New York Times, WSJ, Washington Post share best practices in digital subscriptions

By Dawn McMullan


Dallas, Texas, USA


David Rubin is the first chief marketing officer in the history of The New York Times. As he sat on stage with the chief marketing officers of The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post on Thursday, he asked: “Why are we all adding marketers when everyone else doesn’t think they need one?”

At The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, the title has made a comeback. And while each one’s job description varied, the overarching strategic plans and daily specific details of digital subscriptions are central to what each of them do, the particulars of which they shared at INMA’s Media Subscriptions Summit.

Thoughts from The New York Times’ unexpected CMO

Rubin was head of global brand at Pinterest and charged with brand building for Unilever’s hair products and Axe deodorant before joining The Times in 2018.

Rubin described the previous marketing era at The Times as “extremely functional,” without a larger mission or emotional connection.

David Rubin, chief marketing officer at The New York Times, said selling journalism has a lot more emotion than selling deodorant.
David Rubin, chief marketing officer at The New York Times, said selling journalism has a lot more emotion than selling deodorant.

“Our marketing journey with me there really begins in 2017,” he said. “The [U.S. presidential] election had just happened. The inauguration had just happened. And there was a huge conversation about facts. We knew that would come up at the Oscars, so we created this ad.”

Almost a year later, The New York Times had done its coverage of the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse charges, sparking the #MeToo movement. That year at the Golden Globe Awards, The Times ran this ad:

And then in 2019, this ad tried to show the work process of its journalists: 

“There are 185 million people in the United States who read digital news each month,” he said. “And fewer than 15 million who pay for it. There is no other industry I know where that’s the case. Fundamentally, we’re not in competition with each other. If we continue in a place where only 15 million people pay for news, we’re going to have problems.”

The Wall Street Journal shares 10 tips for engaging digital subscribers

Chief Marketing Officer Suzi Watford recalled being at the first INMA Subscriptions Summit in London in 2018. Just before she took the stage, she learned Dow Jones had hit its goal of reaching 3 million subscribers. It’s now at 3.5 million.

That year on stage, she shared 10 useful tips. On Thursday, she shared her updated list.

Suzi Watford, chief marketing officer at The Wall Street Journal, shared 10 useful tips for engaging digital subscribers.
Suzi Watford, chief marketing officer at The Wall Street Journal, shared 10 useful tips for engaging digital subscribers.

  1. Partnerships with new audiences. Lean into platforms, Watford said. The Journal’s relationship with Apple News+ has opened it up to new audiences, especially female readers and young readers, with low cannibalisation.  
  2. Paid partnership with new markets. The Journal formed a partnership team with news media companies that pay to bundle The Journal with their own products. This gives those companies (Toronto Star, Bonnier, Sanoma, for example) added value for readers and gives The Journal reach in markets it otherwise wouldn’t have.
  3. Building future audiences through student membership. A quarter of The Journal’s audience first came to the new media company when they were in college. The Journal now has more than 200 colleges it partners with to reach more than 2 million students.
  4. Filling the funnel. The “wave model” of consideration, discovery, conversion, and engagement means The Journal is far better at predicting the size of the pools of warm and hot prospects as it goes into big news periods of sales cycles.
  5. Offering more customer choice. The choices of print, print + digital, and digital need to be expanded. The Journal is focusing on lighter offers to grow audience at a lesser cost entry point.
  6. Understanding habits. The biggest clue to churn is low engagement — not how much someone is reading, not how long they spend on the Web site. The Journal took 58 different actions (from getting new readers signed up for crossword puzzles or newsletters) in the first 100 days someone is subscribed to build that habit.
  7. The importance of onboarding and the first 100 days. The Journal’s onboarding went from five steps to 15 steps. Retention for onboarded readers is 18% higher, and about half of new readers make it through all the steps.
  8. Investing in sales and retention. The Journal got better at handling readers who want to unsubscribe (“Before, we said, ‘Please don’t go’ and that’s all there was.”). The team also got better at predicting a customer’s likelihood to be retained, deciding whether it was worth it to pull out all the stops.
  9. Benchmarking churn: Watford reminded the INMA audience that they can’t compare digital churn to print churn. Spotify has a churn rate of 4%-5%. “Benchmark yourselves against others — not against print newspapers.”
  10. Creating better experiences: “Product is hard. I’ve been through every version of it. We’ve began to focus far more on what the goal is. We’ve had deep, long conversations along goal alignment with deep level agreement.” The result of these conversations is a team — including engineering, design, product strategy, and operations — focused on the customer journey. 

3 ways The Washington Post looks at digital subscriptions

“For so long, Washingtonians knew The Washington Post as their local paper,” said Miki Toliver King, chief marketing officer at The Washington Post. “They read about their kids’ sporting events and local teams. The challenge for us over the last almost two decades is, how do we go from being the local paper that is the subject of dinner conversations of our parents and grandparents to growing beyond that to a global digital media enterprise that is the primary source of information for pundits and commentaries really worldwide.”

Miki Toliver King, chief marketing officer at The Washington Post, explained to INMA delegates how the company looks at digital subscription growth.
Miki Toliver King, chief marketing officer at The Washington Post, explained to INMA delegates how the company looks at digital subscription growth.

The core of the news company’s mission statement hasn’t changed, King said. This mission is still to bring world-class journalism to audiences.

Everything from that mission forward begins and ends with understanding its audience, she said. From feedback from their audiences across the nation, it’s obvious this is a challenge:

“I don’t know where to start.”

“It’s overwhelming.”

“There’s just too much news to sift through.”

“I don’t have enough time dedicated to reading everything.”

And this, from a 98-year-old reader in Des Moines, Iowa: “News was just news back in my day.”

King shared the three broad categories her team uses when thinking about growing digital subscriptions:

1. Inform

For the past two years, teams at The Washington Post have worked to cover stories readers said they were interested in. Some of these topics were being covered, but they weren’t published in ways readers could easily find them. The Washington Post launched three “new” verticals. The topics weren’t new, but the platforms were.

  • By the Way is a travel vertical focused on audiences that are primarily digital, targeting them in ways the publisher’s old travel coverage did not.
  • Voraciously is a new look at The Washington Post’s decades-old food section, exposing its food content to different audiences.
  • Launcher is a gaming vertical, bringing technology coverage to the Web and to social media in ways it hadn’t before to reach new audiences. 

2. Connect

“Our journalism is really only as good as our product and marketing teams are able to get this information to people on their platforms,” King said. “How do we use other people’s networks to continue to reach new audiences?”

With this in mind, The Washington Post has partnered with Facbook, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, and Apple News. Washington Post content is available on these platforms, and platform-specific engagement opportunities are created for these platforms (generating new leads, signing up for newsletters). 

3. Activate

King mentioned The Washington Post’s 2020 Candidate Quiz as one piece of content that engaged readers — readers who answered the quiz, shared the quiz, talked about the quiz on social media.

“We want readers to do more than just consume The Washington Post,” King said. “Our readers are interacting with us in ways that have to do more than passively reading The Washington Post. We want to grow our audience. But what’s really important to us is growing the number of people who are actively engage in content in various ways.”

About Dawn McMullan

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