A major new study by the American Press Institute of nearly 4,200 U.S. consumers who recently subscribed to their local newspaper shows in unprecedented detail what motivates new subscribers. 

On May 2, Gwen Vargo, director of reader revenue at the American Press Institute (API), presented a live INMA Webinar that detailed the information gleaned from their studies on consumers’ path to subscription, hitting on the factors that make them willing to subscribe and what actions publishers can take to trigger their final commitment.

The API has really had a large role in helping publishers understand and engage audiences, grow revenue, improve public service journalism, and succeed at organisational change. It recognises that publishers want to be successful without relying on the need for advertising dollars.

API has had a major focus on research about media readers and subscribers — the latest of these being the paths to subscription. This study looked at 90 local newspapers in four circulation categories and 4,100 recent subscribers (within past 90 days).

Gwen Vargo of the American Press Institute presented a Webinar that looked deeply into the nine paths that readers take to subscription.
Gwen Vargo of the American Press Institute presented a Webinar that looked deeply into the nine paths that readers take to subscription.

“We were looking at it as, there are things you can control and things you can’t control,” Vargo said. Some factors that media organisations can control include pricing, promotions and messaging, social and mobile platform use, and the quality of their reporting.

Other factors, however, are outside their control, such as changes in readers’ life circumstances, their interest in the local news, and how users interact with their friends and family.

Background trigger and retention

The background is those preconditions that make people open to or willing to eventually subscribe. The trigger is the specific event or action that caused someone to finally purchase the subscription.

“It was important for us to try to surface those and kind of marry them with some of the triggers and retention points that we cause paths. The triggers are things that would cause a person to take out their wallet and say they were going to subscribe in that moment,” Vargo said.

She added that retention is a very important piece of this, as the sources of value and satisfaction that make subscribers want to continue the relationship.

“I think that we frequently focus on the acquisition — getting the reader, getting the subscriber — but especially when we’re talking about paid subscriptions, retaining them is really vital and really important. That’s when they’re really engaging with the content, that’s when they’re becoming advocates for you, and that’s when they continue to pay you on an ongoing basis.”

The API study also noted some interesting background factors before subscription:

  • 60% wanted access to local news.
  • 40% noticed a lot of useful or interesting articles over time.
  • 31% felt it was important to support local journalism.

“I think in the [United] States right now, supporting local journalism is very important,” Vargo said. “They are usually the ones with the least amount of resources, but there’s definitely a need for them to be serving this gap in coverage.”

More than anything, a major incentive to pulling that trigger is getting a promotion or discount to subscribe; 45% of recent subscribers were triggered by this — more than double any other trigger.

“One of the things that we all found quite interesting is that the path to that trigger is really long. Nearly half were reading the product or using it for more than a year before subscribing,” Vargo said.

Even though the promotion is a trigger, when it comes to retention 78% of subscribers highly valued getting “reliable, accurate facts,” and 68% valued the newspaper “dealing fairly with all sides.”

Nine paths to subscription

The API study unearthed nine paths to subscription, which Vargo touched on individually, noting that there are some overlaps between them.

Topic hunters (23%): This group is highly interested in one or two subjects and subscribe because of that coverage. This group tends to follow journalists on social media, looking to them as experts, and many convert through the paywall meter.

The topics they follow most include local and national government, college and high school sports, pro sports, and business. Tactics for publishers to use with topic hunters include tracking users by topic and tailoring the digital messaging to what they are reading.

“This is an opportunity to tailor the messaging to them very specifically while they’re reading their topics of interests,” Vargo said. “Also newsletters and podcasts; I’m a big advocate on using free newsletters to engage people before, during, and throughout.”

Other tactics include having journalists use social media to engage these readers and cultivate a following, as well as hosting sponsored events on the most popular topics.

Vargo shared some examples of publishers who do this well, including Philadelphia Media Network newsletter alerts based on topics, The Dallas Morning News’ sports coverage, and The Miami Herald’s food coverage.

The sports coverage at The Dallas Morning News is an example of how publishers can target the "topic hunter" group.
The sports coverage at The Dallas Morning News is an example of how publishers can target the "topic hunter" group.

Locally engaged (18%): This group cares about their community and has a strong desire for local news. They don’t demand price discounts and are more commonly found at small- or medium-sized newspapers.

They may be looked at as local “news junkies.” The topics they follow most include local government and what’s happening in their town.

Tactics for this group include identification through data and their participation in civic events, creating e-mail alerts and newsletters around local civic topics, and establishing bulk subscription packages. “This is an opportunity to seek partnerships with local organisations on the ground,” Vargo said. “Even things like creating bulk subscriptions with school and libraries.”

Social-mobile discoverers (19%): This group often gets their content on their phones, and they use social media often. They tend to follow journalists on social media, and a high level of engagement works best to lead to subscriptions with them.

“These are the people who are reading you on their phone and following your journalists. The engagement actually does lead to subscriptions.” This group defies the belief that people who follow on social media don’t subscribe.

“It’s important that we are engaging them and not discounting them as drive-by traffic,” Vargo said. “This is a group of people who could eventually subscribe; there are things that we have to do to engage them slightly differently.”

Ways that this group engages include Google searches, social media following (both the news organisation and individual journalists), and app usage. Successful subscription tactics include using social media for deep relationships, not just driving traffic — putting your best content on social media platforms, encouraging sharing and following, and relaxing the paywall meter to accommodate sharing. Publishers should respond to comments, questions, and complaints to reach this group, and could also create Facebook groups around specific topics.

Life changers (16%): These are people who recently moved to the area, have a new job, or are undergoing other lifestyle changes. “This is a group that has always wanted to subscribe,” Vargo said. “These are not people that you have to convince to subscribe necessarily, but there’s something different in their life that is causing them to subscribe.”

Life changers are willing to pay because they want local news or they just moved to the area. Other reasons include because they now have more time and/or more money to subscribe and read the content. They may be retired, empty nesters, or recent college graduates.

“I think there’s a lot of opportunity for partnership,” Vargo said of this group. Partnering with Realtors and landlords to make offers to new residents is one tactic; another is partnering with employers to offer discounts to new hires. Utilising trade and e-mail marketing lists can be effective.

Other tactics could be to target students and recent graduations with newsletters, as well as to retain snowbirds (people who move from a cold area to a warm one, temporarily, over winter) by encouraging their digital usage so they don’t cancel when they leave the area.

Coupon clippers (12%): This group exists only within the print realm, not digital. They like clipping coupons from the hard-copy print newspaper and don’t care much about the news content. They may have bought or borrowed print copies before solely to clip coupons, and they are highly discount motivated.

“They are a small group of people, but they are actually a group who is motivated to buy or to subscribe because of coupons or discounts. These are frequently physical inserts in the newspaper,” Vargo said. “There are ways to go after this group, or encourage this group.”

These include holding workshops to teach consumers how to maximise coupons and sell subscriptions at these events. Publishers can also promote a specific issue that offers a lot of coupons, and add stickers or wrapping that promote the coupons at newsstands and retail outlets.

Print fans (16%): There are still a lot of these, especially with local newspapers. This group prefers the print experience to digital, and they prefer the convenience of print. Reading the print newspaper also has a nostalgia factor — it holds good memories, and/or has become part of their morning ritual.

“People would talk about the experience of having breakfast and reading it, or the great convenience of having it delivered right to their doorstep,” Vargo said. “With print fans, there’s a way to underscore the print experience, and you want to capitalise on that emotion. But I think as print continues to decline we need to be doing whatever we can to get them online and engage digitally.”

Tactics for this include using the digital edition as a bridge to engage print subscribers online and implementing account activation campaigns to increase digital usage. With the print edition itself, publishers can underscore the experience and convenience of print to reach this group.

Friends and family motivated (15%): This group is an influencer, Vargo said — and is also highly influenced. “They really read the newspaper because someone shared it with them; they’re talking about it at home or with their friends. And then they are also sharers of the content once they become subscribers, as well.”

Ways that this group engaged before they subscribed include borrowing copies of the newspaper from friends, upon the recommendation of friends or family, and by following the news organisation on social media.

Publishers can entice this group to subscribe by offering a “refer a friend” programme and by promoting gift subscriptions. Another tactic is to offer a family plan subscription, with extra log-ins for additional readers, perhaps for an introductory period. This is a group for which bundled print and digital subscription packages work well.

This really extends the reach, Vargo said: “From the publisher’s point of view, because the additional access is digital, the cost to fulfil that access is far less than printing and mailing additional copies.”

Digital paywall converters (21%): “As digital subscriptions are so important for so many publishers, we’ve given this its own path,” Vargo said. “While there is some overlap, this is a very important technical or tactical path. There’s a lot of similarities with the topic hunters.”

This group is most common among larger metro newspapers, rather than smaller ones. They are mainly driven by seeing interesting articles and have hit a limit of free stories available to them online. They subscribe because they want unlimited access; as a smaller factor, they also want to support local journalism. They value unlimited story access, and access to exclusive news.

“There’s a number of things to approach the paywall converters,” Vargo said. “Improving the user experience of the subscription sign-up page in and of itself can be very valuable. I think that being able to have a very simplified experience — something that isn’t cluttered, something that is clear, something that is easy and takes as few steps as possible to eliminate any kind of friction.”

Other tactics include experimenting with a dynamic meter that adjusts to individuals, using data to find the signals of likely converters, and targeting adblockers with subscription messaging.

“If you’re telling people to turn off their adblockers, you have to tell them how,” Vargo advised, saying that she wouldn’t know how to do that. The Seattle Times does this, with a clear and detailed “quick reference guide” for whitelisting its site on adblocker software.

Adding different payment methods besides credit cards is also a good approach. Vargo shared the example of The Washington Post, which accepts PayPal and Amazon Pay for subscriptions. Reaching out to people who abandon the page before completing sign-up is another tool. The Boston Globe is an example of a news media company that implements this tactic with an e-mail to potential subscribers who abandoned the sign-up process.

Journalism advocates (9%): While this is a smaller percentage of users, it’s also a very enthusiastic group. They are concerned about attacks on the press and want to support local journalism. They are generally highly educated, lean Democratic on political views, and care about quality and accuracy in reporting.

This group is willing to become paying subscribers because they feel that other sources of news are inaccurate, and they want to read their local news. In addition to wanting to support and protect quality journalism as a principle, this group also will subscribe when they notice useful articles or want access to coverage on a particular topic.

Journalism advocates are not triggered by discounts. They are triggered when they feel there’s been an attack on the news media and when they see a call-to-action message to support journalism.

For publishers, taking advantage of moments when the press is attacked is a key tactic. Vargo noted, “We saw what’s referred to as a ‘Trump bump’ after the [United States presidential] election. And that’s still here. It hasn’t fallen off.”

Publishers can also create content specifically to appeal to readers for their support, honing in on their sense of civic duty and First Amendment (freedom of speech) rights. Be careful of basing all your messaging on this, however, as the other subscriber types will not respond to it.

In closing, Vargo invited INMA members to access the full Paths to Subscription report by the Media Insight Project — an initiative of the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. There are also many other free resources available at the API Web site. Members can also sign up for the API newsletter, Need to Know.

Q&A

INMA: Which of these segments are most likely to be converting to subscribers, and how might we prioritise those segments amongst prospects?

Vargo: I would prioritise based on the volume of the subscribers. Social-mobile is almost one-fifth, and topic hunters more than 20%. I’m not sure if we’ve been able to measure which of these groups, in and of themselves comparatively, would be more likely to subscribe.

INMA: At what point in the customer relationship would you decide what path a user might be in, and how would you recognise that?

Vargo: If you have somebody who is engaging online, they are a potential digital paywall converter; same with social. With some of the other ones you can’t tell, such as the life changers. As you’re going out to get new subscribers, I think those approaches to getting them is a way to do that. You may not be able to tell if they are already a subscriber, but you can see how people are coming in. There is also overlap; these are not perfectly discreet or easy.

INMA: With the coupon clippers, do you see a way to try and implement those tactics within a digital environment?

Vargo: It’s very tricky. The coupon clippers are really a challenge. There are digital coupons, but they really haven’t taken off much. However, there are things like Netflix and Spotify that get cited as paid ongoing subscriptions. Now there are digital coupons like Groupon, so there may be more of an adoption. But there may be more of a barrier to that with print newspaper. These people are very resistant to make these changes. It’s really important to actively get these people to use you digitally in a way that is adding something to them, not taking it away.

INMA: Of the participants in the study, how many of them were specifically print fans?

Vargo: We used what the publishers sent to us. I think the percentage is between 70-80% were people who were getting the print subscription. Many of these were bundled with digital subscriptions. I want to be careful to say that yes it’s a preference, but that people are in various stages of their own, and this is just what was reflected at that moment.