GNI Subscriptions Lab shares 3 key European findings

By Shelley Seale

INMA

Austin, Texas, USA

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Halfway through its nine-month programme, the Google News Initiative (GNI) Subscriptions Lab in Europe has three key findings:

  • Successful access models differ throughout the world.
  • Performance doesn’t correlate with resources.
  • Digital subscriptions are hindered by four common blockers.

On Wednesday, an INMA Webinar gave members a glimpse into the findings from the European lab’s discovery phase, revealing a number of common challenges European news organisations face when transforming their business models. 

The European lab is a joint programme of Google, FT Strategies, and INMA. It aims to accelerate digital subscription initiatives of eight European publishers and share best practices with INMA members. The eight publishers are La Croix in France, Dennik N in Slovakia, Gazeta Wyborcza in Poland, The Independent in the United Kingdom, Kurier in Austria, MittMedia in Sweden, El Mundo in Spain, and RP Online in Germany.

Executives from Google and FT Strategies joined Greg Piechota for a Webinar on reader revenue findings and strategies.
Executives from Google and FT Strategies joined Greg Piechota for a Webinar on reader revenue findings and strategies.

INMA Researcher-In-Residence Greg Piechota moderated the Webinar, which was presented by Bénédicte Autret, head of news partnerships for Google in the United Kingdom, and Lou Gautier, principal at FT Strategies, a consulting firm within the Financial Times started about a year ago to share strategies for sustainable growth from the FT’s 20-year transition to digital.

Working together with the Google News Initiative, the European Subscriptions Lab addresses three key principles:

  1. A collective challenge.
  2. Rooted in experimentation.
  3. And centred around value for the reader.
The GNI Subscriptions Lab in Europe included many top news publishers such as these.
The GNI Subscriptions Lab in Europe included many top news publishers such as these.

This is done via a method the lab has termed “North Star.” Sharing ideas, inspiration, strategy, and successes is a major goal for the lab, Gautier said. Discovery, agility, and alignment are important characteristics for the publishers.

“We believe this is what makes the difference between companies who are able to build their reader revenue [better] than the others,” Gautier said.

Key finding 1: A mature and diverse market leads to a great variance in access models

The GNI Subscriptions Lab in Europe showed quite different findings from previous GNI labs done in North America and South America. Europe presented greater diversity in the market and a greater maturity than the Americas.

“They are facing really different market conditions and they have different marketing positions,” Gautier said. “Those factors had a significant impact on the way we decided to approach the market and build their access model.”

There are several external factors that influenced the European market:

  • Share of direct access and preference of accessing the news.
  • Consumer willingness to pay for news.
  • Subscription maturity.

There are also some internal factors:

  • Ad revenues
  • Reach.
  • Niche content.
  • Share of brand lovers.

These factors contributed to each publisher’s decision on how to shape their access model, whether that was a premium paywall, hybrid paywall, hard paywall, or time-locked paywall.

“Overall, premium model is working very nicely for a publisher with a lot of niche content or regional content,” Gautier said. “We found that the more generalist publisher were [more successful with] a more hybrid model.”

Key finding 2: Performance does not correlate with scale or resources

“We found no correlation between the performance and the size or the resources or the scale of the company,” Gautier said. “What made the difference was actually the commitment of the publisher to subscriber and reader revenues.”

This commitment extended throughout the entire organisation, from newsroom to sales, with high performing publishers.

The key is building value for readers. For publishers coming from the ad revenue model, they will be driven by volume metric and a strategy built around trying to get reach and impressions. These publishers will put a paywall on a small portion of content.

“You’re trying to work with engagement,” Gautier said. “The publishers that we saw have really good results, they were committing a lot of resources to premium content. They were working a lot on how to engage their core readers. They would start to use engagement metrics in the newsroom.”

These publishers had already been on the path to reader engagement, and were moving further into retention and creating lifetime value.

“It didn’t have much to do with scale. Some of the small ones were doing quite well because they were 100% focused,” Gautier said.  “They were really close to their readers and knew who their core readers were, and had done a good job of optimising for those core readers.”

She added that these publishers might hit a plateau, however, because while they had core reader focus down, they didn’t know where to go to get new subscribers from there.

Key finding 3: These 4 common blockers hinder digital subscriptions

The GNI Europe lab discovered a number of blockers to growing digital subscriptions that were common among the eight publishers:

  • Alignment around reader revenues: What is our company pursuing overall? Is our newsroom aligned with our objective?
  • Reader knowledge and segmentation: How do we measure value for readers? Who are we optimising content and product for?
  • Prioritisation and focus: What to do with so much data? Where to prioritise our efforts? How to be both agile and focused?
  • Data and tech: Can we achieve a customer-centric view? Can we test easily?

Reader segmentation was the most common blocker, Gautier said. Publishers have a lot of “fly-by” traffic and they often don’t know who they are trying to reach and capture. Said Gautier: “The ones that are more advanced, they’re working for the core readers. But they don’t know how to identify the next segment that they need to work for that allows them to continue to progress.”

The Financial Times model of the North Star provides a way to bring clear focus to innovative and ambitious goals.
The Financial Times model of the North Star provides a way to bring clear focus to innovative and ambitious goals.

What is North Star?

North Star is the model used by the Financial Times that helped achieve its goal of one million paying subscribers in 2019. It brings clear, unambiguous focus to the destination a publisher is aiming for.

It combines strategic design with innovation practise to provide a framework that every individual in the organisation can work within, connecting operational activities and metrics to the wider strategic context.

“The idea is that you really build alignment through that North Star goal,” Gautier said. This goal can be at a company level or project level. “Be ambitious, and make sure you choose a goal that is really going to force you to change the way you are operating.”

This North Star goal allows a publisher to implement an outcome-driven approach.

Autret believes it’s critical for an organisation to have cross-functional participation in the initiative: “You want to bring everyone along with you on that journey to define what your North Star is. Then you ensure that everyone is on board, rather than top down.”

Google News Initiative provides several free tools to publishers, including the News Consumer Insights.
Google News Initiative provides several free tools to publishers, including the News Consumer Insights.

Google News Initiative tools

Autret shared important reader engagement tools that Google makes available for news publishers, noting that they were recently upgraded.

“It’s about how you move the casual readers into the loyal readers, and the loyal readers into the brand lovers and subscribers,” she said.

One new aspect of the News Consumer Insights tool is the Actionable Recommendations, which now provides potential action tactics that can be employed based on a publisher’s reader engagement metrics.

“That’s very practical, easy recommendations, things you can do to improve some of the buckets. I encourage you to try it. It’s free, and it gives you a glimpse into how to segment your audience.”

Another tool from GNI is the Realtime Content Insights, which gives article performance metrics.
Another tool from GNI is the Realtime Content Insights, which gives article performance metrics.

The second tool is the Realtime Content Insights, which gives publishers actionable data on their realtime article and video performance, relate it to historical benchmarks, and identify trends in their region.

The GNI Subscriptions Lab in Europe was created to engage a group of eight selected publishers in a journey that will help them define an ambitious vision for their digital subscriptions business and build the engine that will take them to their goal. This is accomplished through an intensive nine-month experience that addresses every step of the digital subscription process.

Banner image courtesy of Lara Far on Unsplash.

About Shelley Seale

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