What the industry can learn from European publishers about digital subscriptions

By Paula Felps


Nashville, Tennessee, United States


European publishers are farther along in their journey to subscription success — and that’s something the rest of the world can learn from. But that doesn’t mean the European model is the only path to success.

That was the takeaway from a panel discussion, held Thursday during European Media Subscriptions Town Hall, which drew 745 delegates from 69 countries. The GNI Subscriptions Lab is a nine-month programme to help eight publishers from Europe strengthen their digital capabilities and grow reader revenue. The Lab was a collaborative effort between INMA, FT Strategies, and Google.  

INMA Researcher-in-Residence Grzegorz Piechota, who moderated the Town Hall, shared key takeaways from the Lab:

  • Choose a single company-wide goal, and create a plan from there.
  • Reset culture around reader engagement.
  • Find the right metrics to measure its success.
  • Inform decisions with data.
  • A paywall is a living thing.

“Your growth comes from new audiences,” Piechota said. “You need to identify them, and adjust your product and marketing to reach them. We need to reach new people, and we need to understand what drives them to conversion.”

Benedicte Autret, head of news partnerships/UK, Ireland, France and Benelux, Google, and Lou Gautier, a principal at FT Strategies, weighed in on how geographical differences tend to be reflected in different subscriptions strategies. 

Benedicte Autret, head of news partnerships/UK, Ireland, France and Benelux, Google, said one key difference in Europe is the amount of content put behind paywalls.
Benedicte Autret, head of news partnerships/UK, Ireland, France and Benelux, Google, said one key difference in Europe is the amount of content put behind paywalls.

Piechota asked Autret about some of the differences between different regions. Autret noted there are significant differences in the types of subscription models applied, referencing the Google News Initiative’s Reader Revenue Playbook, which also includes findings from North American and Latin American publishers.

Paywall policies

One of the biggest things that differentiates the models is the level of content hidden behind the paywall, she said. “Not only metered vs. premium content, but when it comes to premium content, the percentage of content they decide to put behind the paywall is much greater for European publishers.”

What’s uncertain is whether that practice is the result of European publishers having greater confidence in their content or if it simply reflects the fact that their market is more mature. As an example, she pointed to the French daily La Croix, which “hides a good portion” of its articles on the site.

Another distinguishing characteristic for European publishers is that they have more sophisticated engagement metrics: “Whether it’s better tools or they’ve been doing it longer, other publishers might benefit from looking at that.”

The European publishers Gautier has worked with use one of two models. In the first, about 15%-20% of the content is locked and there are varied subscription models available. The second leans toward a hard paywall structure, such as offering content free for one hour, then locking it behind a paywall. Other paywalls have 60% to 80% of the content locked, which Gautier said is higher than North America or South America.

Expanding reach with limited resources

One significant difference Autret found is that while European publishers have access to many tools, publishers in Latin America tend to use tools that they have built for themselves, including open source software that is available for anyone to use.

“Maybe that’s something to explore,” she said.  

But both agreed that, to the dedicated publisher, limited resources won’t prevent them from accomplishing their mission.

“The biggest surprise to me was how far you can go in terms of creating a compelling proposition for your reader and engaging them without any resources and limited data capabilities,” Gautier said. She mentioned one small publisher from the Subscription Lab who had less than a dozen employees, not counting the journalists on staff. That didn’t keep the publication from having higher-than-average engagement levels.

The rates were so high that Gautier acknowledged, “We thought there were problems with the numbers in the beginning, to be honest.”

Not only did the pubulisher enjoy unusually high levels of engagement, the frequency of visits was also higher than average. The answer was rooted in relationships rather than resources.

“They were very close to their readers and able to meet the needs of their core fans,” she said. Because of that, the company was able to build “astounding” levels of engagement and create a value proposition that “makes a lot of sense for their readers.”

It had achieved this success just by staying focused and staying true to key principles. And what Gautier learned from that was: “Even with limited resources you can build a very strong model if you’re close to your readers.”

Why the mission matters

A significant discovery from the Subscription Lab was, across the board, the high level of publishers’ commitment to their mission and their overriding sense of responsibility to the community.

“I think that all publishers are mission driven, and to be one of the small ones — that probably doesn’t make a difference,” she said. Whether talking about Financial Times, The New York Times or a local publication, she found, the commitment is the same.

The one difference she noticed was that “the boundaries between the mission and the business are much more porous” in a smaller publisher, so they could see the impact of a big news event immediately; the business aspect immediately became a lower priority than the story, she said.

“Whenever something big was happening, the business would almost stop because everyone was on the mission, the primary mission, which was journalism.”

About Paula Felps

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