The Spectator builds a successful membership model using data about the reader journey

By Shelley Seale


Austin, Texas, USA


With 300 years of experience, The Spectator knows something about how to treat subscribers like family and is building a modern subscription offering that draws on years of expertise delighting readers.

The reader journey is critical to the way the publishing industry is evolving today, said David Gosen, chief revenue officer at Piano. Along with Tom Morgan, director of digital at The Spectator, Gosen presented a Webinar for INMA members last week, sharing key factors in how news media publishers can create a quality reader journey and build their membership model.

Understanding your reader’s journey

Gosen first discussed the important strategy behind understanding the reader’s journey. It’s all about data, rules, and action, he said.

“There is so much data around today, but you’re not using that data in the best way if you’re not establishing rules for how you interact with your audience — and importantly, if you aren’t taking the right action — the data is really worthless,” he said.

Piano works with publishers around the world to help them understand, engage, and monetise their digital customers. With declining advertising revenues and the seismic shift from print to digital, publishers need new strategies. But it’s about more than monetisation, Gosen said: “What we’re actually doing as an industry is securing the long-term future of journalism. That’s what enables us to drive success.”

News publishers around the world are currently focusing on six strategic areas, Gosen said.

  • Understanding your audience and their behaviour to build bespoke, monetisable segments and experiences.
  • Building reader engagement with real-time, personalised content recommendations, newsletters, and push notification.
  • Accelerating the rate of acquisition and churn reduction with an AI-driven propensity modeling and paywall strategy.
  • Driving recurring incremental revenues by growing registrations and subscriptions.
  • Simplifying internal tech stacks with a single end-to-end platform that reduces time to market, time to learn, and time to master.
  • Preparing for the cookieless world by collecting, managing, and monetising zero- and first-party data.
COVID-19 drove a huge global subscription bump while devastating advertising revenue.
COVID-19 drove a huge global subscription bump while devastating advertising revenue.

Before diving into Piano’s data, Gosen mentioned the huge global subscription bump in March from COVID-19, and how it relates to marketing. With advertising down, publishers are realising they need to invest in the customer journey and subscription/membership models.

However, he shared an insight he said was a game-changer: “Paid exposures have increased globally during the pandemic.”

The secret is taking the customer through a user journey, from being new to being known to being loyal, and the action steps that should be taken along the way.

A trend that is good news for publishers is the moving away from anonymous tracking and towards an Internet based on permission and consent, with users in control, Gosen said.

“It means we have to get to know our readers better. The end of third-party cookies means that driving advertising business will depend on how well you know your readers, and have you collected the right amount of data from them, with their permission, to be able to deliver them what they want?”

The reader's journey provides challenges and opportunities for publishers to turn them into loyal customers.
The reader's journey provides challenges and opportunities for publishers to turn them into loyal customers.

This hinges on two key types of data:

  1. Zero-party data, which users voluntarily give.
  2. First-party data, which is behavioural data that is passively collected.

“You will need to have both as the industry evolves,” he said. Having this data means a publisher really knows its readers, which is essential for engagement. “It’s really about creating compelling reasons for users to register, to log in, to provide personal data, and ultimately subscribe.”

This can be the foundation for not only driving advertising, but also building a subscription business simultaneously.

Piano benchmark data

One major insight from Piano’s data across more than 250 publishers globally is that most readers are not engaged: 68% of visitors generate only a single page view.

“We have to hit them with messages that are very, very relevant and help them to understand that there is value as we try to get them to move through the customer journey,” Gosen said.

Once they do engage, frequency can be challenging. Only 3.5% of the average publisher’s online readers return to the site for five days a month. This means publishers must deliver personalised experiences and content recommendations.

Only 17% of active readers are exposed to an offer — which means publishers need to understand who their best prospects are and maximise exposure to that segment. Gosen suggests companies rethink the way they make their offers.

“A hard stop can increase your conversion rate by over 200%,” he said.

When it comes to increasing known users, that is no longer optional. “You have to know your reader, because the conversion rate for registration is under 2%. If you actually manage to register a user, they become 10 times more likely to convert and become a subscriber.”

Ultimately it’s about putting the right offer, at the right time, in front of the right customer, that generates the right outcome. Conversion rates keep getting smaller, Gosen said. Currently this averages .18%, ranging as low as .1% and as high as 5%.

“What we’ve seen working with successful publishers are that e-mail and newsletters are the highest converting channels.”

Pricing strategy is important, and decoy pricing with a middle option (which most people go for) can increase revenue by more than 100%.

Retention and loyalty

Publishers work hard to acquire new customers, and must do even more to retain them and drive loyalty. Twenty percent of subscribers churn in the first month, so publishers must use their data to build real insight into user behaviours and segments.

Annual subscriptions have a higher retention rate (74%) than monthly ones (45%), and paid trials have a higher retention rate (83%) than free trials (70%).

Publishers must test and learn, over and again, throughout this entire process, Gosen said.

Making membership matter

Tom Morgan discussed The Spectator’s membership programme and how the company drew on its own history to build and grow loyalty and membership.

As the world’s oldest weekly magazine since 1828, The Spectator has successfully created a sense of community around its brand.

Fundamentally what The Spectator does is write really good, creative content, and then deliver that to the world, Morgan said. There is a unique intersection between that creative process, the marketing side of the business, and the technology.

“The way that we bring those three together for people to actually use is through our products,” he told INMA members.

“The key to loyalty is actually not particularly complicated,” Morgan said. “You have to just create a really good product that you’re proud of, and furthermore, that people really love.”

Creating a really great product that people love is a basic fundamental that should drive everything a publisher does.
Creating a really great product that people love is a basic fundamental that should drive everything a publisher does.

The big question is, how does a publisher do that? Morgan shared three ways that The Spectator does this.

1. Focus on the basics — they really matter

Sometimes publishers focus too much on propensity models and machine learning and other technology, while skipping over the important basic elements.

One of the basics The Spectator focused on was its page load time, particularly during the checkout process, which was not optimised for mobile. The team overhauled the process, eliminating 10 data fields and streamlining the log-in/log-out flow.

“We significantly improved the speed to complete [subscription check-out], from 90 seconds before down to about 30 seconds,” Morgan reported. “The key thing to say here is that people channeling through this conversion flow, the conversion rates soared.”

This example points to the incredible impact that focusing on basic elements of the business model can have before focusing on the bigger picture.

2. Look at the whole customer journey

Morgan said he’s often been amazed by how many senior executives have never even used their own products. He used a simple box diagram to demonstrate how easy it is to see the key areas of the customer journey that should be focused on.

This simple box diagram helps The Spectator determine what areas of the customer journey to focus on.
This simple box diagram helps The Spectator determine what areas of the customer journey to focus on.

“We identified the subscription and pay journeys as really important,” Morgan said. “And then, reading was the other thing that really stood out for us, and that was fundamentally why we decided to redesign our entire Web site.”

It’s also the reason The Spectator removed programmatic advertising from its Web site — because it interfered with creating a quality user experience. The team also reduced the volume of ads shown to readers to show fewer but higher quality ads.

3. Become your members

It’s vital to understand your users, but Morgan advocates going beyond understanding to actually become them.

“The reason this is important is because a lot of publishers are quite old. When you join an organisation that has a long history, it’s also got its own culture,” he explained. “And if you’re going to succeed in continuing that journey — and moreover, changing it and revolutionising it and pushing it in a new direction — you’re going to need to understand who those people are incredibly well.”

The goal is not to draw up a long wish list of what customers want, he cautioned.

“The single purpose of this exercise is to picture them when you’re building a product, is to think of them when you’re taking control of a marketing campaign. It’s about being humble and understanding what we might think is important from a business point of view is very different to the actual users who are engaging with the product. They’ve got to be central.”

Before redesigning the Web site or implementing any of these changes, Morgan said it was important the team understood the three main things their readers came to The Spectator for:

  • Perspective.
  • Enjoyment.
  • Belonging.

“I firmly believe that if you don’t know this stuff, it is impossible to build good digital products,” Morgan said. “Every decision you make inside a business must always come back to what you’re doing for your readers.”

Once you have this knowledge and insight, you can then use it to translate into the product.

“We use what we know about our users and what we know about our print product, and we bring them together to create [digital products] that are visually appealing.”

The Spectator relies on its relationship and understanding of its readers to drive is product design.
The Spectator relies on its relationship and understanding of its readers to drive is product design.

The science behind it

Morgan spoke about the data and content recommendation engine behind the user experience. While The Spectator does use tags, topics, and keywords for content recommendations, it also uses author modelling. This is because the journalists are the most important part of everything the team does.

“We have a belief that, in order for someone to want to read more, it’s not just about the topic. Rather, we think because you liked the way that this article was written, because you liked the tone of voice and you liked the author, you might also like this author.”

In closing, Morgan stressed the three important considerations:

  • Focus on the basics.
  • Use your products.
  • Know your users.

He attributed these key areas to much of The Spectator’s success in continuous growth.

About Shelley Seale

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