When publishers talk about Facebook and Google, they usually name them in the same breath. But the companies could not be more different in their strategies to support news media companies’ quest to drive subscriptions.

The second day of the INMA Media Subscriptions Summit in London brought together the two platforms and The Financial Times to discuss the crucial nature of subscriptions to the news media industry. Speakers also discussed how platforms and publishers can work together to create strategies that support each company individually.

As a point of engagement on the platform, Facebook has identified two of three groups that are valuable to publishers, said Peter Elkins-Williams, who works with global media partnerships at Facebook.

Though some of Facebook’s tools, such as Facebook Analytics, weren’t originally designed for publishers, they have proven beneficial for tracking subscriptions, Peter Elkins-Williams said.
Though some of Facebook’s tools, such as Facebook Analytics, weren’t originally designed for publishers, they have proven beneficial for tracking subscriptions, Peter Elkins-Williams said.

Of subscribers, followers, and consumers, consumers will always be the biggest circle, he said. But this is where the platform’s Instant Articles can be useful for publishers.

“We launched Instant Articles three years ago, and since then we have made a lot of improvements,” Elkins-Williams said. “And when a tech developer says they’ve made a lot of improvements, it really means we didn’t do very well with the launch.”

Facebook’s Instant Articles is one piece of the puzzle to help publishers support their subscriptions acquisition and retention strategies, Elkins-Williams said. At first, he did not realise the importance of retention to the overall subscriptions game.

“When we started this process a year ago, I undervalued how important retention was for the publisher,” Elkins-Williams said.

Currently, Instant Articles has 10 beta partners to test subscriptions within the tool. Facebook is optimistic but still unclear of the results, Elkins-Williams said, because the company is still processing data from this experiment: “We’re focused on making this product something that makes your business better mathematically. We’re changing calls to action designed to improve performance.”

Facebook Analytics is also a useful tool for publishers, Elkins-Williams said, though it was not originally designed for them.

“This is something that wasn’t designed for publishers,” he said. “But we started talking about subscriptions and what it can do for publishers, and it just sort of fit.”

By looking across verticals, this stand-alone product can help publishers better understand their customers by using Facebook log-in or Facebook Connect to measure conversion down the line.

“Facebook isn’t just a single distribution point or contact point from your main page,” Elkins-Williams said. “The engagement and connection can begin in a lot of different places and it’s important to think about where those can be.”

The process to help publishers increase their subscriptions goals is ongoing, he added, but it may take time due to the individual nature of publishers: “I’m optimistic, but we know there’s not a single solution that fits every publisher. There’s not a single solution for every scenario.”

A thriving news media market is important to the future of Google, said Luca Forlin, the company’s head of partnerships, play books, and Newsstand.

“The context behind our subscriptions initiative is that we do care,” he said. “We care about news. We care about the world of digital content.”

Google has created specific tools such as Google Play Newsstand to help sell digital subscriptions, Luca Forlin said.
Google has created specific tools such as Google Play Newsstand to help sell digital subscriptions, Luca Forlin said.

One of the most important tools to sell digital subscriptions is the Google Play Newsstand. When deciding how to help publishers sell subscriptions within Google Play, Forlin said the company realised it had a major asset it could share with news media.

“We thought, what can we do to take that data and actually bring it to publishers so that they can reduce the friction in the subscription tunnel?” he said.

When users are presented with a paywall, they have an option to subscribe through Google Play. This creates a more friction-free subscription option. While it is a useful conversion tool, Forlin said it is much more than that: “And this is when it gets actually super interesting. It’s not just a subscriptions conversion tool. It’s also a retention tool.”

While subscribers surf the Internet, they carry that subscription with them. If they search for news, they will see results at the top of their feed from publishers to which they subscribe. This is not an algorithm change, Forlin said, but it is a prioritisation of publishers.

Serving users content from the news brands they subscribe to creates daily contact between the user and the brand. It also emphasises the value subscriptions can bring to a user’s life in a seamless way. “We believe that’s going to be a big positive impact on churn,” Forlin said.

Another positive impact on churn could lie in data. Data is the Google’s DNA, Forlin said. This, partnered with the company’s machine-learning capability, creates a perfect parthnership for publishers.

“Google has been at the forefront of innovation in regard to machine learning and AI,” Forlin said. “So the thinking is if we want to take something that we know how to do and make it available to publishers.“

It is early days in this regard, Forlin said, but the company hopes to eventually provide publishers the data to understand a person’s propensity to subscribe.

“This is something we are really pinning a lot of resources to,” he said, “and hopefully it will bring results in the next few quarters.”

Financial Times is one publication already partnering with Google to improve its digital subscriptions strategy. A successful digital subscription strategy is all about habit forming, said Gadi Weiszlovits Lahav, head of product at FT.com.

The Financial Times worked with Google to create the most effective conversion funnel, Gadi Weiszlovits Lahav said.
The Financial Times worked with Google to create the most effective conversion funnel, Gadi Weiszlovits Lahav said.

“So the right way of looking at it is first form the habit, then enhance the habit, then ask people to pay for the habit,” he said.

The company’s subscriptions strategy is focused on two halves: acquisition and retention. Free content plays a major role in acquisition, Lahav said. Increasing the amount of free content can bring more people into the conversion tunnel, but lower conversions. Lowering the amount of free content can limit the number of people at the top of the funnel, but may hurt habit-forming efforts.

With the help of Google, The Financial Times experimented with the number of free articles it offered. There was no change at the top of the funnel when it lowered the number from three free articles per day to two. The company saw a small lift in conversion rates when it lowered it again to one free article per day.

Real change happened when it lowered the number to three free articles per month, Lahav said. “We saw a double digit uplift. We saw the potential was there.”

Then the company blocked access completely. It was shocked to see a triple-digit uplift, Lahav said, but it was not a permanent strategy: “This is unsustainable. You can’t just dry up your funnel.”

The current iteration of the experiment is a more personalised approach. The number of times users visit the Web site and user data determine how many articles they can view before they are prompted to subscribe.

The goal is to minimise impact on the top of the funnel and maximise impact on the bottom of the funnel. This allows users to form a habit and pushes those who have formed the habit to subscribe.

Though it has only been up for two months, the strategy is a step in the right direction, Lahav said.

“This is completely aligned with the funnel we want people to go through,” he said.

For other publishers in the middle of subscription strategy experiments, Google’s Forlin has one piece of encouragement for publishers. “Be more bullish. Be more optimistic. Be more enthusiastic about your own subscriptions, your own brand, and the subscription offers that you bring.”