Since Newsweek revamped its digital business in 2019, the publication grew its readership to more than 100 million unique visitors a month and increased digital ad revenue by 166%.
Newsweek CEO Dev Pragad attributes this growth to the implementation of an objectives and key results (OKR) framework that completely changed how the publication approached its content and revenue goals and led to a close partnership with Google Cloud.
Pragad’s inspiration for the new framework came from an executive course he took at Harvard Business School in September 2019 taught by economist Suraj Srinivasan. This course introduced Pragad to the concept of OKRs. An OKR framework sets a stake in the ground, encouraging teams to set ambitious, measurable goals and outlining the results they would like to see. OKRs also emphasize collaboration across an entire organization to meet targeted goals.
While learning about OKRs, Pragad was especially impressed by the story in “Measure What Matters” of how Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai used an OKR framework to build Google Chrome and grow it into the internet’s most successful web browser.
OKR pilot program
Pragad then decided to institute a pilot OKR for Newsweek’s Q4 2020 ad revenue. With the COVID-19 pandemic having a negative impact on revenues across industries at the time, Pragad initially decided to set the goal marker at 35% of total ad revenue for Q4 2020 compared to Q4 2019. However, after reading more about the concept of OKR stretch goals, he decided to change the target to 50% of total ad revenue for Q4 2020 compared to Q4 2019. Newsweek managed to exceed this stretch goal thanks to a collaborative effort across multiple teams, which convinced Pragad to set more ambitious goals for 2021.
The OKR framework also allowed for major improvements in Newsweek’s programmatic ad business. Pragad brought together multiple teams to evaluate the total ad revenue of various traffic sources. Because of the new framework, a weakness in one traffic source that had been ignored was finally addressed. Though regularly yielding a few million monthly page views, its revenue numbers were subpar. After Newsweek optimized the page layout for articles coming from that traffic source, total revenue for those pages increased by a factor of four.
“A small optimization of 2x, 3x or 4x, when you’re dealing with large volumes, can be monumental” in programmatic, Pragad said. “So that [change] was absolutely transformational. And we would not have been able to achieve that without a powerful OKR framework.”
Partnership with Google Cloud
After seeing early success with the OKR framework, Pragad decided to pursue a partnership with Google Cloud to further refine Newsweek’s approach to OKRs. In early 2021, Pragad reached out to his contacts at Google to see if the company would be interested in sharing some of its institutional OKR expertise with Newsweek as it embarked on expanding its OKR framework and adopting Google Cloud services to help the publication achieve its goals.
Pragad cited David Feuer, senior product manager at Google Cloud, as being instrumental in the partnership. Feuer also reached out to his colleague Greg Felice, Google’s senior principal for customer value and transformation, to add his expertise.
“We use OKR practices inside Google to manage Google’s business. So we wanted to bring that to Newsweek,” Feuer said. “I wanted to see firsthand how investing in [Dev] and his team would work, to know if this is something that we can scale across other businesses in the future.”
Journalism Impact Index
Pragad and the editorial team worked with Google Cloud to extend the OKR framework to Newsweek’s approach to content, leading to the creation of the High Impact Journalism OKR, which measures Newsweek’s articles according to an Impact Index that divides stories into AAA, AA and A rankings.
An AAA story tends to be a high-profile exclusive report that has a measurable impact in terms of government or corporate action and is covered extensively in other publications. These stories also tend to drive a large amount of traffic and ad impressions back to Newsweek, although the Impact Index is centered on a story’s real-world impact rather than the number of impressions it draws. Pragad pointed to Newsweek breaking the news of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death as an example of a story with an AAA Impact Index.
As a result of the partnership, Newsweek implemented Google Cloud’s Recommendations AI – designed for ecommerce – into its digital properties.
Google worked with Newsweek to adopt the AI-based recommendation model for Newsweek’s use case. The approach was simple: Identify new audience members who are engaging deeply with Newsweek’s content, then target them with tailored story recommendations. Eventually, Newsweek would pitch them a subscription using the AI’s cues.
To gauge how well the recommendation engine was working, Newsweek conducted A/B testing in which only a certain segment of online traffic would receive recommendations from the Google AI service.
The A/B test focused on three metrics: clickthrough rate, subscription conversion rate and total revenue per visit. With the recommendation engine in place, clickthrough rate increased by 50% to 75%, subscription conversion rate increased by 10% and total revenue per visit also increased by 10%.
The recommendation engine gave Newsweek a way to more effectively monetize the increased audience numbers that resulted from the early success of the OKR framework, with the ultimate goal of using Google’s AI to encourage readers to sign up for a paid subscription.
“Until the audience engages with you deeply, you can’t sell subscriptions,” Pragad said. “So we are taking a classic sales funnel approach.”
Following the success of Newsweek’s first-of-its-kind implementation, this new use case model for Google Cloud’s Recommendations AI can be used by other publishers.
In addition to the recommendation engine integration, Newsweek’s OKR-based partnership with Google also prompted changes in how the publisher approaches problem solving on the operational level. For example, Pragad was considering a tech-based model for evaluating the fairness of political coverage. Newsweek and its partners at Google looked at a quantified approach to measuring fairness, but ultimately decided on a panel-based approach instead that would incorporate the knowledge and expertise of Newsweek’s editorial team. Pragad found this to be a much more workable solution. Newsweek is now working on developing its panel-based Fairness Index, although it is still in the experimental phase.
“It’s not just the technology per se, but also how you approach solving a problem,” Pragad said. “The area where Dave and his team at Google added so much value was in the implementation of processes, and allowing us to think of ways in which we can approach measurement itself.”
Also, as part of the partnership, Feuer and Felice led an OKR workshop for Newsweek’s employees on how Google Cloud’s services could be adopted into the publisher’s OKR framework. The workshop was attended by Pragad’s former teacher Srinivasan, who got to see how his lessons on OKRs had led Pragad to the tools he needed to institute real change at Newsweek. Srinivasan plans to add a case study on Newsweek that includes its collaboration with Google Cloud to his course curriculum.