5 tips for selling subscriptions in a digital news universe

For some stargazers, a view of the heavens with the naked eye suffices. But others – admittedly a smaller group – are more curious.

They want to identify the planets, glimpse Saturn’s rings, count the moons around Jupiter, or view our moon’s seas and craters – all of which require a good lens.   

The digital media business works in much the same way. Most readers surf the vast Web seeing what catches their eye, while a subset pays for favoured publication subscriptions where they can home-in on the content that most interests them.

This reality is not sustainable. After all, it costs money to create and manage a publisher site and its content. With revenue-generation a major priority, various subscription models are being tested at publications around the globe. But most have been slow to catch hold.   

So how do we convince site visitors that being able to home-in with a subscription “lens” is worth paying for?

It won’t be easy.

The Digital News Report from The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism shows the year-over-year willingness of readers to pay for digital news content has increased only slightly since 2013. In fact, only 12% of American consumers have paid for digital news content in the past year.

Of those who have never paid for digital content, just 9% can envision doing so in the future. The recent Cxense Publishing Profitability Survey of nearly 400 publishers showed similar results among publishers themselves. In that survey, 15% of publishers said they would not consider paying for digital subscriptions.

Another statistic that we see is more than 50% of the average publisher’s page views are consumed by 10% of their audience. Beyond these loyal users, the data reflects a huge number of “one and done” page viewers. They are simply landing on an article page, e.g., referred from Facebook or Twitter, and barely recognising the site they are on.

It’s little wonder these folks don’t want to pay for subscriptions.

Any hope for monetisation through paid subscriptions will only happen by increasing reader loyalty and the amount of time visitors spend on the site. These five tips might help:

  1. Know your readers: Use semantic and behavioural analytics to better understand them. Which site visitors are subscribers and/or loyal readers, and which are not?

    Learn who accesses the site and why, and know how they access and what content they consume. Don’t keep recommending the same content if they have already viewed it during the current or a previous session, even if on a different device.

  2. Develop useful segments: Which characteristics differentiate a subscriber from a non-subscriber? And which non-subscribers follow similar “subscriber-like” traits? Develop segments that are “most likely to subscribe.”

  3. Keep visitors on your site reading your content: Whether local news, national news, celebrity news, sports, politics, or something else – keep readers engaged by surprising them with relevant content that matches their individual tastes.

    Such content will be similar to what brought them to the site in the first place or that other people with the same behaviour engage with, and at the same time is relevant trending news. Don’t be tricked into using third-party widgets that pay you pennies for promoting other sites’ content.

  4. Be smart with fees: Research what other publications are charging for digital subscriptions and determine the best price or bundle accordingly.

  5. Target your “most likely to subscribe” segments with personalised and relevant subscription promotions. If you know they love sports, promote a sports subscription. For repeat users coming in from Twitter, promote an offer that is proven to convert them effectively.

Making a media site accessible and appealing – and offering individualised content – greatly increases the likelihood visitors will “favourite” the site, and return again and again. Over time, those readers become loyal to a publication and its brand. They also become those most likely to pay for a digital subscription.

Give readers a good look at what they are missing with the naked eye approach, and they will be far more likely to purchase the lens.

About John M. Lervik

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