4 news media companies share subscription struggles, success

By Brie Logsdon

INMA

Nashville, Tennessee, United States

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By Paula Felps

INMA

Nashville, Tennessee, United States

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INMA Researcher-in-Residence Greg Piechota is the smartest guy in any room when it comes to the topic of digital subscriptions. On Tuesday, day two of the five-module INMA Media Subscriptions Summit 4.0, he shared key takeaways based on case studies from four news media companies.

Here are a few:

  • Paywall is not really a technology project. It’s about realigning the whole company to readers. 
  • Knowing customers is key. Some publishers got so confident in data and learning machines, they started giving up decision-making to algorithms. 
  • The news brand is a prime lever to engage audiences and make them see the value of your journalism and subscription. 
  • New operating models are emerging. Growth comes from incremental improvements: relentless experimentation and iteration. 

The Globe and Mail, Canada

The Globe and Mail has a fully dynamic, real-time paywall based on an algorithm and locks a significant percentage of its journalism behind the wall. Gold star digital subscriptions performance lies in the combination of distribution and quality journalism, David Walmsley, editor-in-chief at The Globe and Mail, said.

Through Sophi, The Globe and Mail’s AI-based automation and prediction engine, Walmsley has been able to redefine editorial culture and empower decision-making through data. This makes staff more efficient and helps them navigate competing priorities.

David Walmsley, editor-in-chief at The Globe and Mail, discussed Sophi.
David Walmsley, editor-in-chief at The Globe and Mail, discussed Sophi.

Sophi’s real value lies in its honesty though data. If something is not performing well, the newsroom can stop producing it and focus elsewhere. It can also provide insights into audience gaps and be used to track efforts to close these gaps.

After three months of thoughtful publishing changes to weekend distribution, The Globe and Mail was able to grow its audience by 54% just by thinking of them. 

These audience-focused efforts have paid off, Walmsley said: “We have generated more than C$10 million in lift for the business by layering Sophi’s user propensity paywall on top of the typical content paywall, all because of an algorithm.”

Helsingin Sanomat, Finland

Helsingin Sanomat launched a metered paywall model in 2015 and a hard paywall in 2016. After a 25-year decline of its subscriber base, the company saw growth in 2017 and that growth has continued every year. The company plans to continue its subscription strategy as print declines, but will never be fully reader funded. 

“The day we are pure digital we will be something like 80/20 subscription funded,” said Kaisa Aalto, subscription business owner at Helsingin Sanomat.

Like most companies, Helsingin Sanomat experienced a big, COVID-driven subscriber bump. In March and April, the company gained 27% and 29%, respectively, more subscribers year-on-year. More than have of the subscription sales were digital-only, while the rest were a digital, print combination. 

Kaisa Aalto, subscription business owner at Helsingin Sanomat, showed the company's COVID bump.
Kaisa Aalto, subscription business owner at Helsingin Sanomat, showed the company's COVID bump.

Before last year, the company only prompted readers with free trial offers. Last year, it turned what would have been 3,400 trial offers into 800 full subscriptions, generating about €400,000 in value.

Aalto warned that not all experiments paid off, but said it was crucial to try them anyway: “Some experiments don’t get any results, and some do get a result but it was a negative one...It’s very important to test and to fail fast.”

El País, Spain

After activating a signwall in 2018, El País then introduced a landing page announcing subscriptions in March of 2020 — five days before the country went into a coronavirus-induced lockdown, explained Noemi Ramirez Garcia, chief customer and product officer for Prisa Noticias.

Although the original plan was to give customers a significant ramp-up time to become accustomed to the idea of subscriptions and then activate the paywall in April, the pandemic pushed that date to May. Five months later, in October, the company launched its Brazilian subscriptions along with customised dynamic pricing. 

Noemi Ramirez Garcia, chief customer and product officer for Prisa Noticias, shared the timeline of the company's paywall.
Noemi Ramirez Garcia, chief customer and product officer for Prisa Noticias, shared the timeline of the company's paywall.

In July 2019, just 1% of the content was behind the signwall; today that stands at 12%, with an average of 20%-30% of articles from each editorial section living behind the signwall. The numbers continued to swell as users became more familiar with the registration model and, by the end of 2020, the site had close to 2 million registered users.

A robust onboarding model to help keep new users engaged is an important part of the model: “Retention is key. It is as critical as acquisition. Because we are so young, we are not seeing big churn rates — yet,” Garcia said. 

Early results have been good for El País, with 130,000 subscribers in eight months and about 85,000 digital-only subscribers. Of those, 70% chose monthly subscriptions, but El País is seeing more growth in annual subscribers. Amongst new subscribers, 80% were already registered users and just 20% registered specifically to subscribe. 

The Independent, Ireland 

“A year ago, we had no paying subscribers at all,” said Steve Dempsey, group director of publishing products. “It was actually just 12 months and five days ago that we launched our official paywall offering.”

In that year, it has gained 37,000 subscriptions, although “we’re beginning to see the retention and churn issue bite us in the ass and it’s becoming something quite onerous and something we’re increasingly focused on,” Dempsey said. But he then explained the company’s journey to subscriptions, which has led them to this point.

Steve Dempsey, group director of publishing products at The Independent, shared the company's subscription growth.
Steve Dempsey, group director of publishing products at The Independent, shared the company's subscription growth.

One of the most important steps toward doing that was to create a cross-functional team, bringing together key people from different departments. But the real game-changer came when Mediahuis acquired INM in 2019. That shifted INM from being print-first to digital-first, and changed the attitude toward digital: “You could feel suddenly people were like, ‘Alright, this time it’s going to work.’”

While change relies on technology, Dempsey said one of his key learnings in launching the paywall was not to make technology the central focus: “Don’t be beguiled by the technology,” he said. “Erecting a paywall is not a technology project. It’s a realignment of the whole business to be more customer-facing.”

The Summit, which drew 392 attendees from 45 countries, continues on Tuesdays and Thursdays throughout February, offering 13 hours of programming. You can register here to watch live or at your leisure.

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