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4 media companies share user-centered digital subscriptions strategies

By Paula Felps

INMA

Nashville, Tennessee, USA

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By Michelle Palmer Jones

INMA

Nashville, Tennessee, United States

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By Chandler Wieberg

INMA

Austin, Texas, United States

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As the state of news media subscriptions rapidly evolves around consumers’ changing needs and habits, companies are leaning into audience knowledge to optimise their acquisition strategies.

Value, experience, and research are key factors in the success of a digital subscription acquisition strategy, speakers at the INMA Digital Subscription Acquisition Master Class, part of INMA’s Readers First Initiative lead by Greg Piechota, told attendees in November.

Research in the Digital News Report 2021 shows lower price and greater convenience are the most likely options to persuade readers to pay for news, said Nic Newman, senior research associate for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. Sadly, Newman added, the same research revealed that many people said nothing would persuade them to subscribe.

Though lower price and greater convenience may convince some people to pay for news, many said nothing would persuade them to pay, Nic Newman, senior research associate for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, said.
Though lower price and greater convenience may convince some people to pay for news, many said nothing would persuade them to pay, Nic Newman, senior research associate for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, said.

Individuals listed a desire for more valuable content among the reasons they have not yet subscribed.

“Are you producing something that is efficiently distinctive and better than Im going to get?” Newman asked. “There’s also a question here about the experience.”

There’s a proportion of people who say if the experience was cleaner, with no ads, they might pay for that experience. Others said they were looking for a lower price point or an offer for a family subscription.

“It’s not just about price. It’s also about convenience,” Newman said. “Netflix and others have really helped to prime people about expectations around how subscriptions work.”

Mediahuis Ireland rethinks the bundle

To address concerns about convenience and value, some news publishers are reconsidering a strategy that was once standard: bundling.

Over the past few years, newspapers have been gradually unbundled by online sources, Steve Dempsey, group director of publishing products at Mediahuis Ireland, said. The old news bundle was simple: It consisted of news and ads packaged together and distributed to customers. But that changed with the advent of the digital age.

The strands that comprise the daily newspaper have been pulled apart, unbundling the experience, Steve Dempsey, group director of publishing products at Mediahuis Ireland, said.
The strands that comprise the daily newspaper have been pulled apart, unbundling the experience, Steve Dempsey, group director of publishing products at Mediahuis Ireland, said.

“We really have allowed all the different strands that made up the daily newspaper to be pulled apart and to be mediated through a load of different online sources,” Dempsey said.

One of three examples Dempsey provided shows how newspapers can bundle information. Aftenposten created a personalised digital experience for users that provides them with information on “everything thats going on that they need to know about right now.”

Finding what those specific user needs were took a great deal of research, but it now allows Aftenposten to serve readers a very specific bundle of information: “They figured out the best way to do this was to create an experience whereby their very best journalists, and their very best journalism, was kind of pushed and serve to these users first thing in the morning.”

The Guardian focuses on knowing its readers

The Guardian’s open access model means the company must consistently offer its value to readers since paid users do not see a huge difference in their digital experience than that of the free digital experience, Jessica Hayes, the company’s deputy director, global supporter strategy, said.

Jessica Hayes, deputy director/global supporter strategy at The Guardian, said the company is constantly focused on proving its value to paid subscribers.
Jessica Hayes, deputy director/global supporter strategy at The Guardian, said the company is constantly focused on proving its value to paid subscribers.

To ensure the company’s offering remains valuable to subscribers, a reader revenue editor keeps an open dialogue with supporters, bringing in valuable data and responses.

“We are constantly researching by live testing, surveys, UX research such as bringing people in and talking to them in focus groups, one to one interviews, collecting solicited and unsolicited feedback from people,” Hayes said.

Once a year, the company uses this research to compile a list of top 10 motivations for why readers support The Guardian. Hayes finds that most years supporters’ top 10 motivations don’t change, but the order might shift. They can be impacted by current events in the world each year, which can affect what type of values supporters want to see in journalism.

The Washington Post encourages account creation

For the past 18 months, The Washington Post has heavily focused on user registration as a part of its marketing strategy, Nancy Cutler, head of global brand partnerships and marketing, said.

“Account creation or registration is only a user journey for sensitive Post readers,” Cutler said. “We don’t force it or require it, but it is an experience we are looking to route more widely and perhaps uniformly, as of now, we are principally in testing mode.”

User registration fuels audience knowledge, Nancy Cutler, head of global brand partnerships and marketing at The Washington Post, said.
User registration fuels audience knowledge, Nancy Cutler, head of global brand partnerships and marketing at The Washington Post, said.

As the team continues to test and scale our efforts, Cutler added they want to be sure they are not disrupting someone from subscribing by prompting them instead to register. Testing is rooted in the understanding that every user cannot be treated the same as others.

“The more you know about your customer,” Cutler said, “The better you can craft your marketing strategy to move them along the funnel.”

The Beast defines user types

At the start of 2021, The Daily Beast changed the way it approached the subscriber funnel and began thinking about the next best action to put in front of users, Lauren Bertolini, chief product officer, said. Rather than thinking only about driving subscriptions, the company began thinking holistically about the business and how to better value users and encourage revenue that was critical to the company’s growth.

The Daily Beast needed its internal teams to agree on how they define and value user types, Lauren Bertolini, the company's chief product officer, said.
The Daily Beast needed its internal teams to agree on how they define and value user types, Lauren Bertolini, the company's chief product officer, said.

The old way of thinking defined users only by their propensity to subscribe and ultimately valued users by their subscription revenue. Bertolini said the company had to bring all departments together to create a new, shared understanding of what it means to have the “best” action.

It meant that these departments — including product, data, marketing, and revenue — had to agree on how they, as a company, value and define each user type and each product, Bertolini said: “That led to some pretty substantial changes in how we viewed our process of defining and testing the next best action.”

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