Last week our team attended the sold out Digital Subscription Summit from WAN IFRA in Paris. For those who missed this event, we’re sharing the main insights from the day.
It’s time to rethink your paywall strategy
Esfand Pourmand, Chief Product Officer at The Boston Globe, provided some very interesting insights that can easily be applied to your own paywall strategy. The first is the experimentation they’ve done with the timeframe of their paywall meter. So while most publishers give readers a certain number of free stories on a monthly basis, The Boston Globe has had success in expanding this window. They started first by expanding to 45 days and are now at 60 days, giving readers just two stories in this time period. A second lesson for publishers is to not be afraid of having such a strict paywall. The Boston Globe has worked to close all types of paywall workarounds, such as through incognito browsing, or accessing the stories via search or social media. They’re also very aggressive about their pricing strategy for subscriptions, they do not discount prices for more than three months. One thing that has worked well for them to retain these promotional subscribers is to tie the increasing price to when the latest investigative piece is published.
Neue Zürcher Zeitung also has an interesting paywall example, which Daniel Ammann, Head of Portfolio Management, shared as part of the story of digital transformation at Switzerland’s oldest news brand. While they’re doing a lot of exciting things with their paywall, using machine learning to truly personalise the experience for readers, they do have nine data scientists working on this strategy. Something a bit more approachable for some publishers, and easier to integrate in existing strategies, is the advice of moving away from a paywall to a paygate. With a paygate then it is possible to have multiple ‘gates’, for example first asking readers to register with an email, then later asking them to subscribe. This first step of registering is key for two reasons, the first being it turns the reader from anonymous to an identified lead so this data can be used for better conversion practices. The second reason is the importance of emailing and newsletters in conversion strategies, something we heard the importance of for The Seattle Times as well.
Have strong product experiences for your readers on all channels
Alan Fisco, president of The Seattle Times, shared that readers who receive a newsletter are seven times more likely to subscribe than non-newsletter readers. Due to this high conversion factor of newsletters, the team at The Seattle Times is very focused on their emailing strategy. They have ten newsletters, segmented by interest and topic, and they routinely cull the newsletters that aren’t performing at a high enough level and find other topics to cover instead. An important lesson for publishers wanting to incorporate newsletters in their digital habit formation strategies is the finding from The Seattle Times that daily newsletters are much more effective than weekly. This is something we’re exploring at Twipe as well, with our project “JAMES, Your Digital Butler“, and it will be interesting to share our findings on email effectiveness later this year (subscribe to receive updates).
Matthew Skibinski, consultant from the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, confirmed the importance of emails and registered users for likelihood to subscribe, and he also gave another example of a high propensity activity: reading on multiple devices. This means that having a good experience on all devices is key for growing subscriptions. Readers want to get the quality content they’re paying for in the format they prefer. This need for high quality digital experience is something Sophie Gourmelen, General Director of Le Parisien knows the value of as well. 70% of Le Parisien’s audience is on mobile, and now their strategy is focused on moving those readers to apps, where they have much better retention rates. She advised publishers to prioritise their technical platforms to ensure they’re providing great user experiences. If the UX is poor, subscriptions will be difficult, as good content is not enough to overcome poor UX.
Michela Colamussi, Marketing Director Digital Product and Video at CorrieredellaSera.it (RCS Media), shared that the single most important component of their digital subscription strategy is their digital replica edition. One reason why their digital edition succeeds is that it aims to offer the strong user experience that we know is so crucial. It is more than just a PDF, it is an important format for consuming the news. It is how they premiere the next day’s newspaper at midnight, and they have a dedicated newsroom developing the high quality digital content necessary for this format. Currently they have an older audience on this edition (70% of readers are 45 years or older) who read mainly on tablet (80%). So last November they launched a new version optimised for smartphones. It will be interesting to see how this strategy works for them, as we have seen success for other publishers who have launched edition products aimed at younger readers, such as as The Economist’s Espresso or Le Monde’s La Matinale as profiled in our report “Reinventing Digital Editions“.
Creating community is more than just a membership strategy
Juliette Laborie, Director of Digital Reader Revenues at The Guardian, shared some of the lessons they’ve learned since they first launched their membership scheme in 2014. Since then, The Guardian has built a community of more than one million paying members (600k single contributors, 230k print and digital subscribers, and 340k members and recurring contributors). They achieved this growth through a three pillar strategy, but one lesson stands out as applicable to all publishers: readers know what they want and don’t want, it’s important to listen to them. Listening can mean understanding their behaviour patterns from data, but it can also be through engaging your readers in conversation. The team at NRC actually visits readers in their homes as part of their training in order to see how real readers have made the newspaper part of their daily routine. The Boston Globe also does a lot of community building, in a broader content, through events where they’re able to have conversations with their audience on the topics that really matter to them.
But creating a sense of community with readers goes beyond just membership strategies or having intentional interactions with readers. It’s important to also look at who is already communicating with your readers. For NRC, they realised their customer service department had become the face of the newspaper to their readers. Indeed, this department talks with 1/3 of all subscribers every year, and this is often the only direct contact the reader has with the newspaper. As part of his presentation on NRC’s decisions to completely stop short-term subscription offers, Matthijs van de Peppel warns that even a loyal subscriber of 40 years could decide to stop a subscription if they have an awful customer service experience. Publishers should learn from this that they need to be hands on with their customer service department, for at least two reasons. The first is that it is your primary research agency, the team will be the first to know what isn’t working for readers. Secondly, for NRC at least it is their biggest sales channel. NRC’s new strategy has resulted in going from losing 15k subscribers a year to gaining 8k subscribers. Of that, the customer service department acquires 5k, and they retain an additional 15k and upsell 19k.
This article was written by Mary-Katharine Phillips, Media Innovation Analyst at Twipe from 2017 – 2021.