Personalisation, UX are key to expanding news subscribers in Africa

By Shelley Seale


Austin, Texas, USA


Many news publishers in Africa have already started on the paid content journey, putting up paywalls, launching paid subscription services, and figuring out other ways to monetise their digital assets.

“How do you increase that base of paid customers?” Dr. Anderson Uvie-Emegbo of China International Europe Business School asked INMA members to open a Webinar on Thursday. “I really want to start a conversation. I want to cause us to reflect.”

Dr. Anderson Uvie-Emegbo posed the topic of how African publishers can increase reader revenue.
Dr. Anderson Uvie-Emegbo posed the topic of how African publishers can increase reader revenue.

To begin answering that question, Uvie-Emegbo, who is based in Nigeria, looked at four major companies: Jumia, PiggyVest, Amazon Prime, and The New York Times, examining the number of countries they target, their addressable market, revenue, number of customers, and penetration rate.

The penetration rate is the most interesting number to him, which is as follows for each company: 

  • Jumia: 1.2% penetration of a 590 million market in 11 countries.

  • PiggyVest: 3.4% penetration of a 104 million market in one country.

  • Amazon Prime: 6.8% penetration of a 2.9 billion market in 2 countries.

  • The New York Times: 1.5% penetration of a 298 million market in one country.

“I want to give you that as a background for our conversation,” Uvie-Emegbo said. Next, he shared a list of the most popular paid subscription news Web sites in the world.

The New York Times tops the list with 7.5 million paid subscribers, followed by The Washington Post (3 million), the Wall Street Journal (2.4 million), and Game Informer (2.1 million) — all based in the United States. But rounding out the top 15, more than half of the news sites still have a paid subscriber base of less than a million. The bottom four have only around 300,000.

“The New York Times leads, but if you look at the numbers as you go down [the list], it tells a sorry state,” Uvie-Emegbo said. “You can look at how poor the numbers are as you go down, and I’m sure in Africa it wouldn’t be a very exciting story.”

Increasing the subscriber base by understanding consumer psychology

Looking back at the question of how African publishers can increase their paid subscriber base, if a publisher has an addressable market of 10 million (based on the penetration rates of the four companies examined earlier), that publisher should have a target of 120,000 to 680,000 paid subscribers in 2022.

“But the truth of the matter is, what are your actual subscription numbers today? As we begin to think about this question, I want us to focus not on the technologies we are deploying, but how we can understand the way consumers behave, which is consumer psychology,” he said. “How do we understand the way they want to interact with us and with our content, which is consumer sociology?”

By focusing on consumer psychology and sociology, publishers can better translate results into the tangible revenues they want to obtain. To understand this, Uvie-Emegbo introduced the concept of “non-customers.”

These non-customers make up the first tier of the market — people who are perhaps interested in the content and offerings but haven’t signed up as a paid subscriber yet. Or perhaps they’ve tried a trial or offer but dropped off. He described three tiers of non-customers.

  • Tier 1: “Soon to be” customers at the edge of the market and perhaps ready to buy soon.

  • Tier 2: “Refusing” — these people are aware of the offering and have the ability to pay, but decide against it.

  • Tier 3: “Unexplored” markets that are distant from yours.

“In our case as publishers, maybe the ‘soon to be’ are young people,” Uvie-Emegbo said.

When looking at the apps that young people have on their phones, browsers and social media are the most heavily used at 100% or near it, while news apps represent the smallest piece of the pie, at 10% or less.

“That is challenging, but in five years’ time, this is going to be better. In 10 years’ time, it’s something that we can work on.”

When it comes to the second tier of the “refusing” market, Uvie-Emegbo gave several reasons why people refuse to buy:

  • Audience engagement and management is not good enough.

  • They prefer their own online communities around their topics of interest.

  • Content creation versus content curation and collation (news media should do both).

  • The unique value proposition is not well communicated.

With the third “unexplored” tier, Uvie-Emegbo pointed out that news media is not the only subscription service people can choose to spend their money on — they have many choices. Netflix, Apple TV, and Disney Plus are only a few examples, and he urged INMA members to think about what lessons they can learn from these highly successful subscription models.

“These markets are very fragmented,” he said. “How many media organisations can I possibly subscribe to? This is the challenge that we have. One way to begin to think about this problem and address it is to begin to say: It doesn’t matter how many customers we have now. If we have people who don’t pay for our services, we can focus on something called improving customer experience.”

By improving customer experience, publishers can begin driving more conversions. To do that, companies must understand the customer journey and their expectations at each stage of that journey. They also should examine the frustrations or friction points a customer may encounter at each stage. 

“For me, when I go to a media platform, the key thing is personalisation,” Uvie-Emegbo said. “I don’t want to see a general home page. If that’s what matters to me and you serve me what you think is authoritative and in-depth, quality journalism, and I’m just interested in the things that are customised to me based on my interests, you’ve lost me.”

At each stage of the customer journey, the publisher must match their expectations.

Mapping the customer journey

Uvie-Emegbo explained how news publishers can map the customer journey at each stage. A focus group is a great way to help teams do this. The map may look something like this:

  • Dream: The customer is thinking about what they want.

  • Select: Customer chooses which brand to go to.

  • Visit: Customer visits the Web site.

  • Register: They decide to complete registration.

  • Subscribe: They subscribe to the offer.

  • Use: The level of engagement and how much they consume.

  • Support: Any customer support the subscriber may have.

  • Share: Do they tell others about it?

  • Return: This is about retention — do they stay?

To address this and create a better user map, publishers may need to remodel the consumer’s journey.

News media publishers may need to remodel and redefine the customer journey.
News media publishers may need to remodel and redefine the customer journey.

Uvie-Emegbo encouraged attendees to concentrate on the green boxes in this illustration, which represent what happens in between each of these stages. What can the publisher do at those times to move the user to the next stage?

At the register stage, for example, companies can look at the information they gather from users to determine if it’s the right information, too much, or too little. He suggested asking users about their interests could be valuable information.

However, this information must be utilised at the step where the consumer is actually using the product. If interest information is collected, it must be used appropriately to deliver to the user a personalised experience and what they’re looking for.

“How many news organisations in Africa can boast of having something that works this way?” he posed to the audience.

At the subscribe stage, the journey must be easy and as frictionless as possible — and, importantly, payment options need to be closely addressed. Particularly in Africa, where people from different countries might be subscribing and might or might not be able to use various payment methods, offering enough ways to pay so the user is able to select one that works for them is important.

“At each of these stages, people can drop off, they can become frustrated. Their expectations have not been met,” he said. “You need to map your consumer journey today, and you need to redesign the right experience.”

The support stage is also critical in providing easy ways for customers to reach and get the help they need. Uvie-Emegbo referenced Sterling Bank, which offers both traditional on-site chat as well as WhatsApp chat options.

WhatsApp is an important tool publishers can incorporate into their customer support.
WhatsApp is an important tool publishers can incorporate into their customer support.

“WhatsApp is the most-used social media platform in [most African] countries,” he said. “So the question is, why is WhatsApp not the dominant [support] platform in media organisations?”

At the share stage, Uvie-Emegbo suggested the idea of using a Net Promoter Score to determine how likely a customer is to recommend the platform to other people. He used the example of Netflix, which is constantly asking its subscribers to rate the shows they watch with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, using that information in its algorithm to constantly adapt the content to meet the user’s preferences and likes.

“There are technologies for this. Are we using them? Are we integrating them?” he asked.

At the return stage, it’s all about retention and reducing the churn rate. This means publishers must revalidate their value proposition to their customers.Uvie-Emegbo identified three types of buyers:

  • Inactive.

  • Transitional.

  • Active.

“We must find a way of moving people from being visitors on our platform to registering them, from being registered users to subscribing, from being subscribers to repeat subscribers. But that means there is a lot of intention around understanding the consumer journey across all the stages — addressing the expectations and the frustrations.”

Uvie-Emegbo drew inspiration from a quote by the Dalai Lama, editing it to apply to news media organisations.

“Give the ones you love (your customers) wings to fly (let them experience competitors if they want to), roots to come back (maintain an ongoing, healthy relationship), and reasons to stay (demonstrate how you have been loyal to them).”

About Shelley Seale

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