Strategies for publishers to boost subscriptions for the long run

By Brie Logsdon


Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States


A panel of experts with rich experience in digital subscriptions shared insights into accelerating local and regional news subscriptions during today’s INMA Media Subscriptions Summit in New York. One audience member even got personalised advice. 

Panel moderator Robert Whitehead kicked off the discussion by asking about the term “membership” and the potential implications of using that particular word. Mark Campbell, chief marketing officer at Tribune Publishing, said he gets worked up about the term and avoids using it.

Robert Whitehead focused on the term membership, registration walls, and dynamic metering in Thursday's panel.
Robert Whitehead focused on the term membership, registration walls, and dynamic metering in Thursday's panel.

“What I’ve heard is viscerally negative reactions around subscribers of being referred to as members,” he said. “They believe it is to be some sort of endorsement of principle.”

Yasmin Namini, consultant and ex-chief consumer officer at The New York Times, said if the term “membership” can work for a publisher that’s great, but she would not recommend jumping into it just because someone else is doing it. Thorough research is crucial.

“We did research with subscribers and non-subscribers, and at least at The New York Times, there was a sense that to be a member would mean they agreed with our editorial pages,” she said.

To that, Campbell added that it does not mean publishers should not treat their customers like members, but they should be careful with the terminology.

Peter Doucette, managing director of telecom, media & technology at FTI Consulting, said a membership model requires a certain depth of content to succeed.

Namini disagreed to a point, saying size doesn’t necessarily matter. It’s all about mindset.

“I believe that every local publisher is The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal or The Washington Post of their region,” she said.

Dynamic metering

When asked about dynamic meter models, Campbell said the concept itself is not a failure, but it can only work under certain circumstances.

“If it’s at five or 10, it might work for some markets, but if it’s at two, you can’t squeeze more water from that rock.”

Namini said that no matter the model, the business strategy must be transparent to the consumer. If someone learns another person is receiving a different rate, that could be confusing. Campbell disagreed.

“I think there are some rich results to get in some of the nuances of being quiet to how the rules work,” he said. At the Tribune, as people become more engaged and show more interest, they see a price increase.

Noting the truth of what both Namini and Campbell said, Doucette said what really matters is keeping it simple: “I think big picture, local publishers are better served with creating a tighter meter or hybrid model that is simpler or easier to use.”

Balance of consumer and ad revenue

Finding the balance of consumer and advertising revenue is very important at Tribune, Campbell said.

“Every time I want to change or tighten the meter, we run rigorous tests to see what happens with incremental subscribers, lifetime value, and page impressions.”

He added he has to demonstrate two things to the financial department: That the test is a win in the long run in terms of lifetime value, but also the impact it will have in 2020, because the company needs to continue pushing people past the introductory rate.

Doucette said a combination of premium and a metered approach can create balance between a tight enough paywall and ad revenue preservation. It’s really about pricing, he added, saying when his team works with publishers, they always find customers to be more price elastic than expected.

“Many local publishers, from my perspective, undercharge for their content,” he said.

The registration wall

At the Tribune, the registration wall triggers the same fears as the meter test, Campbell said. The company asks: What will it do to our page views? Will it cause users to bounce and lose ad revenue? Advertising is dominated by reach, especially since Tribune has programmatic advertising on every Web site. The company tests things gently, he said.

Doucette said he loves the registration wall.

“I think sitting here three years from now, everyone is going to have a registration wall,” he said. “That’s what everyone is talking about. It’s not an ‘if,’ it’s a ‘how.’”

A registration wall requires a fair value exchange for a person to give up their e-mail address, which is increasingly guarded by users today.

“Just as we think about value exchange in terms of conversion, you have to think about people giving you their email address in that same way,” she said.

Testing is a key asset in this process, she added. Companies cannot implement ideas from other publishers without carefully testing and ensuring there are not unintended consequences.

Moderator Whitehead then shifted gears, asking for a local publisher from the audience to volunteer to share their subscription strategy and receive advice from the panel.

Rodrigo Arenas, chief executive officer at República in Guatemala, shared that his company is trying to generate subscriptions but does not currently have a paywall. He said the company thinks it may start with a soft paywall at the beginning, and a side wall, with premium content locked behind it.

Rather than going straight into a paywall strategy, Namini said, the company should launch a registration wall and take the opportunity to build competencies around getting people to register. Hone A/B testing and marketing skills, and decide where assets should be placed.

“Use that idea of registration as an opportunity to test not only what your paywall should look like, but your marketing, and build your capabilities that you must have to build this model,” she said.

Doucette suggested diving into newsletters, especially since Guatemala has heavy mobile penetration.

“Whatever you do, make sure it’s good for mobile,” he said. “Skip desktop, go straight for mobile conversion.”

Campbell suggested a focus on removing as much friction as possible in the registration process. Only ask for a name, e-mail, and credit card information.

“Friction is the bane of the digital subscription business, and thinking about mobile, even more so,” he said.

In one final suggestion, Namini reminded Arenas to pick his battles, because building this strategy is a journey.

“Do not try to boil the ocean on day one,” she said. “Don’t try to do everything on day one.”

About Brie Logsdon

By continuing to browse or by clicking “ACCEPT,” you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance your site experience. To learn more about how we use cookies, please see our privacy policy.