As the news publishing industry continues to shift toward digital, the ever-looming question is: “Beyond the traditional print subscription, what is the secret sauce for getting readers to pay for digital content?”

The answer, for many, isn’t yet clear.

Sans real clarity, the most effective way to get actionable results and answers to unknown questions is to take risks and test new things in the market.

Pertinent Chinese proverb: “One cannot refuse to eat just because there is a chance of being choked.”

In March 2012, the Los Angeles Times launched a membership programme, which included metering our digital content. We have embraced risk-taking and testing as part of the process of delivering a valuable proposition for our readers. 

Some of our efforts have not yielded scaleable results, but others have shown more promise in shaping the future of our offerings.

Pulitzer Prize-winning restaurant critic Jonathan Gold joined the Times last spring. In fact, Times members were offered exclusive advance access to his very first column.

This year, his coverage was set to include his first “best of” guide for the Times, presenting a great opportunity to test our assumptions about what will entice readers to pay and to further incorporate experiential aspects into the promise of membership.

We believed “Jonathan Gold’s 101 Best Restaurants” special print section — and responsively designed, robust digital feature — offered great acquisition and retention possibilities. And we further assumed the “101” would appeal to Southern California foodies, a niche interest audience that spans several of our target acquisition demos.

We created a cross-departmental team to brainstorm roll-out plans and ensure coordination. Top of mind in that process was how best to chart and learn from the ultimate results.

As with any initiative, profit margins, page views, uniques, and brand impact were all part of our success metrics. And we were eager to learn: Will prospective members bite? Will existing members find value in these new benefits?

Once we determined that launch would include a period of members-only exclusivity, e.g., online access to the “101,” and that an intimate, members-only “Bite Nite” event would precede publication, we set about pulling together an innovative marketing, communications, and distribution plan.

Creating a sense of urgency to join and/or activate membership was the first order of business, and we started marketing and public relations early.

We combed our database for non-current members who had expressed interest in food content and events, and e-mailed them a discounted subscription offer and opportunity to attend “Bite Nite” for joining. We ran ads online and in print and tapped all of our various social media platforms.

We captured a bit of lightning in a bottle and, once Bite Nite tickets went on sale, we were happy to see they sold out in only a few hours.

To keep the momentum going, we offered two pairs of tickets in a sweepstakes that was open to both members and non-members. We gathered a couple thousand entrants and their e-mails in a handful of days.

The event itself generated great public relations and was just the right size to feel intimate and special. “Bite Nite” featured 23 of Southern California’s most well-known restaurants — handpicked by Mr. Gold — and their star chefs, including Michael Voltaggio, Wolfgang Puck, and Suzanne Goin, live and in person.

Our editorial and events teams live-tweeted, incorporating Twitter Vine videos, and Instagram postings, and we utilised the hashtag #bitenite throughout.

Equally important? Everyone went home with full tummies.

“Jonathan Gold’s 101 Best Restaurants” published two days later. The online experience, with its unique social engagement features, including “brag list” and ability to connect Facebook to compare your list with that of your friends, attracted a lot of buzz and media mentions. (Pssst, my brag number to date is 32.)

We tested new acquisition channels, including promoted tweets and Facebook Offers, as well as sought the niche food audience on other sites and through behavioural targeting. We even launched a Foursquare badge.

Revenue came from a variety of sources, including digital advertisements, advertisers in the special print section, a price increase test on single-copy sales, after-market print section availability and — in response to our hunger pangs for answers — new subscriber acquisitions.

Within the first couple of days, a large percentage of all new digital starts entered our membership funnel via the “101.” Conversion rates were also higher than what we saw with individuals who had hit their meter cap in the same time frame.

The results of this effort better informed us about what will satiate our subscribers as we evolve our membership programme. We learned that providing benefits that cater to a niche audience does, in fact, motivate readers to subscribe and creates further brand affinity among current members.

Key takeaways for publishers to consider:

  • Develop a voracious appetite for risk-taking!

  • Focus on what you do best and differently.

  • Consider niche audience groups.

  • Celebrate your star journalists.

  • Tap into all available channels, especially social and mobile.

  • Creatively look for value propositions beyond metering content.

  • Consider offline benefits to subscribers, and include digital in promoting them.

  • Know your success metrics and how you will track them.

  • Organise cross-departmentally: sales, editorial, marketing, circulation, and public relations should all be working in sync to maximise impact.

  • Have a plan that can scale into a long-term strategy.