On the last day of the INMA Media Subscriptions Summit in London, two legacy news media companies shared their paths to improved subscriptions strategies, which are rooted in better understanding their audiences.

When The Economist’s advertising revenue began to drop significantly in 2012, a lean and creative new strategy emerged, said Marina Haydn, managing director of global circulation. “It was about really working with as little money as possible in the most effective way.”

At the same time, The Economist also made reader revenue a priority. With a three-article metered paywall and its editorial asset of a global perspective, the company already had a significant number of digital subscribers.

In 2013, they had undergone a thorough and significant price increase process, Haydn said, and the investment payed off. Circulation revenues outperformed the market. The shift in reader revenue also had an impact on the company’s marketing strategy.

“One of the key drivers behind that growth was a strategic decision in investing more to acquiring new subscribers of the globally curious,” she said.

The Economist Managing Director of Global Circulation Marina Haydn said connecting with target audiences in creative ways has helped make it possible to increase pricing and circulation at The Economist.
The Economist Managing Director of Global Circulation Marina Haydn said connecting with target audiences in creative ways has helped make it possible to increase pricing and circulation at The Economist.

Gaining new subscribers requires creativity and a clear understanding of the target audience. Haydn described a recent campaign designed to reach the curious consumer with a surprising, intriguing experience they’ll never forget. People were invited to London’s Canary Wharf to try ice cream covered in bugs and food-waste smoothies, both linked to content in The Economist.

This culture change around audience has pushed The Economist into a journey, and these actions are the first in a long future of experimentation.

“We are really hardwired in this learning loop, while we are working on insuring that we evolve our marketing mix,” Haydn said.

For The Wall Street Journal, a paywall is nothing new, but related challenges still arise.

“You think that the Wall Street Journal, having the first paywall over 20 years ago, that we’d be in a really good place, but we weren’t,” said Suzi Watford, executive vice president and chief marketing officer.

The original strategy had been about print protection, Watford said, and not a focus on the customer. Despite this, the company doubled digital membership.

“Now we have customer revenue that is bigger than advertising,” Watford said. “And digital customer revenue has gone from being the smallest revenue line to the biggest.”

Suzi Watford, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for The Wall Street Journal, explained how the company's membership model brought a focus on readers to the forefront and increased customer revenue.
Suzi Watford, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for The Wall Street Journal, explained how the company's membership model brought a focus on readers to the forefront and increased customer revenue.

Watford shared 10 steps crucial to this revenue shift:

  1. State your mission. The company set an internal goal to reach three million subscribers in three years. “I think for us it’s safe to say that was absolutely instrumental,” Watford said. “It became a chant: the three million in three years. It became the thing we all talked about it.” Part of working toward that goal was letting customers create their own relationship to the brand. “It meant that we had to be happy with customer choice … and if they want digital that’s fine by us.”
  2. Know your customer and brand; know your ambition. The company identified 10 audience segments; six were key. By creating a campaign centered around the ambition of its members, the company was able to increase subscribers and lower the average member age. “We saw that The Wall Street Journal had a role to play in what was going on in the world,” Watford said.
  3. Create a clear vision: membership matters. “I know there’s been a debate about whether membership is the cherry on top or the foundation on the bottom,” Watford said. “For us it was absolutely foundational.” The company wanted members to become advocates for the brand and wanted to create personal relationships with subscribers. “We wanted to create a membership that felt connected, personal, and exclusive.”
  4. Structure for growth: the membership model. “If we had been thinking only about subscriptions, I think we would have only been thinking about the middle or maybe the bottom,” Watford said. By widening its offerings with student and professional memberships, The Wall Street Journal was able to increase the flow into the top of its subscriptions funnel. This is changing the fundamental membership makeup. The average subscriber age is now three years younger, and its student audience is 53% female, compared to 80% male audience average.
  5. Think customer first: the paywall and machine learning. Knowing they were offering too much free content, Watford said the company was able to switch its mindset around the value of its content. While staff previously believed their arts and culture content was not important, they learned it was one of the top five drivers on conversion. “We really went after understanding how much content our members need to see before we ask them to subscribe,” Watford said.
  6. Create demand: acquisition funnel and how to use content. When addressing the marketing funnel, The Wall Street journal wanted to move people who were cold prospects at top of the funnel down to warm prospects at the bottom. So, the team drove people to sample valuable content, which resulted in growth around staples that drive print subscriptions as well. “A lot of the things we used to see in print are still driving subscriptions in digital,” Watford said.
  7. Optimise everything: subscriptions as a science. By focusing on a mixture of data and product, the company is able to get people to read more by showing more content on the page.
  8. Focus on engagement: the key to reducing churn. Reducing churn is the biggest area that needed collaboration across the business. The Wall Street Journal relocated all of its staff to New York City to create a more fluid connection. Collaboration should also occur across product, marketing, and news, Watford said.
  9. Know the value of your members. Deeply understanding customer activity can move them up the value chain. It also helps the staff better serve customers on an individual basis. "I can look at any member now and know what their total customer value is,” Watford said.
  10. Diversify your revenue. Professional memberships sit at the top of the pyramid for The Wall Street Journal. “It’s where we bring together live journalism and membership,” Watford said. Professional memberships are by invitation only and offer special access to conferences, dinners, and networking at more than 200 events a year.

Watson said the biggest challenge these kinds of changes is deeper than finances or membership; it has to do with the culture: “We keep talking about newsroom transformation or marketing transformation, and yesterday we heard about whole company transformations. I think that’s quite rare. I think that’s the thing we need to be able to do.”