News media companies work to drive engagement, but long-term outcomes are still unknown

By Brie Logsdon


Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States


While news media companies share the goal of driving customer engagement and increasing subscriptions, the methods they use to do that can differ greatly.

Representatives of The Australian, Bloomberg News, and the recently launched streaming subscription service BET+ shared their strategies Friday during a panel discussion at INMA’s Media Subscriptions Summit 3.0 in New York. 

At The Australian, data such as subscriber page views and time spent is helping the company focus on key metrics of frequency, recency, and depth, said Alice Bradbury, general manager of marketing. 

 “We are relentlessly focused on our subscribers and driving engagement,” she said.

She’s not alone. All three companies are hyperfocused on methods of driving engagement and underlining their value proposition for customers.


The Australian, Bloomberg Media, and BET+ are all focused on enhancing their value proposition for audiences.
The Australian, Bloomberg Media, and BET+ are all focused on enhancing their value proposition for audiences.

Bloomberg Media has a clear value proposition for its core audience of business-interested professionals, said Julia Beizer, chief product officer at the company. Because their product helps people succeed professionally, the company has invested in technology that helps users access content more easily. User behaviour testing revealed skimming and scanning habits, so the company invested in summarisation technology to help users quickly understand what matters in a story. The company hopes innovations like these will encourage deeper engagement with the product.

Building brand advocates, not just customers

At The Australian, the majority of the company’s subscribers have more than 20 active days per month. Beyond utility, The Australian also wants to build a relationship with its subscribers so they become advocates for the brand. Benefits like newsletters and first-access content engage subscribers, and the best-performing offerings are live Q&A sessions on topics like the recent bushfires and the current coronovirus epidemic.

“Once we get them to one of those events, they always keep coming,” Bradbury said.

Though those particular events have high retention, many media companies are concerned about overall retention for their products. Getting people to subscribe is the easy step, said Sean Gupta, senior vice president of strategy and business operations at BET Networks/Viacom.

“Once we get you into the service, then our job really begins, and our job is to engage you and retain you,” Gupta said.

BET+, a five-month-old subscription streaming service from Viacom, launches one piece of original content every month. The company uses social platforms to target and remind audiences about new and popular content, and also uses newsletters and direct alerts to subscribers’ phones. It’s all about engagement, Gupta said.

“Churn is the dirtiest word,” he said.

Gupta said BET+ also has the advantage of using free Viacom inventory to advertise the product. Julia Beizer said Bloomberg Media does the same across its brands, but that only goes so far.

“Performance marketing can help you with your numbers, but we are really hurting ourselves if we can’t spend at that other brand level,” she said.

Bradbury agreed. “There is going to come a time when you are going to cap out,” she said, adding that traditional media companies need to build their brands moving forward.

“It’s not just marketing you invest in,” Beizer said. “It’s the content to make sure you live up to that on the brand marketing side, and it’s the technology.”

Bloomberg makes an effort to focus on the three in tandem, she added.

Using data to make informed choices

Coming back to the big picture, Bradbury said The Australian has borrowed ideas from other companies like Aftenposten that are using data to connect content performance and subscription conversion. The company wants to arm journalists with data so they can understand what resonates with both subscribers and anonymous users. Bradbury said the dataset for journalists is unique because it highlights engagement with story, and not just conversions.

“Subscriber page views is our No. 1 metric,” she said.

At BET+, Gupta said the company monitors the total hours consumed of each series, the first piece of content a user watches, and how many accounts watch a series. If 20% of accounts watch something, it’s a hit, he added, saying that’s how renewal decisions are made.

As far as what the future holds, even in the next six months, Gupta said it’s impossible to predict.

“We think the next year will be a wild, wild west at this point,” he said.

It is unclear how many general entertainment services a person will subscribe to, and the company is not only fighting for time spent viewing, but also for a share of the customer’s wallet. The ceiling of how many subscriptions one person is willing to pay for is unknown, and though he does expect there to be some turbulence, Gupta’s biggest fear is that declines are not appropriately projected.

“We cannot predict where we will be in a year,” he said.

Beizer agreed. “We’re not sure how consumer behaviour is going to play out,” she said. “Forget our plans.”

The subscription industry will take time to shake out from a consumer perpective, she said, but companies should invest in product and step away from the safe waters of niche.

This means smart thinking and productising of their offerings, thinking more about access to certain levels of content. Why do people subscribe to services in the first place? They subscribe because they believe in the service, the service helps them with work, or the service helps them relax.

“It comes down to our value proposition,” she said. “I think all of us are going to have to be crisp on that and continue to define it.”

About Brie Logsdon

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