Nearly 50 news media executives from around the world visited Newsday, Conde Nast and Advance Local, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, eMarketer and Business Insider, the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, and the Metropolitan Opera. The study tour focused on innovations in digital subscriptions.
Among key themes that emerged from the study tours were the rising complexities behind data-infused paywalls, lifetime value as a metric and decision-making tool, the need to focus on habituation, internal organisation as a key ingredient for growth, and re-prioritising brand in the reader engagement journey.
Visits with The New York Times subscriptions growth team and executives at The Wall Street Journal and Newsday focused on best-in-class organisation, smart application of data, and winning the first 100 days of a subscriber relationship.
The New York Times has not been shy about sharing its goal to reach 10 million subscribers by 2025, said Kate Piselli, the company’s director of subscription growth. To reach this goal, the Times decided to prioritise the product experience instead of focusing on marketing or newsroom efforts.
“We decided that getting the product itself to drive conversion is the only way to move forward,” she said.
A new structure focused around “missions” has been crucial to increasing the speed of decision-making and iteration necessary to improve the product. The missions structure is a cross-functional way of working that is focused on key goals, removing barriers created by former siloes. Senior leadership sets overarching goals, but each team creates its own roadmap toward reaching these goals.
The new structure is a socialisation effort to ensure people use metrics in the same way and have common definitions, said Danny Wilson, senior manager of subscription growth strategy.
“Aligning to these goals changes how people think about their jobs, even if their jobs don’t change that much,” he added.
Megan Elliott, senior product manager of subscription growth, said the new structure creates space for testing and improving the product so that the product can become a more powerful subscription driver.
“Very rarely in the past have we been able to use our product for our own purposes, bringing people down the funnel,” she said.
Before the new internal structure, The New York Times mainly focused on two types of users: subscribers and non-subscribers. The conversion approach for non-subscribers was to pop up the paywall and hope they subscribe. Now, the company is focused on driving registrations and is testing methods of encouraging conversions from this new user journey.
The key, Elliott said, is to accelerate engagement and conversion, but minimise impact on reach and influence.
The New York Times is not the only company emphasising the importance of the user’s first few days of subscription. At The Wall Street Journal, Project Habit is centered on the question: What makes a healthy member?
Anne Powell, director of member engagement, said that for years the Journal focused on app downloads and newsletter sign-ups, but then they shifted focus to the hundreds of actions a reader can take on their platforms.
The team made an exhaustive list of things readers could do, such as share an article via email, then looked at a retention rate of those who demonstrated the habit vs those who did not. By giving quantifiable benefits to each action, the Journal can now focus on things that have a positive impact on retention but have not been thought about in detail before.
The next step was to decide where to promote this list of potential user actions. That’s where the importance of day zero comes in.
“What happens on day zero is that likelihood to adopt a habit is at its peak, and then the clock starts ticking,” Powell said.
Optimising onboarding became a priority for the company, so the team navigated members to onboarding immediately after checkout.
“We realised that if we make it as part of the checkout flow, it feels mandatory, it seems seamless,” Powell said.
So far, the team has learned to present each habit on its own instead of showing all options at once, seeing an uplift in actions per user this way. The Journal has also enabled link texting for app downloads and tried to create in-situ (in situations) experiences that keep the users engaged. A year in, the Journal has introduced nearly one million habits to members, retention rates of subscribers entering onboarding are 18% higher than those that don't, and about half of the users make it all the way through onboarding flow.
Patrick Tornabene, vice president of audience development and analytics at Newsday Media Group, talked about the need to create long-term engagement early in the audience relationship.
“The key word I would say over this past 10 years is ‘habit,’” Tornabene said. “The key thing you can do is understand, develop, and continue habit.”
Adding a value to these habits helps the company monitor user engagement. Identifying core areas of interest for the customer is important, which is something Newsday has done through no-fee add-on print products.
Newsday’s data-informed practices are powering efforts to optimise the customer journey, personalise engagement and intervention, and enhance products and experiences to grow the customer lifetime value. Tornabene said data is informing and guiding efforts to retain customers on an individual level.
“We monitor every last person’s engagement,” he said. “If we see a change, we take action.”
With all the discussion about the power of product, a visit to the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism pushed a crucial question to the surface: What is product?
Anita Zielina, director of news innovation and leadership at the school, said the industry and even departments in individual organisations lack a definition of product. For some it is a technical thing, for others it is strategic and ROI-focused, and for others it may be a more design-oriented concept. Zielina shared her definition of product, which has the user at the center and aligns with KPIs.
“Product is a function at the intersection of editorial, tech, and business that actively ensures all products and services in a media organisation addresses user needs, provides an excellent user experience, and advances the overarching business strategy.”
Companies mired in old media culture may have a hard time adjusting to product culture. Collaboration and idea-sharing can propel the industry into the future. Not every media player is a competitor, and collaboration in areas of digital marketing and sharing insights into how to structure teams can benefit the bottom line.
“You don’t want to make all the mistakes yourself,” Zielina said. “That’s pretty damn expensive.”