Publishers solidifying subscriber bases through non-traditional means

Netflix announced that it had a mass loss of subscribers for the first time in a decade in Q1 of 2022, CNN+ collapsed and Quartz made the decision to move from a subscriber to membership model. At an eye level, it would appear that subscriptions are faltering.

With publishers becoming increasingly reliable on subscriber revenue, we look at some of the ways in which publishers are working to grow their reader revenue and how they are looking to build all important reader relationships.

Growing with your readers through emotional appeal

First party data collection has allowed publishers to build relationships with their readers. Unlike streaming providers, they have used this data to develop a new level of openness and honesty with their subscribers, which is also useful for growth.

Danish slow-news publisher Zetland began with a limited budget, like any start-up, so needed to quickly build a sustainable audience. The publisher made their content free for a period in a bid to achieve growth, but they noticed significant churn of free subscribers. So, the Danish publisher asked their subscribers for financial help to survive.

Remarkably, Zetland gamified this experience. Subscribers could play with the numbers and be CEO for the day. Users were presented with the actual budgets of the publisher so they could change the costs and see the consequences. This radical openness showed how many people would lose their jobs with certain changes and how the paper could collapse. Following this initial emotional payment push in 2019, the publisher grew by 2800 new members in 4 weeks and reached breakeven.

Since this, Zetland have launched an annual campaign based around emotional appeal. In 2020, the campaign brought in 2650 new members and in 2021 it brought in 5000. Dare to offer radical transparency.

Other publishers have chosen to run a membership model like we have seen successfully at The Guardian. South African publisher the Daily Maverick encouraged readers to donate so that their journalism could remain free for those who can afford to pay. This is a powerful move in a country with 25% unemployment and 75% youth unemployment. The publisher looked to become a partner in life for these paying members and provide them with certain benefits like Uber vouchers, participation in events and exclusive documentary screenings. The publisher labelled this the IKEA effect, as people want to feel like they’re helping to build something. From an initial 4000 members in 2019, the Daily Maverick ended 2021 with 17,000 members.

Reusing content to provide your subscribers with more

Some publishers have chosen to expand their content offering beyond the day’s edition. Norwegian publisher Dagbladet reinvented their digital offering to encourage readers to subscribe for Dagbladet+. The product builds on the content of their journalists which reaches 28% of the Norwegian population every day. Dagbladet examined their reader data to make a judgement about which type of content readers were most likely to pay for. In doing this, they came up with their “Pluss toolbox”, featuring 9 different tools.

Each tool represents a content type which has proven to drive conversion. Importantly, users are unable to find these pieces of content elsewhere which has pushed the exclusivity of the Dagbladet+ toolbox.

The 9 tools build on the variable reward and craving model for readers. In our research for our third research report with KU Leuven and Mediahuis, we defined the building blocks of positive affect by surveying and observing how readers consumed digital news content. This led us to construct the 6 key reader cravings:

To build a habit, people want to feel like these cravings are being addressed and rewarded. For people to do the action repeatedly, the variable reward must be unpredictable.

The Norwegian publisher have chosen 4 areas of focus for future growth:

  1. Entertainment TV (Charm)
  2. Mini Documentaries (Update)
  3. More and better content (touch)
  4. Other services (help)

To achieve this, Dagbladet have provided significant investment in video content, which they believe to be key for their future growth. This is in the form of documentaries on web TV using the work of their investigative journalists and partnering with personalities to boost entertainment TV. Dagbladet+’s other services let the publisher become a partner in life. This provides them with expertise and life advice in many areas like health, finance and other services.

These areas help Dagbladet+ subscribers to feel rewarded and like their money is being well spent. The publisher reported having 80,000 Dagbladet+ subscribers at the end of 2021, helping them to be the second biggest newspaper online in Norway. Can you re-use your content to provide your subscribers with more?

Helping subscribers to navigate the ocean of content

Personalisation has proven difficult for streaming platforms. According to Nielsen’s 2019 Total Audience Report, it takes the average US adult 7.4 minutes to make a selection. A 2016 study of Americans from Reelgood claimed this figure was even larger at 17.8 minutes. Clearly, the plethora of content is difficult to navigate.

This is somewhere newspaper editions and personalised newsreading experiences have proven their worth. Personalised experiences are a chance to become a partner in life to help give subscribers the news they want as quickly as possible and develop habits. Through sending personalised emails with JAMES, between 80 and 90% of publishers content was displayed to subscribers. From this, publishers were able to witness a growth in habitual behaviour amongst subscribers and subsequent increased engagement.

Finite curated pieces of content also display this content in an effective way. They give readers a clear start and end, with the most important news all being featured. Readers of edition products can feel value as they know that they are getting quality curated content they can consume.

Carefully refined personalisation merges trending and personalised news to give readers a balance of content to help them to avoid filter bubbles. Hear more about this personalisation success at our 10th May webinar.

More. Again. Forever

Streaming providers find it hard to build habits and to connect on a personal level with their readers. This is because there is less waiting for next week’s episode like on traditional TV. Subscribers can get what they want, when they want before running out of content. Clearly, this is somewhere streaming services can take a leaf out of publisher’s books. Building open and honest relationships with your audience, giving them the content they want and developing habits with them are great ways to encourage commitment and engagement. Not everything in the modern world should be more, again, forever.

Matthew Lynes
Media Innovation Analyst @ Twipe

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