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Gannett shares engagement ideas you can start using to attract subscribers

By Shelley Seale


Austin, Texas, USA


Equipping and training for effective partnerships and bringing newsrooms along the reader journey was the focus of a workshop presented today by three Gannett executives during INMA Media Subscriptions Week in New York.

Josh Awtry, senior director of content strategy at Gannett, started the workshop by diving into the team’s news and content approach.

Josh Awtry of Gannett talks about the content strategy team's approach to digital subscriptions.
Josh Awtry of Gannett talks about the content strategy team's approach to digital subscriptions.

“Make your own mistakes — not ours,” he said. “If you all can help weigh some of the pitfalls and leap over these things, we can all learn from one another.”

Awtry said that one major mistake media organisations make is creating a bold, grand strategy — and then expecting their legacy newsroom to execute it. It’s critical to create a team that can lead the way.

“Those insights don’t always translate into things the newsroom can actually do the next day.”

Gannett educated seasoned journalists on the data science behind digital strategy. When building the content strategy team, it was important to choose members who had:

  • Time to work on a strategy.
  • Credibility.
  • Authority and a mandate.
  • Expertise.
  • A mission.

“Increasingly, the mission is to truly understand what keeps people paying for our quality journalism,” Awtry said.

The content strategy team advises regional editors, leads training efforts on audience funnel and strategy, coaches other journalists one-on-one and ensures they are focusing on the right work, and then makes sure they are connecting all the dots.

Awtry added that freeing up resources to focus on the work that matters most was vital.

“We built an entire set of tools that looked at the sum total of our journalism," he said. Then they looked at eliminating the least popular half of their journalism, which only attracted 6% of their audience.

“We [wondered] if we took all of that and only did the top half of it, what would that look like? You could get rid of all that, and hardly anything changes,” Awtry said.

“The stuff at the bottom of the list was stuff nobody wants to do anyway. It’s commodity and incremental coverage. So we aggressively funnelled those [resources] back. Pound for pound, these [top half of the] stories are working much harder. It allowed us to reclaim so much time to focus on things that matter.”

The team studied reader groups based on frequency to understand usage patterns. These were divided into four frequency cohorts:

  • Last visited more than 14 days ago and found Gannett through a search engine or social media.
  • Last visited three to 14 days ago.
  • Last visited within three days.
  • Logged-in subscriber.

“As we made that transition from reach to acquisition, instead of just looking at data as a whole, we wanted a look at how these people differ,” Awtry said. “Our really casual users, they give a boost to the numbers and that’s about that. But they are a very mobile-friendly audience.”

Targeting today’s customer — and tomorrow’s

Contrasted to the people who visited within three days or a logged-in subscriber, half or less are visiting via mobile, and half or more visit with a desktop computer. “They resemble our print subscribers,” Awtry said.

The team realised that they were optimising to their old customer base — not the customers they will attract in the future.

“They’re entirely different groups of people, and targeting them are entirely different things,” Awtry said.

For example, the peak visitation time for mobile-first people who last visited more than 14 days ago was early morning. It was important to build a strategy targeted to them and move them up the funnel toward subscription.

“In the past, all we cared about was that they were in the funnel,” Awtry said. At that time, simply having casual readers in the funnel of browsing or visiting the site erratically was enough. But now, they realise the funnel has much more depth.

In the past, the funnel only had two parts:

1. Broad, fickle audience.

2. Known brand affinity.

With the new strategy to engage these casual visitors more deeply and convert them into subscribers, the Gannett team added two new groups to the bottom of the funnel:

1. Loyal and engaged readers.

2. Fully invested members.

Amalie Nash of Gannett talks to workshop attendees about how editorial and marketing now work closely together to develop content strategy.
Amalie Nash of Gannett talks to workshop attendees about how editorial and marketing now work closely together to develop content strategy.

Amalie Nash, VP of local news and audience development at Gannett, said they’ve trained their journalists to ask themselves who in the funnel they are writing for when conceptualising their content. It affects both the content and the calls to action within that story.

This freed up their journalists to focus on content that appeals to the top half of the audience.

“When you look at the sum total of the newsroom, we have to make sure that we’re encapsulating all of the funnel,” Awtry added.

The numbers game

When it came to data, the focus also changed. Five years ago, Gannett only cared about page views and content views. But then the team started looking more deeply at engagement and loyalty, through metrics such as mobile views per visit and people returning within three days, along with how often subscribers visited offer pages.

The biggest change was shifting from a metered approach to the hybrid approach, which shifted the focus to premium journalism.

“That was one of the biggest catalysts for our newsroom,” Awtry said.

That was also the area that required the biggest culture change, Nash added. “Our newsrooms talk every day about what our premium stories are. They know what generates subscriptions. For years, we beat page views into people, so it took a little bit to convert that focus to subscribers. It’s something that every journalist in all of our newsrooms talks about on a daily basis.”

Evolving content strategy

Laurie Truitt, VP digital consumer marketing, said this approach has completely changed the company’s content strategy. “Our newsletters are [now] a mix of subscriber-only and non-subscriber-only content.”

Nash said the team takes a hard look at the conversion possibility of every story. “Is this a story that will make someone subscribe?” is a question the newsroom asks daily.

Evaluating what worked

The team then had to take a look at what worked. “We never stop testing or examining,” Awtry said. This meant breaking down what type of content new subscribers favoured while stabilising hits with current subscribers.

For example, new subscribers favoured content about sports and politics, while current subscribers preferred topics such as food and local stories.

They also talked about what didn’t work, such as articles without a journalist byline.

Pre-purchase nurturing

Truitt said the company’s focus soon turned to nurturing the user.

“Nurturing that user before they subscribe is important to audience development,” she said. The stages in the pipeline are:

1. Awareness and consideration.

2. Acquisition.

3. Engagement.

4. Retention.

5. Loyalty.

“We really have built a programme around newsletter signups,” Truitt said. “I don’t need them to subscribe today, I need them to subscribe tomorrow. I find that when they subscribe tomorrow, they stay a lot longer.”

This means letting the user know who Gannett really is. Steps taken for this include:

  • Encourage signing up for newsletters.
  • Grow digital usage.
  • Drive registration.
  • Educate and engage new leads.

“Our goal is to increase brand loyalty, user engagement, and to develop habit as the ultimate driver for a user to subscribe,” Truitt said.

Each newsletter sign-up costs Gannett between US$1 and US$2, but they are getting about twice the rate of conversions of other audiences. With 25 newsletters, they have captured around 400,000 new sign-ups.

Driving registration

“Our registered users convert a lot higher, because they can skip a step,” Truitt explained. “Our average time frame for a registered user to subscribe is about three to four months, and that’s coming down.”

Tactics they use include:

  • Account management prompts.
  • Requiring users to be registered to comment on articles.
  • Converting newsletter readers to registered users.
  • Propensity modeling.
  • Requiring registration to read content or additional articles.

Workshop participants split into three groups to brainstorm ideas for content strategy that drive digital subscriptions.
Workshop participants split into three groups to brainstorm ideas for content strategy that drive digital subscriptions.

Nurture = get to know us

The goal of this nurturing strategy is to target users at all levels of the subscription funnel to drive audience engagement and conversion.

All new editorial leads and registered users are entered into a 90-day email series aimed to:

  • Create and strengthen brand awareness.
  • Connect users through newsletter sign-up, app downloads, and registration.
  • Engage users and drive repeat site visits.

They also incorporate Artificial Intelligence in the pre-subscriber journey, presenting offers and leading users through four steps:

1. Welcome

2. Engage

3. Connect

4. Return

This has resulted in a 35% increase in conversions.

Post-purchase nurturing

After the purchase, the job of habit formation and engagement begins. The Gannett strategy here is also an ongoing engagement and subscription campaign. They focus on a four-step process:

1. Inspire.

2. Inform.

3. Educate.

4. Build habit.

Optimising for subscription sales

Gannett’s entire system is structured to optimise for digital subscriptions. Paywall strategies include hybrid/meter models, an AMP paywall, and segmentation. Pricing strategies include volume versus revenue and flash sales.

Propensity models are done through Google and digital usage data. The goal is to keep the subscribers who never visit or engage — the “zombies” — away.

Check-out strategies are designed to give a simple, frictionless experience and to upsell.

Post-purchase nurturing

Truitt took over the retention team with a goal for the subscription journey to drive brand loyalty, increase user engagement and digital usage, and ultimately strengthen subscriber retention.

“We revamped what we did in retention,” she said, explaining that they completely overhauled the strategy for retaining new subscribers.

Now, Gannett targets subscribers with four distinct themes within the first 120 days of subscription:

Week 1: Confirm and inspire with an order confirmation, a welcome, and a letter from the editor.

Month 1: Inform and connect with subscriber content and features, apps, newsletters, and the e-edition.

Month 2: Educate the subscriber with their benefits, including account management, social, podcasts, and shared access.

Months 3-4: Build habit through reminders about the apps, and resend critical subscriber information.

“We started to target people who had very little to no usage, and we saw reengagement by about 50%,” Truitt said. “It shows that you really can change things.”

And it’s not just the data team on top of this. The newsroom talks about retention a lot as well, Nash added. Editors send out regular e-mails thanking people for being a subscriber, and another just before their trial period is over.

“Those have performed exceedingly well. Personalising it using journalists has been really effective.”

Driving engagement

Consistently re-engaging with subscribers at risk for churning increases their consumption habits and ultimately influences retention. The content strategy and data teams work directly with newsrooms to select which content to serve to subscribers, and look for opportunities to showcase exclusive, member-only content.

A path forward

Investing in audience development is vital, Truitt said. 

Looking at Gannett’s specific path forward, action steps include:

1. Know your audiences.

2. Immerse yourself in data.

3. Create collaboration between news and business intelligence.

4. Invest in audience engagement and get them to stay.

5. Know what content converts, aka the path to subscription.

6. Test, test, and then test everything again.

7. Share findings with the entire organisation.

Audience brainstorming

The next part of the workshop involved hands-on audience participation. The audience divided into groups to brainstorm strategy tactics for conditioning, acquisition, and retention.

After the three groups brainstormed, the entire workshop audience and speakers reconvened to discuss the ideas that were generated.

Group One: Conditioning

  • Leverage real-world events as a way to nurture the relationship and bring new readers to the table, especially a younger audience.
  • Use Facebook groups, particularly civic-oriented groups or those centered around finance and investing, to build the news affinity.
  • Build loyalty through push notifications and SMS.
  • Utilise smart AI-driven home page automation; think about your home page not as a lead-generation tool but as an engagement tool.
  • Convert mobile Web users to app users, where the visit depth and return rate are greater.

Group Two: Acquisition

  • Create a consistent paywall/hybrid model and consistent messaging about that strategy.
  • Use data to measure conversions and understand which content drives subscriptions.
  • Leverage digital editions and market them better.
  • Consider using a Spotify model.
  • Offer different incentives such as flash sales and bundling.
  • Offer verticals with mini-subscriptions to specific content (such as sports).
  • Simplify the subscription process.
  • Implement a text-to-subscribe option.
  • Personalise newsletters, and provide more personalisation/recommendations overall.
  • Offer student memberships and special pricing for specific audiences.

Group Three: Retention

  • Encourage people to download the app and become more engaged.
  • Educate the users.
  • Look at the timing of when e-mails are sent. 
  • Emphasize engagement and the importance of the first seven days.
  • Offer annual discounts.
  • Publish polls and surveys that require newsletter subscriptions to see the results.
  • Ad-free subscription as a member — do they have more engagement and retention?
  • Credit card declines and the new Visa rule in April, and addressing that issue.

About Shelley Seale

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