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Sept. 21, 2016, 9:37 a.m.

This French startup is helping news orgs build personalized email newsletters for readers

With its algorithm, Ownpage shows readers stories based on their reading habits and what other similar users are reading.

About two years ago, the daily French financial newspaper Les Echos was looking to expand its email newsletter offerings. The paper knew that readers reached via email tended to be more loyal than those coming from social media or Google, so it wanted to find a way to better reach those readers.

“We really wanted to do something different to generate loyalty and to convert our newsletter users into subscribers,” said Yasmine Maslouhi, Les Echos’ digital marketing and audience development director.

After researching its options, Les Echos decided to begin offering a personalized newsletter last year. Twice a week, the paper sends an email to its registered users with suggested stories based on their reading habits.

The personalization service is run by Ownpage, a French startup that offers tools to news outlets that allow them to customize their coverage for readers. The company originally thought that most of its business would come from publishers wanting to create personalized sections of their websites for users.

That’s not what happened though. About 90 percent of its clients want to use the tool for personalized emails, CEO and founder
Stéphane Cambon said.

“Naively, we thought that the newsletter was dead and that the future was more in the social network, homepage, and applications,” said Cambon. “But the more we worked around media with publishers, we learned that newsletters are one of the best ways have a relationship with the readers.”

Ownpage works with about 15 publishers, all of them based in France. The company is eyeing expansion elsewhere in Europe and to the United States. (In fact, we became aware of Ownpage because they pitched selling us their product for a Nieman Lab newsletter.)

The company wouldn’t disclose revenue, but Cambon said Ownpage is on pace to be profitable by next summer. Last year, it raised €400,000 from three French VC firms.

Ownpage doesn’t sell ads, and doesn’t sell user data, Ownpage business developer Martin Katchadourian said. It charges publishers based on the number of users who use its products, whether that’s the newsletter or the on-site applications. “We only sell the service and the solution,” Katchadourian said.

To generate the personalized products, Ownpage installs some JavaScript on an outlet’s website and collects reader behavior to power its recommendations based on the stories each reader, and readers like them, read.

“With that data, we build a list of articles that a reader did not read already, but the technology detects it as an interesting article for this reader,” Cambon said. “Each newsletter is completely different for each reader.”

Ownpage has seen publishers use its service in two primary ways: to grow their subscriber base or to provide an extra benefit to those who are already paying.

Les Echos, for example, sends its newsletters to all registered users. The newsletters are opened about 500,000 times per month and they drive about 150,000 visits to Les Echos website per month.

The paper wouldn’t share how many subscribers it’s signed up due to the newsletters, but Maslouhi said it’s “a small number” and that there’s still “growth opportunities.” Still, the newsletter is the traffic source that’s generating the most subscriptions, and the conversion rate from overall newsletter recipients has increased by 10 percent since Les Echos added the personalized email.

Les Echos is now looking at expanding its use of Ownpage in a couple of ways. It’s considering whether to create a newsletter featuring its opinion writing, and it’s also looking into building a product aimed at readers who’ve registered with with the site but aren’t very active.

“The exciting thing about that is that we are trying to use the same technology and maybe the same content, but using it in two different ways for two different objectives,” Maslouhi said. “One way and one objective will be to convert the more loyal users into subscribers. The other way and the other objective, and it will have to be put differently, is to reactivate some users that have chosen to create a Les Echos account but who don’t open our newsletter anymore. That’s the challenge for us: How we can put the things differently in two different newsletters from the same technology and the same content, but two different newsletters to respond to two different objectives.”

The Paris newspaper Le Monde, meanwhile, has taken the opposite approach in its use of personalization. It’s using Ownpage to run a personalized section of its homepage for subscribers, which features five stories that are updated throughout the day.

Le Monde went live with Ownpage in March 2015, and shortly after the launch, product manager Laure Constantinesco said clickthrough rates on the personalized section were between 1.16 and 1.27 percent. That’s higher than the stories in the section directly below it, which was the most recommended stories from Facebook.

Last fall, the paper ran an experiment where it put the Ownpage module on its article pages as well with the most recommended from Facebook. But the difference between the two sections was only about 5,000 clicks, so Le Monde decided it wasn’t worth the expense to expand its use of Ownpage.

The cost was also one of the reasons why the paper decided to limit its usage of the service to its subscriber site. “We have a very large audience on our free website. We have fewer subscribers, so it was better for us,” Constantinesco said. “The decision was about that, I think. We talked about expanding it on our free site, but the cost was too expensive.”

While Le Monde has been satisfied with the results its seen from Ownpage, it’s not sure how much longer it’s going to continue with the service. This spring, Le Monde embarked on an 18-month website redesign process, and as part of that process it’s looking into whether it wants to continue having a separate subscriber homepage.

One of the goals of the revamp is to increase internal circulation on its website, and Constantinesco said that personalization might be one way to boost that metric.

Still, she said, in her mind, it’s an open question how much personalization matters for news websites.

“They do so something interesting, but I’m questioning if personalization really is an essential feature for the future of news websites,” she said. “I don’t know. It’s a nice feature for an e-commerce website. When I buy that kind of thing, I want to see what people who bought that kind of thing bought too. But for news, is it really in the website that you have to see that? Or do you have enough recommendations with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., etc….Do you find enough recommendations from your friends and community on the social networks so you don’t need it on your website? I don’t know. It’s an open question right now. Ownpage really believes that they have something to do with news, that personalization and news are really good together. I think yes, but maybe not in the website, maybe on other platforms.”

Photo by Dennis Skley used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 21, 2016, 9:37 a.m.
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