During the nine-month Google News Initiative (GNI) Subscriptions Lab, run in partnership with FT Strategies and INMA, publishers defined an ambitious vision for their digital subscription business and built the engine that would take them to their goal.
France’s La Croix, Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza, and Germany’s Rheinische Post shared examples of the North Star goals they developed to drive their businesses forward during the live European Media Subscriptions Town Hall Thursday morning.
Philippe Colombet, group chief digital officer at Bayard Presse, said 137-year-old Catholic title La Croix is an odd species in the French news landscape but is still relevant to readers. La Croix is one of the top five national dailies in the country, and the only one on that list that is a truly independent organisation.
La Croix sees a significant growth in digital subscriptions every year, about 30%, Colombet said. While the company is relatively happy about this growth and recent spikes in traffic, a crucial element to digital subscriptions posed an existential threat.
“It was the big problem: The existential issue in subscriptions to have enough engaged readers,” Colombet said.
During the GNI Subscriptions Lab, the brand quickly recognised the urgency to put engagement at the centre of its cultural shift. Another key take-away from the Lab was an alignment chart created by FT Strategies to map participating companies across five variables: innovation and empowerment, experimental culture, customer knowledge, roadmap, and strategic alignment.
The latter was the lowest-performing segment for La Croix, and data showed it were in good company. This chart was a good reality check and helped guide the development of a North Star, Colombet said.
La Croix’s North Star goal is to create a sustainable digital business with at least 100,000 digital subscribers by June 2023. Colombet said this objective is bold, but achievable, and requires profound change in the way the company operates.
“Believe me, in our newspaper at 137 years old, you should come up with goals that don’t seem achievable or you’re not going anywhere”
One step to achieving this goal requires transforming La Croix into an engagement-first media company. Two other steps focus on business development and consumer value. The company is aiming for a very high ARPU, Colombet said.
Colombet emphasised that to reach all of these goals, a culture of testing is crucial, especially as a medium-sized publisher with limited resources. Companies should spend a lot of time validating the problem and not the solution, he added.
“You need to generate hypotheses through evidence and data,” Colombet said. “It’s not just ideas and words, it’s actually things.”
Turning La Croix into an engagement-first medium is about delivering meaningful, engaging experiences for the reader. Assessing engagement and building KPIs is the first step on that journey, said Marie-Madeleine Lamy, director of digital development at Bayard Presse.
By shifting focus to the capacity of engagement for a piece of content, a metric called Quality Read, La Croix has been able to set new metrics that do not revolve around volume.
“Not the most viewed articles are on top anymore, but the articles that are bringing to reader to read completely, to scroll, to share,” Lamy said.
The company is currently building its KPI around defining an engaged reader, she said. This will allow individuals across the organisation to assess all aspects of campaigns or newsroom actions to understand if they attract more engaged readers or not.
Walking through an experiment, Lamy said the company applied its Quality Read measurement on content. Content was chosen for off-site and on-site promotion if it received a high Article Score to test the hypothesis that the highest quality content increases reader conversion. This particular hypothesis was proven correct.
“What we learned from that was that we do reduce the cost of acquisition,” Lamy said.
Moderator and INMA Researcher-in-Residence Greg Piechota said being able to concretely tie content quality to click-through-rates is profound. Lamy agreed, saying the experiment resulted in actions to redesign the Web site and emphasise this content. She also elaborated on the Article Score metric, explaining that it is based on time spent with an article and the percentage of the article that has been read. The metric also puts more weight on articles read by subscribers.
Choosing a North Star sometimes involves research and internal evaluation, but, according to Jerzy Wójcik, publisher at Gazeta Wyborcza, that goal can come from a spur-of-the-moment conversation with your boss.
Wójcik said that five years ago, after political change meant bad news for the company, the CEO at the time asked him about growing digital subscriptions. How many did Wójcik think he and his team could sell in two years?
“I didn’t know what to answer to such a question,” Wójcik said. “At the moment we only had 3,000 subcriptions behind the paywall.”
Despite this, Wójcik said the company could reach 150,000 in two years.
“It was a moment for Gazeta very special because all the trends were going down, the political impact was hurting us, labelling us enemies of the state,” Wójcik said. “We had no choice. We started realizing the North Star strategy without knowing it!”
Now, the company has 250,000 digital subscribers and that number is growing. Gazeta Wyborcza worked with Financial Times to set a new North Star during the GNI Digital Subscriptions Lab. The Lab could not have come at a better time, Wójcik said.
“A few months ago, before lockdown, we realized we’re plateauing,” he said.
The company’s new goal: 450,000 subscriptions in three years. After a few months, 40-50% of people in the organisation are focusing daily on the North Star.
“You never have enough resources, you never have enough money, so you just have to choose something and focus on it and adjust your operations,” Wójcik said.
Moderator Piechota pointed out that North Star methodology can be applied to products beyond subscriptions.
Julia Morein, head of product management at RP Digital, said her company started working with a subscriptions North Star a few years ago, but realised after working with FT how important it is to align the whole company on the goal.
Defining an outcome makes it easier to focus on short-term and long-term tasks. RP Digital is in the process of using its North Star as a prioritisation tool: “We aren’t there yet but we’re trying to ask the questions now,” Morein said.
Aligning the whole team can be tricky, she added. Everyone knows the company aims to be mobile-first, but when team members go to design they start on desktop. Having conversations around goals is helping break these habits, Morein said.
“It’s something actually that’s challenging but it’s actually really interesting.”