Subscriptions, donations, and memberships are critical for many newsrooms’ business models. But what strategies work for gaining new subscribers?

Our researchers at the Center for Media Engagement (CME) tackled this question by experimentally testing different messages about subscribing to news. For this study, we collaborated with three newsrooms: a mid-sized, local newspaper in the Southwest United States; a small, regional news magazine in the Western United States; and a large, local newspaper in the Southwest United States. The organisations tested strategies using Facebook, e-mail, and newsletter advertisements.

CME researchers looked at four different elements of subscription appeals:

  1. The image shown with the subscription offer.
  2. The content of the subscription message.
  3. Whether the offer was for a free newsletter or paid content.
  4. Whether the subscription ad appeared on Facebook or through direct e-mail.

So, what happened?

When the subscription offer appeared on Facebook, an image of the newsroom’s logo, as opposed to other images such as a journalist working or a top story, reduced click-through. In e-mail promotions, news consumers were more likely to subscribe when the ad emphasised what people could gain from a subscription (“Stay in touch with news from our city and the world”) as opposed to what they could lose (“Don’t lose touch with news from our city and the world”), in addition to the details about the subscription. And, as you might assume, free newsletter subscriptions gained more clicks than paid print/digital access.

This research study reveals that using a logo is not as effective as using a journalist or top story image.
This research study reveals that using a logo is not as effective as using a journalist or top story image.

When we compared how much it cost to share the subscription message over Facebook to the number of subscriptions returned, there was little evidence that Facebook ads on their own attract enough subscribers to justify the price tag. Yet we only looked at a particular subset of messages, and it is possible Facebook advertising could be more effective with other messages. More testing can help to figure out if there are instances when Facebook ads are worth the cost.

For now, we would urge publishers to be cautious and systematically test whether a paid Facebook subscription strategy is worth the expense.

The study shows e-mail offers return a higher click-through rate than Facebook ads do.
The study shows e-mail offers return a higher click-through rate than Facebook ads do.

What are the key takeaways?

  • Use journalists doing their work or an image of a top story when soliciting subscribers via Facebook, as opposed to your logo.
  • Use messages telling people what they gain from subscribing to the news in addition to the details of the offer when contacting people via e-mail.
  • Most importantly, test your strategies extensively. Some yield better returns than others, and knowing what appeals to your audience can be especially helpful.

The full report is available here.