NYT, Axel Springer, Mediahuis share how brand guides subscription growth

By Ijeoma S. Nwata

INMA

Baltimore, Maryland, United States

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At 173 years of age, The New York Times’ foray into the digital subscriptions is still relatively new. Its digital site, nytimes.com, launched in 1996 and a paywall was introduced in 2011.

Until recently, most readers of The New York Times only knew the brand as a physical product, typically purchased at a newstand, and communicating to readers what the brand was all about worked pretty well, Amy Weisenbach, senior vice president, head of marketing, said during the INMA Media Subscriptions Summit on Wednesday.

Weisenbach emphasised the balance and blend necessary to leverage the power of brand identity to capture subscribers through sub-brands and related products. The New York Times is not alone in the effort to drive subscriptions through a strong brand.

Weisenbach, joined by Riske Betten, B2C/product director at Mediahuis in Belgium, and Daniel Mussinghoff, director of premium at Axel Springer in Germany, shared during the INMA summit their subscription growth strategies and how their teams implement them.

How The New York Times expands on its core, quality product

For more than a century, The New York Times has been a media company with a strong reputation and a clear focus on journalism. As Weisenbach explained, readers were not accustomed to a digital readership experience and were “encountering a brand in a really diffused way without any context that the print edition offers.”

Despite the growing portfolio at The New York Times, news remains at the core of its offering, Amy Weisenbach, the company's senior vice president, head of marketing, said.
Despite the growing portfolio at The New York Times, news remains at the core of its offering, Amy Weisenbach, the company's senior vice president, head of marketing, said.

When surveying and engaging readers, Weisenbach and her team learned readers often read and sometimes share an article but have no idea what publication it came from: “So even if they click and come to your site to read, it’s not a guarantee that they are going to attribute what they read to your brand or that it will shape brand perceptions in the way you want it to.” 

It’s important to remember that marketing is not the only thing that shapes consumer perceptions of a brand — it’s every interaction with the product itself, with mentions of the brand, among other touchpoints, Weisenbach said: “So marketing alone is not the answer to building a brand, but it does play a unique role in that it can reliably reach the target audience off-platform in their lives in places and ways that are impactful. It can also deliver messages in a more focused way because the intention of the work is to shape perceptions and behaviours.”

The willingness for readers to pay for quality content is partly determined by brand perception, which is influenced by marketing, but Weisenbach stresses the cornerstone of The New York Times is quality journalism. 

In designing a subscription strategy, Weisenbach stated “the news remains at the core of what we do.” Additional products from sub-brands buttress the core value of quality journalism.

“We’ve developed a portfolio of other products that goes beyond the news,” Weisenbach said.

That portfolio includes the recent acquisitions of Wordle, Wirecutter, and The Athletic. The result? Customers engage more and have higher retention with the intermix of news and diverse product offerings.

All products aim to anchor news as the company’s core offering, Weisenbach said: “News is at the core. The news is our sun.”

What is product-led growth and why is it important?

If you have ever considered merging B2C and product teams, you might be an evangelist for product-led growth. Riske Betten, product director at Mediahuis, said the product itself must be so good it goes viral.

Product-led growth puts the product at the center of the customer journey, Riske Betten, B2C/product director at Mediahuis, said.
Product-led growth puts the product at the center of the customer journey, Riske Betten, B2C/product director at Mediahuis, said.

Betten espouses that news isn’t the product: “A good product is a solution.”

To determine a solution, you have to be very familiar with your customer. Betten recommends user research. For example, Mediahuis launched a Sunday e-paper in the southern part of Belgium, which proved to be a value add for older readers who needed a bridge between a print edition and digital news.

“Your customers can help you think about what to do with your products,” Betten said.

From user testing and reviews to heat maps, finding ways to collect and assess data is essential in designing a solution and customising personalised experiences. A customer’s journey is about engagement and each step in-between reflects product-led growth. Focusing on retention means focusing on engagement, Betten said. Product-led growth is in between each step of the funnel.

By focusing on fulfilling the brand promise to customers and allowing people to be part of the brand through research and engagement, the product leads growth efforts, Betten said: “You have to be the destination.” 

Explosive subscription growth is possible

German tabloid Bild has experienced massive digital subscriber growth and reach in recent years by focusing on three areas: brand identity, partnerships, and pricing. Daniel Mussinghoff, director of premium at Bild parent Axel Springer, said the brand has surpassed 700,00 subscribers.

As a brand, Bild is committed to reporting but needed additional value propositions for new readers. Mussinghoff worked on securing exclusive rights to highlight clips of the German football league for four years. At the end of that period, in lieu of continuing the rights, Mussinghoff and his team focused on retaining the 30% of subscribers who used this product. The direct traffic converted into subscribers.

Brand, partnerships, and pricing have been critical to Bild's growth, Daniel Mussinghoff, director of premium at Axel Springer, said.
Brand, partnerships, and pricing have been critical to Bild's growth, Daniel Mussinghoff, director of premium at Axel Springer, said.

“Over the last 19 years, we’ve had over 100 partnerships and gained over 100,000 subscribers and more than 10,000,00 million in revenue,” Mussinghoff said.

Partnerships like exclusive pre-sale concerts to well-known acts such as The Rolling Stones were key drivers in adding more subscribers. Partnerships also helped the Bild brand connect with readers through unique experiences, including chartered airplanes to the World Cup, and offered access to commodities via Amazon Prime.

Bild even had a pay-per-view boxing match with German celebrity influencers, combining influencer marketing and social media to expand and broaden its reach with over 500,000 views in 2023.

Lastly, Mussinghoff’s success in subscription and revenue growth centered on pricing and testing of different types of pricing models. From A/B tests to dynamic pricing to in-house and on-site pricing structures, Mussinghoff worked with different methods and leaned toward those that had a justifiable case.

Focusing on three areas — brand identity, partnerships, and pricing — have been critical to growth, Mussinghoff said: “Trust the brand, try out partnerships, test as much as possible.”

The summit was sponsored by AdvantageCSChargebeeChartbeatGoogleFT StrategiesPianoUnited RobotsWordPress VIP, and Zuora.

About Ijeoma S. Nwata

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