Newsrooms that embarked earliest on the digital subscription path are now finding themselves in a new phase of the journey — one that’s exciting for journalism but arguably the most challenging.

News brands are quickly realising that giving away steak knives no longer cuts it. It’s now much less about the blueprint and more about the execution. Gadget giveaways and half-price offers did their part in getting existing readers who were used to paying for a printed product to try out digital. They have drawn in new readers and — to a degree — helped soften the long-held view that journalism doesn’t have value when it’s on the Internet.

It is not enough for publishers to throw in free gifts to encourage subscription sales.
It is not enough for publishers to throw in free gifts to encourage subscription sales.

But digital subscription models that started with a bang will struggle to grow unless three areas find themselves aligned: content, product, and marketing.

Digital readers have become more demanding. They want publishers to deliver higher standards or they won’t stick around. Consumers want the content to be great and the products amazing, and they want it all delivered in a way — and at a time — that suits them.

1. Content needs to be of an equal standard to print — from the quality of production to the quality of the authors. Newsrooms that treat the digital reader as being as important as the print reader will make the fastest gains in content-driven subscriptions and retention.

2. Content that’s well-crafted and tailored to the audience it’s designed for — snappy if on mobile and hyper relevant in newsletters — will prove more valuable to readers and, ultimately, publishers. If publishers want their audiences to pay, their products must be perfect: fast, uninterrupted, simple, clever.

3. Marketing needs to reflect these two. It’s not about giveaways and price, but about the content and the products.

It’s a transition that may take a bit of time to pivot to, but it’s a vital one for newsrooms to make. It takes great internal collaboration for all parts of a news business to be aligned and behind the simple concept that a digital reader is equal in value to one holding a newspaper.

In a world of Netflix and Spotify, charging for content requires publishers to be at the top of their game. The good news is growth now is all about the content and the journalists. Not the bonus tea set. Those that understand this and pivot fastest will take the next big leap.