It was billed as a workshop for newcomers to the field of digital subscriptions, but apparently most media houses are already in play when it comes to growing reader revenue.

And that’s a good thing, according to Trevor Kaufman, CEO of Piano, the U.S.-based media business processes company. 

“Sitting on the sidelines of digital subscriptions is indistinguishable from failure,” Kaufman told the 85 INMA workshop participants fittingly assembled in a former bomb shelter — now an events locale — dug into a hillside in Stockholm.

Trevor Kaufman, CEO of Piano, talks with participants in the Newcomers Workshop on Wednesday.
Trevor Kaufman, CEO of Piano, talks with participants in the Newcomers Workshop on Wednesday.

The Newcomers Workshop kicked off the conference portion of INMA’s Media Subscriptions Week 2.0, which started Monday with a three-day study tour and continues Thursday and Friday with a full conference schedule

Faced with the disaster that used to be publishing’s traditional income stream, “at the end of the day, I think for all of us, we can’t continue to rely on either print advertising or digital advertising,” added digital media consultant Yasmin Namini, formerly chief consumer officer of The New York Times. “So our readers need to help us with that cost of our newsrooms, of our quality journalism.”

Kaufman and Namini were two of six experts brought in to hand out face-to-face and one-on-one advice to news media executives still unsure about how to launch a digital subscriptions programme. But when Namini asked for a show of hands, almost no one indicated they were still in the wings without a customer pay model. “So we’re here to learn how to grow,” she surmised.

The key to that growth, according to Namini, is data about your audience and their content habits, not just about Web site traffic and pageviews.

“I’m here to tell you traffic does not equal audience,” she said. “And by the way, pageviews do not equal engagement … and transactions do not equal relationships.”

“Aspire to get to having a [customer] data warehouse, which enables you to develop unlimited insights” into what customers want and value, Namini said. “Concentrate on data that helps you make decisions.” Then apply that data to continuously test different approaches to improve their experience.

Yasmin Namini, formerly chief consumer officer of The New York Times, talks to workshop participants.
Yasmin Namini, formerly chief consumer officer of The New York Times, talks to workshop participants.

In the end, after showing a chart illustrating the typical sharp drop-off in user interaction after visitors read just one or two articles online, Namini encouraged subscriptions managers to apply their data and testing to a strategy of simply trying to get people to click one more time before leaving the site.

“Ask: What’s my Plus+1?” she said. “How do I get someone to read one more article, to visit one more page, to listen to one more podcast, to watch one more slideshow? How do I get that non-subscriber or that digital subscriber or that print subscriber to do one more thing?”

Such a Plus+1 strategy, Namini said, provides a concrete focus on developing actionable insights that reap big benefits.

“More actions drive more results,” Kaufman agreed adamantly, urging the media executives to keep their subscriptions operations constantly in motion, constantly trying new things, and daring to take risks.”

“I still think we’re in the Wild West with this stuff, where people are coming up with new ideas and new benefits all the time,” he said.

From Piano’s research and interactions with a large number of publishers, Kaufman briefly reviewed a host of insights that he said should guide savvy subscriptions programmes — like not giving up on the homepage since “the No. 1 negative correlator to people who do not subscribe is the number of visits from social media.”

And like the trade-off between getting people on board initially at a low price and retention: “Our retention benchmarks show that trials tend to worsen churn, but the increase in conversion generally outweighs the retention hit.”

And like pushing annual rather than monthly subscriptions: “Every time a person sees that charge on their credit card, that’s another opportunity to lose them — when they can ask themselves: ‘Do I really need this?’”

And like recognising when to stop raising prices: “The revenue goes up with prices, until it falls off a cliff. We work with a lot of publishers and they all have these cliffs. The audience seems to have figured out and colluded on what they are willing to pay and when they won’t pay any more. You have to be very sensitive to this.”

In the end, though, Kaufman also flagged an internal warning for media managers: “The relative thing here is headcounts (on subscriptions teams). Many companies don’t have enough people to run these things.”

Workshop participants also shared their own best practices for attaining and keeping digital subscribers.
Workshop participants also shared their own best practices for attaining and keeping digital subscribers.

For every expert, of course, there is usually a counter expert.

And this day, that role fell to Tomáš Bella, head of digital at Denník N, a Slovak daily newspaper and Internet medium. Denník N was founded in rebellion five years ago (against manipulation of the local press), and it seems intent on continuing to chart a rebellious course as a leader in predominantly reader-funded publishing.

For instance, while Bella agrees wholeheartedly with continuously trying and implementing new approaches to Denník N’s engagement with readers, he said he often thinks up the day’s innovative approach in 20 minutes while he’s getting ready to go to work in the morning. It might be based on some tragic story he sees, or a cause he decides needs to be supported, or some needy people he feels can be helped by his newspaper. That thought will then lead to design of a fresh promotion online that ties the cause célèbre to a request for money from readers.

In fact, Denník N is constantly rolling out new funding asks for everything from future subscription programmes not yet fully fleshed out, to straight donation requests, to crowdfunding efforts that raise up to €300,000 a year, and even a nicely successful programme in which people pay to unlock an online article for a friend.

“Ninety percent of our work is really that you want to have people actually explaining in real life why you never paid for it before but now you should,” Bella told his fellow news executives about their interactions with their public.

And as for staffing? Bella said he hired his first person in marketing just last month.

That might be, in part, because Denník N essentially seconds every journalist in the newsroom to the job of getting new subscribers. The only feedback editorial staff are given on their articles — in a daily e-mail — is how many subscribers each story won over. Bella said they don’t even collect pageview information, much less make it available to anyone or use it to rate performance. 

The other side of that coin is Denník N journalists decide for themselves what stories they want to pursue. Bella said it often leads them to take approaches specifically intended to generate reaction and engagement around their topics.

“Once you say, OK, this a company based on subscriptions, it actually frees the journalists to do what they like to do most," Bella said. “So it’s good for the journalism and it’s good for the company as well.”

In contrast to Bella, Tomás García Morán’s case study as digital strategy director at La Voz de Galicia, a Spanish daily newspaper owned by the Corporación Voz de Galicia, was much more nascent. He launched his publisher’s digital subscription effort just this past January.

“I have to start by saying I have exactly zero digital subscriptions,” Morán acknowledged right off to the newcomers audience.

But by the end of his microphone time, it turned out his thoroughly documented, step-by-step plan for starting to build those subscriptions was essentially a model for everyone else in the room. Because after all, he stressed, they all face the same motivation.

“The reader-revenue model is not an option,” Morán intoned, “but the only possible way to make a long-term sustainable journalism.”

Following the workshop’s how-to presentations session, participants rotated through round-table discussion groups with the four speakers and additional subscriptions experts Jess Ross, former chief product officer for Fairfax Media, and Robert Whitehead, board member of McPherson Media Group.

The summit continues today and Friday in Stockholm.