DC Thomson shares its path to increase subscriptions from a regional purview

By Robert Okpu

Stockholm, Sweden


Achieving a successful digital subscription model in regional news is quite different from achieving this with a national or international news brand.

This is the experience of Graham McDougall at DC Thomson, which he shared with attendees at the INMA Media Subscriptions Summit last week in Stockholm. 

DC Thomson is a family owned company, based in North East Scotland, with multi-platform media brands. News is the original core business and main revenue source of the company, however it’s digital content was free until 2020.  

“At DC Thomson, we are currently at the cusp of being halfway to our North Star,” said McDougall, head of subscription growth at the media company. “And our North Star is the point when we will be able to fund our newsrooms through reader revenue. We have achieved this progress in almost three years.”

Like the old saying goes, of course, you can not make an omelette without breaking eggs. 

As part of its restructure to prioritise digital subscriptions, DC Thomson reorganized its internal teams.
As part of its restructure to prioritise digital subscriptions, DC Thomson reorganized its internal teams.

“We have made some fairly big structural changes,” he said. “Bringing in new skills to the newsroom and closing some of our brands that were duplicated in our geographies. While progress has been slow, we have seen fairly consistent growth.”

Embarking on its new journey, DC Thomson established what it calls “mini-publisher teams” and “joint teams” in Aberdeen and Dundee.

“It was determined that the Aberdeen and Dundee teams were going to be in places when we needed feet on the ground. We also created joint teams who did national news. They created specialism, and they published across all the sites.”

One difference now compared to the old way of working is that there is now a very distinct focus on four areas: content development, analytics, audience development, and audio visual.

DC Thomson had to establish a standard subscriptions team structure, working with acquisition, engagement, and retention. But there are some aspects that worked out quite differently for a brand working with local news as compared to national news.

Content about one geographic area, for example, is often of little interest to another user. There is also a limited audience, made up of a lot of smaller segments. And users are less familiar with deep content.

The teams focus on these four skills.
The teams focus on these four skills.

Another discovery: The biggest news stories will work against you in digital.

“I have an example of this from a number of weeks ago,” McDougall said. “Our first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, resigned. You can tell it’s a big story in the newsroom, when everyone is huddled around the TV, trying to see what’s going on. We had this, and I was saying that this is going to be great, huge sales week! Actually, it was one of our lowest weeks of sales engagements in two years.”

After less than three years, DC Thomson has reached a 1.8% subscription penetration. This may not sound too impressive. But, as McDougall points out, at the same point in their digital news journey, The New York Times subscription penetration of the U.S. population was 0.3%.

“We started off with some fairly basic trials, with some good content, and some offers. But it was really hard work, we found. But working with iterations, combined with premier content, gave massive increases in volume. We couldn’t quite believe it.”

McDougall is, however, the first to admit there is still a lot of work to be done and an uphill climb ahead:

“Most importantly so far, we have given to the business our team’s belief that we can make this work. In many ways, with the tools that we have, we have gone as far as we can. So to get to the next stage, beyond acquisition, we know that we have to get better. We have to retain better, we have to engage better and we have to build habit better. And most importantly, we will have to learn to monetise way, way better.”

McDougall’s final words of advice to media organisations focusing on local news that have just gone digital: “If you are at a stage where you don’t yet have the tools or all the tools that you would like, find something that works and go after it until you have those tools available to you.”

About Robert Okpu

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