3 lessons from The New York Times’ digital subscription machine

7 February 2018
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With The New York Times doubling down on its subscription push, it is time to take a look at their digital subscription machine, to see how they plan to grow from 2.5 million digital subscribers to 10 million. For publishers big and small alike, here are three key lessons.

Focus on conversions

It’s good to have engaged readers, but converting them into subscribers is the important next step. This is something The New York Times has struggled with: while their engaged reader base has been growing, their conversion into subscribers isn’t growing as fast.

Just because people are highly engaged, doesn’t mean that they’re going to be subscribers. Because of that free factor that’s out there, the generosity of our free model, and the abundance of free content out there, just because people have a habit of reading the New York Times every day doesn’t mean they’re necessarily going to subscribe.

Clay Fisher, SVP Consumer Marketing & Revenue at The New York Times

The New York Times had already decreased their metered paywall in 2011 from the original 20 articles to 10, and this was recently tightened, with readers being able to access just 5 articles a month before they hit a paywall. This decision was made after research showed that only 5% of the Times’ digital audience was hitting the paywall each month.

In addition to tightening up the paywall, the team at The New York Times have added new friction into the process, such as blocking side ways to free access, such as social sharing.

Engagement is not just a buzzword

The term “engagement” is almost played out in the publishing world, but it’s too bad because reader engagement is a key metric to consider. For starters, that’s how The New York Times measures their success, with President Michael Golden stating that their aim is to push readers further down the engagement funnel, from “one and done” readers to engaged, subscribed readers.

Once you have loyal, engaged readers, a subscription is not enough. For them, they want to do more with their newspaper than simply reading; these readers are looking for experiences and behind-the-scenes looks, whether that is through events, membership programs, or something else. For The New York Times, this means they are testing a higher subscription plan that includes all events and experiences plus other additional content. They’ve also been doing more in-person events, even outside of New York.

To ensure new readers stay engaged with the contentThe New York Times has placed an emphasis on setting new subscribers up for success. They have created a team of 10 people to focus solely on the first 90 days of a new reader’s subscription. Part of this effort has seen the creation of ‘new reader guides’ to show new subscribers how to get the most our of their product.

We want more and more people to feel like they’ve entered a whole new world once they’ve become a subscriber.

Clay Fisher, SVP Consumer Marketing & Revenue at The New York Times

Don’t be afraid to experiment

The best way to get to know your readers is by seeing what they respond to. This can mean experimenting in all sorts of ways, from testing how your readers respond to emojis in push notifications to exploring how readers use a calendar integration to inform readers of new content you’ve produced–both experiments The New York Times has tried in the past year.

This can also mean exploring new platforms. Recently, The New York Times has had success with their experiments in audio. Like many other publishers, they are giving audio a high priority in their digital strategy. Their podcast ‘The Daily’ is a bonafide hit with over 200 million downloads, and they’ve also tried content packages for smart speakers.

This article was written by Mary-Katharine Phillips, Media Innovation Analyst at Twipe from 2017 – 2021.

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