the English name of Digital Innovation Department analyst Charlie Wang. He categorizes products into three tiers based on their price, and then precisely calculates subscription totals and renewal rates for each type of product. These numbers are leading indicators of digital subscriptions, letting people know well before the end of the month if monthly targets will be achieved.

When Wang first presented his figures, CommonWealth’s Managing Editor Wu Yin-chuen suggested they be called the “Charlie Indicators,” and that has been their name since.

At the Wednesday meeting, the digital subscription marketing team presents slides showing a series of these indicators, first providing a broad overview and then analyzing various figures in detail. Talk is of how to increase numbers or how to maintain them, and after some spirited back-and-forth, the points of emphasis for the following week are decided.

Those indicators can further trigger new efforts to parse reader behavior. One example: the attempt to answer the commonly discussed but hard-to-pin-down question “What kinds of articles do our readers like to read?

In July, the Digital Innovation Department divided readers into six categories based on article topic preferences and subscription cancellation rate. When these figures were plotted on a four-quadrant diagram and projected on the meeting room’s wall, those in attendance gasped in unison.

The wild guesses on what readers wanted and the departmental blinders that had been in place for a long time were suddenly erased by an easy-to-see, common strategic goal: the needs of the reader.  

The concrete numbers enabled CommonWealth to make decisions that were more precise and more closely aligned with the market.

Step 2: Using ‘Agile Management’ to Develop Digital Products

When Michael Chien joined CommonWealth in the second half of 2016, the first major project he took over was the digital subscription initiative. It was a project that would severely test both CommonWealth’s organizational structure and its work processes.

Chien’s team consisted of seven technical specialists and representatives of the editorial and marketing departments. A year later, it had evolved into a new team of more than ten people. Some were involved full time, while others spent some of their time in their original divisions. In some cases, people were moved from print to digital, into jobs that directly conflicted with their previous roles.

Joyce Cheng, chief of digital content operations and head of the digital subscription initiative, noticed a great deal of both experimentation and conflict within the organization’s operations.

But she remained optimistic, knowing that CommonWealth was going through a transition period, and that workers in today’s world must get used to organizational uncertainty.

“How can you ever know at the beginning how things are going to go? There are no sure answers. You have to give things a try,” Cheng says.

At the same time, Chien was introducing a work process unknown to the media sector – “agile software development.”

Agile software development, a conceptual framework for developing software in a more efficient, collaborative manner, took off in the 1990s and is widely used in the software industry today. One of its main strengths is having team members communicate closely and make real-time improvements through quick, daily “standup meetings”.

Chien believes this framework helps gauge whether an action should be taken. He was also concerned that companies often have no feel for product scale or deadlines when developing digital products, leading to constant delays in projects.   

Under the “scrum” framework used for agile development, the developer first makes the smallest possible working prototype and tests it online right away. Then, based on feedback from the market, the product is incrementally improved. It’s an approach that helps solve management problems created by decisions made based on human guesswork.       

Also, because daily status meetings are held, team members are all up to speed on the product’s details. Should any member of the team miss time, others can fill in.

Such a “surprise” occurred just before the digital subscription product’s launch.  Wan-ting Shen, whose role was similar to that of a product manager, was pregnant throughout the development process, and she expected to give birth a week after the product went online. To her surprise, her baby came while she was working overtime one night just before the launch date, and the team had to take over her duties.

“We were able to get the product out despite not having a product manager,” Chien recalls with pride.    

Losing a product manager meant going without the person who knew the most about the product, but the team still managed to complete the launch with the help of the Slack communication tool. Team members were on the same page at all times, and they were all aware of the tasks yet to be completed. New team members could quickly figure out what was happening and take on some of the responsibilities.

The agile management concept has now become part of the digital content subscription team’s DNA. Even 18 months after the product’s launch, team members meet every day at 10 a.m. to review orders received the previous day through different channels and make everyone aware of the current status of various projects and the obstacles faced. Within 15 minutes, the meeting is over and everyone gets to work.

Step 3: ‘Digitizing’ Print Subscribers

Aside from divining the thoughts of readers through data, CommonWealth had another source of untapped feedback – the customer service team that hears directly from readers on a daily basis.

Because of their understanding of customers, customer service associates represent CommonWealth’s last line of defense in the quality control process, and they are sharp.

Shen recalls preparing a 40-page memo for the company’s dozen or so customer service and telemarketing people to introduce the new product prior to its launch. She thought her description was complete, but was caught off guard when during a prep session she was immediately hit with a question she could not answer: “What should we do if a person asks for a refund a day after subscribing?”

Determined to cover all bases, Shen set up simulated customer service calls to show the staff how to deal with questions commonly asked by subscribers.

She also reminded her colleagues to have customer service associates test any new product being developed, because they are in constant contact with customers and often face issues that product development people are not aware of.

Customer Service Center manager Lillian Liao has been in her post for more than 20 years. She speaks softly but is firm and well organized. Liao says the most frequent issue brought up by print subscribers in the past was that they had not received their magazine. Since the product has gone digital, however, the customer service department gets a wide variety of questions.

“We thought CommonWealth readers were actually quite digitally oriented. But that’s not the case,” Liao says, citing the difficulty many print subscribers have just taking out a digital subscription. Customer associates often have to guide readers through the process over the phone one web page and one step at a time, Liao says.   

“Educating customers is another challenge of digitization,” she says with a laugh. Many readers came to know CommonWealth Magazine through its print edition, and now that the company has set in motion a digital transformation, it has to help readers make the transition as well.

Effective digital marketing goes beyond simply attracting the most readers possible; the challenge is attracting the right readers. The digital subscription team has therefore set up an exclusive Facebook group called “CommonWealth Magazine Newsroom” for subscribers, bringing together core readers with similar backgrounds for more focused discussions. It also organizes a monthly interview or an event in a physical location for this focus group, ensuring that this social community remains engaged with the product.  

Having addressed the internal challenges posed by a digital transformation, CommonWealth still had to come up with the right business model to make digital work. That was not easy, as we will see in the next and final installment of this series.

Challenge Summary:

  • Going from editor-centric to user-centric: How to gain insight into user needs
  • Used a “scrum” agile development process, relying on taking incremental steps to build a product rather than fully developing a product/service ready before launching it
  • Set up a unit dedicated to digital innovation and systematically brought in digital talent and digital work processes

<< Previously on CommonWealth Magazine's Digital Transformation: The Print vs. Digital Dilemma

Next to be continued>>

Translated by Luke Sabatier
Edited by Sharon Tseng