As part of our Collectif, in which we feature the work of our partners (see more here), the team from HBM Advisory looks at how UK publishers are targeting the US and offer some advice on how to overcome potential culture clashes

British musicians have always struggled to “break” America. For some reason, the songs, lyrics and images that work in the UK don’t always seem to have the same resonance in the States. Of course, a number of artists have succeeded on both sides of the Atlantic but they are a rarity.

British news outlets have had similar experiences. The Mail has done remarkably well in its US guise but others have struggled to get returns for their investment in people and promotion. 

Now the Brits are coming again.  The Times, the Telegraph, the Express and the Mirror are just four publications that have recently declared – through announcements or job ads – that they are expanding their US operations. 

This is, we believe, a very difficult thing to do, and, with due humility, we would like to offer some pointers.

Many Brits like to think that they really get America. After all, we are in a privileged position of sharing a heritage, a language and many cultural touchpoints with the world’s top nation. However, in truth they are very different countries, something with which all these publishers will have to contend..

First, the language. It is really not the same. I remember reading with befuddlement a story about one of Donald Trump’s many indictments which said that it was a precedent that meant all presidents “would be faced with being served up a ham sandwich after leaving office”. Eh? 

What I didn’t know was that the phrase is, ironically, American slang for a trumped-up charge, rather than a post-White House lunch option. 

Publishers will also have to decide which language they are writing in. Nothing is more jarring than seeing a slight deviation from a linguistic norm. Readers will think: “Do me a favour/favor” if you get it wrong. 

Political impartiality

Political positioning is a minefield too. In Britain we are used to a highly partisan press with no separation between the newsgathering and oped sides of the operation. Our journalism is rumbustious, opinionated and unafraid to lead readers down a particular path.

American journalism is the opposite. News operations are insulated from comment to preserve their impartiality, which is jealously guarded. It will surprise many Brits that editors do not oversee editorials in the States, and don’t even know what they will say before they are published.

In my experience of speaking to a lot of American news consumers, they value the obsession with the impartiality of American newsrooms. After all, they do not have a national broadcaster like the BBC that is devoted to unbiased news; the private sector must fulfil that role. Much of the criticism of the New York Times in America in recent years is because it is believed it has deviated from this standard.

So what do Brits do? Is there room, as there has been in American television, for opinionated news operations? It’s quite a gamble. 

Another thing to prioritise is your target audience. Is it expats or Americans? The answer will determine what you cover and how. Are you a primary or a secondary read? This will determine whether you cover the waterfront or stick to particular content areas.

We recommend the latter. America is a very well covered and sophisticated media market. British publishers, we believe, need to find their niche and stick to it. 

Think about it for a second. Will Americans (or even expats) go to a British publisher for everyday coverage of the States? Of course not. But they might do so for specialist coverage of, say, Premier League football or the royals.

Equally, they might value a different perspective on the news. The Economist, for example, grew its subscriptions in America dramatically after 9/11, because Americans wanted an outside view after their domestic press had mostly ignored the threat posed by Al-Qaeda.

Making content pay

Let’s turn to how you make the content pay.

If you are offering subscriptions, don’t base your pricing on competitors. This is a trap many publishers fall into and they join a race to the bottom. If your targeting is good, and your content offers a highly beneficial value exchange, then you can price for a decent profit. 

Remember many titles in America are still discounting print subs to maintain volumes to support ever-dwindling advertising, and they price digital subs in context with their discounted print bundle. Be confident with pricing as people know that good journalism doesn’t come cheap. 

Poaching sales teams from competitors makes sense (at least initially) as they will bring along their client relations they can leverage for direct sales and content sponsorships. 

Hiring from competitors for marketers (especially the big publishing companies) is not always so productive. Their approach can be formulaic and based on a series of discounts tied to the calendar: Father’s Day, holiday sales, Black Friday etc. This approach might work for multi-title publishers with stretched marketing resources but it quickly becomes marketing wallpaper. If you’re a new brand in the market, discount offers aren’t the best starting point. 

Don’t feel obliged to Americanise your marketing. You are foreign and a different perspective is very likely what your audience is seeking. Keep your marketing true to your country and your editorial values and stand out to cut through the noise. 

Do Americanise your payment collection experience. Payment methods in your country might be unknown to your audience. For instance, not offering cheque payments for annual or longer subs might mean you are missing out (especially on often very lucrative older audiences). But price cheques above automatic recurring payment options accordingly. It’s an accepted trade-off. 

Ask around to find a digital marketing agency that accepts an element of performance pay. Ask to see their work for other types of recurring payment products (software, streaming services or financial services). 

They don’t need to have publishing clients already. If they have learned to serve the marketers at calendar-led multi-title publishers, their sector experience won’t be of benefit. They need creative flair and the ability to optimise multi-channel, always-on digital marketing. Ask which digital attribution models they will use and how they optimise how one channel activity impacts other channels in a multi-touchpoint digital marketing strategy. 

Finally, be prepared to play the long game. Building a successful presence in America is not something that can be accomplished overnight. It requires a long-term commitment, persistence and the ability to weather initial challenges and setbacks.

Alan Hunter and Michael Brunt of HBM Advisory

Photo by Josh Hild