Digital subscriptions have doubled worldwide in the past three years. This is not a bump, as many described the increase in online subscribers during the pandemic. It’s a “testament to 10 years of digital growth at media companies,” according to INMA Researcher-in-Residence Greg Piechota.
Media companies that have grown the most are those in Europe, large news publishers, and those with established subscription programmes, Piechota told the more than 423 delegates from 50 countries at INMA’s fifth-annual Media Subscriptions Summit on Tuesday.
“Not everybody is The New York Times,” Piechota said. “Many publishers have launched minimum viable products, driven at first by marketing. But then publishers realised that actually to grow, it’s not just about putting a price on something that used to be free. You need to adjust your content, adjust your user experience, your product, adjust your pricing, your marketing channels. This requires changing the way a company operates. This requires changing the whole business model.”
To kick off the Summit, Moderator Robert Whitehead, lead of the INMA Digital Platforms Initiative, asked attendees two questions.
1. What is the biggest opportunity for growing online subscriptions this year? Attendees answered light readers, retention, memberships, churn, bundling, mobile users.
2. What are the biggest risks or challenges in growing online subscriptions? Churn was the most popular answered, followed by subscription fatigue, fake news, retention, light readers, and advertising.
To see how these opportunities and challenges look in the trenches, executives from three major media companies shared their digital subscription successes:
Lyndsey Jones, author of Going Digital and former executive editor at Financial Times, showed INMA members what the print focused newsroom at Financial Times looked like in 2013. There were 100 sub-editors who worked at night in three large integrated print and online production teams, and print was always published before a story went digital.
“We didn’t have data analytics. We weren’t thinking about audience needs. We were more or less publishing what we put in print and possibly writing print headlines on online stories,” Jones said. “There was no planning for digital storytelling, and this is a key thing for digital success — it comes into planning, social promotion, and partially with your news agenda stories.”
Some steps FT took during its digital transformation were:
Simplified print production, used a phased approach.
Launched single print edition.
Introduced global “broadcast schedule” for print.
Copy deadlines with digital focus.
Reduced amount of content published by 20%.
Content reduction was an important part of changing from print focused to digital focused content, Jones said: “You might think, how is that putting the subscriber first? Well you’re not wasting time on stuff they don’t want to read or what we call underperforming stories. Three thousand pageviews or less, that was an underperforming story. We wanted to look at the patterns. This took time, quite a number of weeks analysing the data.”
The Financial Times newsroom in 2020 looks a lot different than in 2013. There are only 20 sub-editors who now work during the day in a small team dedicated to print-only. And digital skills are integrated throughout the newsroom instead of everyone doing a little bit of everything as it was previously.
The newsroom now has an audience engagement team, which make data informed news decisions to drive reader subscriptions and revenue, and the newsroom is focused on the digital audience instead of the print audience.
“All the news desk have their own data analytics,” Jones said. “It’s part of a news editors job to understand those analytics and act on them.”
The Telegraph wanted to take a look at subscription intent and what that looked like when it comes to digital product strategy, COO Chris Taylor told INMA members.
“We reviewed and rebuilt all of our digital products to make sure they followed a fairly simple construct: either attracting new people into the franchise, engaging people who have already come to us, and once we have engaged them, getting them to subscribe, and once they’ve subscribed, getting them to engage on an ongoing basis.”
Taylor said their presence on third-party platforms like Snapchat or Apple News play an important part in attracting new people to their brand. The Web site helps engage people who have already found the brand, and newsletters and the app help them get subscribers to engage on an ongoing basis.
“We have always kept an element of open content on our Web site,” Taylor said. “We always thought that was very important as a way of keeping the top end of the funnel nice and full.”
Taylor also said they made The Telegraph app only available to subscribers: “We have made it thus, so we can really make it as engaging and as subscriber specific by design as we possibly can. There’s no advertising in the app.”
To keep them focused on subscriptions, The Telegraph knew the use of data would be extremely important in getting them to a million subscribers. They focused on two major things they believe have been game changers in their journey:
1. They built their own analytics platform based on Google Data Studio technology but specifically tailored to The Telegraph. It’s called Telegraph Pulse.
2. They used what they call a “Simple Telegraph Attraction and Retention Score,” which measures success down to the article level by scoring articles on consumption like pageviews and user metrics. It also can look at the role an article played in converting users to subscribe and engagement for existing subscribers.
The Washington Post
The Washington Post has intentionally built cross-functional teams focused on outcomes and achieving them as a whole team, rather than the specifics of who does what. This is part of what makes them successful when launching new products.
Michael Ribero, chief subscriptions officer at The Washington Post, shared ideas INMA members can take from leaders in the video streaming space, using them to grow their own subscriptions at scale.
Before the Post, Ribero was at Paramount+ (part of Viacom), and Sling before that, where he learned a lot about streaming models.
“What can we learn from streaming?” he asked the audience. “You need to spend a lot of money.”
Massive amounts of money are spent not just on the production of streaming shows but on advertising and marketing them — perhaps more than in any other media category.
Beyond that, however, Ribero has identified nine specific ideas news media publishers can take away from streaming. These ideas fall into three main categories:
1. Customer expectations: “One thing we learned in streaming is this concept of one service providing you all the journalism or all the streaming content that you need — that’s just not what customers expect,” Ribero said. “There’s comfort in purchasing and using more and more services to deliver on very specific needs.”
This opens the playing field for many offerings, including smaller and niche ones. While Netflix, for example, might be the obvious go-to choice for streaming entertainment, there are many others that offer specialised content and enjoy success. Curiosity Stream for documentaries, CrunchyRoll for anime, and FloSports for less represented sports are just a few of these.
“What I would ask here is: Do you see that happening? And if so with your customers, how do you use that to your advantage? Positioning yourself as an add-on service could be an interesting way to approach it.”
2. Marketing and promotion: In streaming entertainment, there are bundles of bundles. “It’s a really efficient way to piggyback and drive incremental volume,” Ribero said of bundling. “Are there other services or subscription products you can go with?”
Publishers should evaluate whether bundling their offers with other complementary services or products makes sense.
3. Content: Day and date disruption is the first idea with content that publishers can take from the streaming giants.
At Paramount+, Ribero said disrupting the traditional movie distribution roll-out was very effective. The old method of a movie releasing into theatres and then coming to streaming some weeks or months later was disrupted by COVID. Now, more movies launched in the theatre and in at-home streaming at the same time. News media publishers can consider this tactic and how it might apply to their content distribution models.
The Summit continues Tuesdays and Thursdays through February 15. You can register here.