Reach plc experiments with ad-free content readers will pay for

By Mark Challinor


London, United Kingdom


Here’s my interview with Martin Little, audience transformation director at Reach plc.

Mark Challinor (MC): Martin, thank you for your time. I want to focus today on Reach’s attitude to advertising in the future as a revenue source. You have started a process trialing new, paid reader revenue opportunities. What’s the thought process here? 

Martin Little (ML): Hello Mark. Thank you for the opportunity to share our thinking. Our Customer Value Strategy has seen us acquire over 13m registered users across our network — so it feels like the natural next step as we look to diversify our revenue streams. It stems from listening to our readers, where some of our most loyal customers are telling us they love our content and are willing to pay for a better experience on our sites, specifically to go ad-free. 

MC: What specific trials are in the mix? 

ML: We are trialing “ad-free” on The Express Web site, premium apps (which have moved beyond pilot phase and into roll-out) on the Manchester and Liverpool titles, and a series of paid-for newsletters. 

MC: Will advertising revenue still be a core focus for Reach ongoing?

ML: Absolutely. Our content will remain free-to-air, and advertising will continue to represent the lion’s share of our digital revenue. 

MC: So, does this untimely mean that your overall strategy will shift from content free online? 

ML: No, it doesn't. Keeping our content free and available to all is a critical part of our strategy. 

MC: What have you learned from your audience? What did they have to say about this refocus? Is there an appetite to pay for some content? 

ML: We have learned that a portion of them are willing to pay. So far, we have converted over 1% of app users on the Manchester Evening News and Liverpool Echo. Generally, the feedback has been positive — particularly as we find our app users are often our biggest supporters and most loyal. 

MC. How many registered users do you now have and what percentage can you expect to convert to a paying audience? What do they say they’d be happy to pay for?

ML: We currently have 13.5m registered users. We’re not ready to commit to a percentage that will convert as we are still learning and experimenting with different platforms. I mentioned earlier that we have converted more than 1% of app users where we have launched premium so far — and that’s after just two or three months. We’re happy with that and still have a long way to go before we know what our optimal level or ceiling might be. 

MC: Can you tell us more about your paid apps and what you’ve gleaned from your offerings and the reader experience thus far?

ML: The paid apps have metered paywalls on them; we’ve generally set these at 25 articles per week. But I expect we will experiment in that space quite heavily. We also have puzzles and special offers available for subscribers in the apps. We’ve learned that our soccer content is critical to driving conversion. We’ve also been heavily focused on striking the right tone and balance on our app homepages as our editors seek to curate a premium experience. 

MC: Your first-party data from all this … do you turn it into unique insights for advertisers? If so, does that create a premium offering to them? 

ML: Good question. As part of our Customer Value Strategy over several years, we built up a substantial amount of first-party data on our registered audience base. We already use that to serve premium opportunities for them and generate a better return on their investment. Any further data we collect from our premium experiences will just further this work. 

MC: Tell us about your paid newsletters? What are the content areas you are focusing on? Will you include advertising and/or sponsorship? 

ML: We are using Substack for all our paid-for newsletters as it has allowed us to test and learn quickly. We have a whole range of newsletters ranging from baking to soccer, to UK defence, to environment and more. We have no plans to include advertising or sponsorship in these at this time, but never say never. The focus is on building premium subscriptions. We have over 600 other free-to-air newsletters across the Reach estate which have advertising and sponsorship opportunities, with over 11m free subscribers. 

MC: The Daily Express has the option for readers to pay to have an ad-free experience. Does that not create a message to advertisers that their involvement and their money is not that important? Has there been any kick-back to this?

ML: I don’t think so. We want to give our advertisers the best experience possible for their goals, as much as we want to give our readers the best experience possible too. There hasn’t been any kick-back on this.

MC: How have the newsroom adapted to all this? Open arms? Resistance? 

ML: Superbly. They’ve adopted it quickly and are enjoying a fresh challenge for their content. I’d say open arms, for sure. Our journalists are experts in getting their content read by the maximum number of people. Now this helps them derive a deeper understanding of the impact of the content they are producing. I think it’s made them think twice about the depth of content and tone of voice they strike — which can only be a good thing for our brands.

MC: Finally, how do you see the future of advertising? Will it morph to a different environment than we see today? 

ML: The shape of the advertising industry, supporting journalism, has been evolving since I have been in the industry. I would be amazed if that doesn’t continue ... . And it’s up to us to continue this. 

MC: Martin, thank you. 

So, there you have it. Advertising will remain crucial for many years to come. It’s great to see such a big player in our industry reaffirming this commitment.

Be it for future company profits, the continued support of future journalism, or the sheer variety of engagement with our audiences, we relegate in our thoughts and our focus at our peril.

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About Mark Challinor

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