What you can learn from The Times, Mittmedia, and Le Monde

It’s something all publishers are grappling with: how to best optimize your paywall strategy? After all, 47% of new subscribers report that running out of free articles prompted them to subscribe. This week we have lessons from three innovative publishers: The Times & The Sunday Times, Mittmedia, and Le Monde. (Hear the leaders of these media groups speak at the Digital Growth Summit next month–make sure to register this week before registration closes October 19!).

Don’t be afraid of a hard paywall

Often head of the curve, The Times was the first general interest newspaper in the UK to go behind a paywall, moving to a paid content model in 2010. With a hard paywall, they’ve seen that print is still able to hold its own.

“It amazes me that people give away everything digitally and still expect people to pay for the newspaper.” – Alan Hunter, Head of Digital at The Times and The Sunday Times

To justify the paywall, The Times and The Sunday Times don’t chase breaking news as they know their readers are most interested in their in-depth analysis. This comes from a 2016 switch to an edition-based approach; in the first year they saw massive growth with users of the paid-for mobile app up 30% and the average number of pageviews up 300%.

This return to edition-based publishing has meant that the view of The Times and The Sunday Times as an authoritative voice has been strengthened. During the Westminster attack last year, The Times and The Sunday Times resisted sending breaking-news updates as other British dailies did (and which were sometimes misreported). Instead, they focused on providing a deeper analysis, something their readers have come to rely on them for. This reporting strategy led to a record day for smartphone traffic, making it clear that readers value the distinctive voice–and are willing to pay for it!

Understand which articles are the most valuable

In 2014 when Mittmedia, Sweden’s leading local media company, first launched their digital subscription initiative, they had the goal of putting 50% of their published articles behind the paywall. But the team wasn’t really committed in the beginning, it was more of a strategy to protect the print revenue, as they had just raised their subscription prices and were afraid to lose print customers to the digital content. The articles they put behind the paywall ended up being the least read articles. Robin Govik, Chief Digital Officer, explains:

“The content that we put behind the paywall was our worst content. Content no one wanted to read. Not even the customers that had access to it. They preferred our free content. And that content was made with a data-driven focus to get pageviews. The content behind the paywall was the content that originated from the printed newspaper.” – Robin Govik, CDO at Mittmedia

From this, they learned that they had to view print and digital as two different products with very different behaviours. The team had to better understand what articles were the best for converting readers and which to put behind the paywall. A surprising learning was that it isn’t just in-depth investigations that worked best–there are also local stories that are often overlooked that can help to convert. Mittmedia does this with their “Homeowners Bot“, which writes a short text on every house that is sold in their local markets, identifying an interesting angle (such as the most expensive house sold in the year) and adding an image from Google Streetview. This is a fully automated process, as the names of buyers are a matter of public record in Sweden. Not only has this bot created content generating several hundred new paying subscribers, it is also the most consumed content by existing subscribers.

In all, Mittmedia has seen great growth, with the number of digital-only customers growing steadily, increasing 82% in 2017.

Earlier this year, Mittmedia CEO Per Bowallius explained that  this great influx of digital-only customers outweighed the loss of print customers, and actually increased the total number of paying customers in many of Mittmedia’s regions.

Adapt for the ad-blocking world

Every year we hear about the increasing number of readers using adblockers–the latest figures put it at 27% of all readers using adblockers globally, and this figure is as high as 42% in Greece and 34% in France. French daily Le Monde knew it needed to take action, so in 2016 it coordinated with other French publishers to ramp up its efforts against ad-blockers. 80% of the top 40 publishers in France took part in a nation-wide push to reduce the number of non-paying, adblocking readers.

Readers with adblockers enabled were confronted with a message asking them to either whitelist the website, or to subscribe to access the content behind the paywall without ads. Before the experiment, Le Monde detected ad blockers on 27% of pageviews, which fell to 22% during the experiment. Still they knew that often the readers who turn off the ad blocker will ultimately turn them back on. That is why they joined the other publishers who are using their adblock message to generate more subscribers, knowing this is more beneficial in the long term.

Chris Duncan (The Times), Louis Dreyfus (Le Monde), and Robin Govik (Mittmedia) will all be sharing these lessons and more at the Digital Growth Summit in Rennes, France on November 21. Registrations close October 19, make sure to register now.

Mary-Katharine Phillips
Media innovation analyst @ Twipe 

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