FEATURE1 February 2011

Plenty to report

Metro’s research director Katharine King on how audience insight has helped the free newspaper carve out its place in a tough market.


?Metro managed to subvert the traditional newspaper model by handing out its papers for free to commuters in UK cities. Research spoke to Katharine King about how Metro’s 4,500-strong reader panel has helped it become the third largest national paper – at a time when paid-for rivals have seen circulations tumble.

Research: How important is research to Metro’s business?
It’s vital. That’s why I love working here compared with some other places I’ve worked. In the research industry we have that whole debate about how you get research to the boardroom table. And I always think, these poor people who work at companies where you can’t get research to the boardroom table, that must be really depressing. It’s already at our boardroom table and it’s often the first set of questions that get asked when we’re looking at new ideas. It comes back to my team to help guide that.

A lot of it is to do with culture. And when you’re not such a long-established business, it’s a bit easier to change that and get the right culture fostered. Every newspaper suffers the commercial/editorial divide, which can be a real problem when you’re a research unit that’s meant to be informing all parts of your business. I’m not saying that doesn’t exist here, but I think it’s much better because of the size that we are. We have everybody from the whole of the commercial division in a meeting room every morning at 9am, whether they work in sales or marketing, research, finance, distribution or digital. It’s a forum to update people in the business on anything you want to share, and we do that every single day. That’s something that I think is starkly different from what happens at a lot of other organisations.

You have a panel of about 4,500 readers. How is that used?
The whole of Metro’s business is structured around our audience of ‘urbanites’ – urban professionals aged 18-44. It’s pretty much everything we live and breathe. That’s why Urban Life [Metro’s reader panel] came into being in 2002, to understand that audience, their lives, how they behave, their opinions and so on. Internally it’s a brilliant sales tool and we’re constantly giving planners and traders that fodder to go and talk to our advertisers about. For the planning team, to have this youth information gives them currency that their strategic counterparts in agencies are talking about, who want to look clever in front of their clients. It’s very much my team working out, in conjunction with the sales team, what’s hot for advertisers. We plan a year in advance what categories we want to cover to make sure we’re supporting business goals and giving them relevant information, and try not to just update them each time on how many urbanites have a car and that sort of thing. We’ve just done a piece of research on motoring and it’s all about whatever the sales team told us clients were talking about at the moment, so green cars was a massive issue, for example. And of course it does feed into marketing and editorial as well.

“I’m one of those really annoying clients that ask an awful lot of questions about where my data’s coming from. It’s quite good to do that… just to see how many questions they can answer or whether they have to go away and look it up”

How has Urban Life changed since it was first set up? Are you using it in the way you expected?
I actually pitched for the job when I was working at BMRB, so I’ve worked on it from both sides now. It’s not so much that the way we do the research has changed, it’s just that our business has changed. It was quite easy back in 2002 when all you really had to worry about was the newspaper, and they had no information at all, so it was creating something that gave the sales team something to go and talk about. Now we’ve got all these different platforms, digital is just as important as the paper when it comes to research time at the moment. So it’s a bit more demanding, but at the same time you don’t want to annoy your respondents to the point that they don’t want to see a survey any more, so we’re quite conscious of response rates. We haven’t actually upped the number of surveys that we do at all.

I am a big fan of online research as a method, depending on how you recruit your respondents. You worry, because they are just blank faces behind an internet site. You ask yourself, who are these people who actually answer our surveys? But any time I’ve ever met groups of them they’re really cool. They look like what we would market as an urbanite, so I find that quite reassuring. I didn’t meet the teens in person but I saw them on their blogs, so I’m not worried about who was participating.

Are things more difficult when you have to use external panels?
I think I’m one of those really annoying clients that ask an awful lot of questions about where my data’s coming from. It’s good to do that if you’re ever working with a new supplier just to see how many questions they can answer, or whether they have to go away and look it up. Some people won’t share information with you, and that makes me really nervous because it makes me think they don’t think it’s reliable themselves. But if people can answer those sort of questions off the top of their heads, you know it’s already something that they’re quite careful about looking at themselves. I have seen some shocking pieces of trade marketing where you have one headline statistic about something and when you actually find out how the research was done, and that it was one number taken completely out of context, it all falls apart. But it’s too late by then because people have already got the message in their heads. So I proceed with caution.

Tell us about the research you’ve done into the role that social media plays in young people’s lives.
We decided we should look at the people who are just about to become our audience, so we started recruiting on to the panel a bunch of 16- and 17-year olds. Social City was an ad hoc piece of research we did with them, working with Crowd DNA as the research partner. It was all hooked around the idea that these are people who have grown up with social media services, and there’s quite a lot of research on that, but no one’s really looked at how it affects living in the city.

When you’re trying to research teenagers it’s always quite tricky. We had to be quite clever in what we did with them. We got them to do these blogging diaries, and it’s amazing how much stuff they gave us back. Over a fortnight they created profile pages where they had to write about what they were out and about doing in the city, what media they were using on the way, what brands they came in to touch with, how they interacted with their friends. They were massively into their images and these blogs looked amazing. When they were putting up their photos, they all had these shots of themselves looking really sexy, like professional models or something.

Crowd DNA created an online tool for us to get them talking about cities of the future and what part brands would play in that. It looks like a Monopoly board where you’ve got all these things that you can drag in, the roads and the buildings and the streets and open spaces, so they could build their own city and annotate it as they went along. The researchers could interact with them throughout the process, asking things like, ‘You’ve made a Virgin-branded hospital. Why is that?’ That was a different way of engaging them, rather than just sitting in a room round a qual table or doing an online survey.

It’s been quite interesting to look at this for our own product development – our online guys are working at the moment on creating our social spaces on Metro.co.uk, so they’ve been interested in understanding what is and isn’t cool, because you can get that quite wrong.

The Times has put its online paper behind a paywall, and you have a new low-cost print competitor called ‘i’. What advice would you give these publications on understanding their audiences?
Stay in touch with them continuously. Put research at the heart of your business. I don’t know what numbers they need to reach on their paywall or how many 20p i’s they need to sell, but they have to get the product right. We say the right product, the right time, the right place, gives you the right audience.

I’m watching both with interest. Neither of them would be routes that we would take, but I don’t see any harm with experimenting either. We’ve had brand extensions and relaunches at Metro, and if you realise it’s not working then you nip it in the bud.

Also, don’t do research for research’s sake. I know of quite a few pieces of research that have been done in some organisations that never actually make it out of the building, and you think, what a waste of money that was.

What’s next on the horizon?
We’re doing a collaboration with Posterscope using GPS to look at how people move around the city. We’re doing it in several cities across the UK – we’ve done a quant study and we’re about to start the second phase with people carrying GPS devices around. It’s going to be very much an audience-led piece. We are the authority on urbanites so any kind of research that’s about cities is always going to be a good one for us.

Living in the city

The social city
“The balance between the online and offline worlds is really important. People say that living in this digital world makes you lack social skills and be introverted - what we found was that, yes, digital is a very big part of these people’s lives, but the offline world is vitally important to feeding these online lives. If they’re just at home behind the computer they’ve got nothing that’s worth writing about or sharing. That’s where brands can play a massive part – advertisers need to do fun things if they want to be reported back positively.”

Making connections
“You can make connections so easily now, with people you perhaps don’t know so well. Teens are not afraid of that, it’s not as daunting as having to pick up the phone or go and meet somebody. They’re using it to help them get ahead. It starts out of social connections, so it’s friends of friends, but it’s amazing how many connections they stumble across.”

Mapping lives
“Young people are creating visual diaries of their lives in the city. They’re taking photos, you’re seeing what’s going on in people’s daily lives online so much more now. The next step in this will be location-based social media.”

Too much information
“These teens are dealing with so much information, it gets to the point where they have to filter and decide what is most interesting to them and what’s not. If you become annoying, you can be edited – and this applies to friends and brands. You have to make sure what you are saying has a value.”

Taking responsibility
“Being involved in their community and taking responsibility is important [to teenagers], and brands can play a role in that. Teens want a city where their ambitions can be met. Brands definitely have a place in that city to help educate them and get them to achieve their goals. Probably more so than before.”