Spanish regional newspaper El Correo went after reader revenue “with a lot of respect and fear” — including fear of terrorism.

American flagship publisher The New York Times has pulled out all the stops on subscription growth in answer to a challenge and with an emphasis on cross-functional teams.

Zurich-based media house Tamedia’s new digital pay emphasis is driven quite simply by their pursuit of a core Swiss value — simplicity — besides subscriber demands for more fairness.

In all three best practices case studies presented Thursday afternoon at INMA’s Media Subscriptions Week 2.0 in Stockholm, the general outline of how managers planned and pursued their growth acceleration projects was the same. The overall techniques for anyone in this space — of developing customer funnels and content segmentation, of collecting data and continuously testing, of involving the newsroom and promoting the value, of building apps and launching new products, of implementing a paywall and offering exclusive benefits — are all by now well established.

What was interesting to see in this group of presentations, however, was their very different motivations and cultures, as well as how those drove decision-making along varied paths.

Fernando Belzunce, regional media editorial director at Vocento, explains how the media company developed digital subscriptions because it had "no alternative."
Fernando Belzunce, regional media editorial director at Vocento, explains how the media company developed digital subscriptions because it had "no alternative."

Fernando Belzunce, regional media editorial director at Vocento, Spain’s leading multi-media communications group and owner of El Correo in the Basque Country, said the company was not really keen to develop digital subscriptions four years ago.

“But we had no alternative. This is the reason. We had no alternative,” he said in explaining the financial perils of advertising and print sales declines. “We knew it was going to be really difficult. There were no other examples in Spain with a digital payment product. We were pioneers. So it was a long-term project.”

Other than that, “nothing special,” Belzunce said. “But I suppose this is particular, because we did it with a lot of respect and fear.” 

Belzunce said El Correo had two very notable strikes against its success.

  1. Spain at the time was the world leader in Internet piracy, so that no one wanted to pay for content. 
  2. The newspaper had operated for many years under threat of violence from the Basque terrorist separatist group ETA, so it usually avoided doing anything that would unnecessarily antagonise people in the community  — things like launching a public campaign to recruit digital supporters. 

But as he said, the company had no sustainable alternative. 

And then the ETA disbanded in late 2018, creating an opportunity. 

In El Correo’s case, the opportunity was to herald the names and faces of its journalists in a marketing campaign to promote the brand’s value in support of its digital expansion. This would be the first time in many decades that those journalists had dared to be openly identified, let alone publicly credited for doing their jobs in service to the community.

The campaign on bus and other public transport placards appeared under headlines such as: “It’s not only to give the news, it is also to show your face,” “News without contrasting information is only rumor,” “To explain well what happens here, you need to be here,” and “Anonymous opinions have no value.” 

In hand with the myriad other elements of El Correo’s digital rollout, the campaign generated an initial result of 7,500 digital subscriptions in November 2018, which has since grown to 12,000. 

“We are happy with the figures we got because we are satisfying the goals we had,” Belzunce said. “We want to increase these figures for sure. We think we can have about 45,000 subscribers in the next year. More or less, we are happy.”

Ben Cotton, executive director of subscription growth at The New York Times, has a much, much larger number of digital subscriptions in mind when he talks about his own company’s efforts in the reader-revenue field. His CEO just recently gave him a target of 10 million total subscribers by 2025.

That gauntlet was laid down after The Times announced last month that it had reached an all-time record of more than 4 million total subscriptions — 3.4 million of those being for the digital product.

Ben Cotton, executive director of subscription growth at The New York Times, shared that the company has a goal of 10 million total subscribers by 2025.
Ben Cotton, executive director of subscription growth at The New York Times, shared that the company has a goal of 10 million total subscribers by 2025.

“That’s very ambitious,” Cotton said of the 10-million challenge. “That’s a significantly faster rate of increase in subscribers than we’re seeing now .… Our clearest opportunity for growth is getting the product experience itself to get millions more people to engage and subscribe.”

Toward that end, Cotton described a huge number of initiatives his subscription growth team is pursuing. And pretty much every assumption in the past about what was not possible or what could only be done a certain way is being opened to revaluation. Remonetising archived content is one example. Reconfiguring — yet again — The Times’ paywall limits is another, as is rejiggering essentially every part of the customer subscription funnel. Plus launching new products, such as specialised apps for fanatics of The New York Times Crossword Puzzle and of the brand’s many thousands of published food recipes.

But from his description of things, one fundamental change underlying most everything else is a structural reorganisation that puts much more emphasis on eliminating departmental silos and working within cross-functional teams.

“The way we have sort of operated in the past and achieved a lot of our growth so far has been more siloed probably than it should have been,” Cotton acknowledged. “We’ve had a fantastic product department, fantastic engineering department, a really powerful marketing department. But they have not always be set up to work in a really cross-functional way.

“And the result has been that we've spent a lot of money in marketing — we’ve done a lot of great marketing to bring people to the site — but the marketing that we do on our site is often confined to different commercial spaces on the site," he said. "But really, you want marketing and the product to be deeply, deeply integrated in the way that we try to bring readers along.

“Ultimately, we don’t want to be relying on marketing too much to do all the work in getting people to subscribe. We want the experience that they have with the product itself and with the journalism that it reflects to be the thing that actually moves people along down the funnel and ultimately turns them into subscribers.” 

Marc Isler of Tamedia described a similar cross-functional consolidation of responsibilities at his own media house, mainly to simplify a structure he said was confusing to customers and complicating efforts to grow reader revenue.

Marc Isler, chief revenue officer for digital paid media at Tamedia, explained how the company clarified and unified digital teams.
Marc Isler, chief revenue officer for digital paid media at Tamedia, explained how the company clarified and unified digital teams.

“What we now did since January is pull all the digital people together,” he said. That now makes Isler, as chief revenue officer for digital paid media, part of a dedicated troika that also includes a chief product officer for digital paid media and a chief technology officer for digital paid media.

“You have to clarify responsibilities,” he said. “Who is the owner of your digital product? It can’t be 10 different departments spread about 10 different people. It has to be a clear responsibility.”

But why stop there when simplifying things? 

Too complicated in buying an online subscription? It’s now just a two-click process that asks for the barest legal minimum of personal identifying information. 

Can’t be bothered with a full-time subscription? Now there’s a US$2 daypass, which has attracted 100,000 uses over the past year.

Is that metered paywall just way too confusing to figure out what’s what? Although it appears every kindergartener knew how to get around it, subscribers constantly complained. 

“They said: ‘I will never pay because it’s an unfair model. It’s not for everyone the same,’” Isler said. 

OK, then, chuck the meter. It’s now a simple premium model. “Premium users get extra articles not available to lower-level users,” Isler said.

Not only that: “It’s no more the marketing guys playing with the metering. It’s about the editorial guys deciding what is premium. It’s in the hands of the editorial newsroom what stories are picked for premium access.”

Can’t get any simpler than that, right?