8 European publishers get started on GNI Subscriptions Lab

By Earl J. Wilkinson

International News Media Association (INMA)

Dallas, Texas, United States

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As the COVID-19 crisis intensified in recent weeks, European news publishers witnessed an unheard-of surge in demand for journalism that is relevant, fact-based, and trusted. 

As traffic grew and triple-digit increases in digital subscription starts took hold, the structures built in the good times performed precisely as they should. Today, as interest in COVID-19 evolves with the consuming public, publishers are working overtime to retain those new high-valued subscribers and convert lower-interest fly-bys.

None of this success would have been possible without the data, technology, procedures, engagement, and intuition built up in the past five years. 

While the Google News Initiative (GNI) Subscriptions Lab in Europe started before the full force of the pandemic was known, it’s clear that revenue strategies are more important than ever.  

Two weeks ago, INMA, FT Strategies, and Google formally began the European Lab to upgrade, accelerate, normalise, and democratise the very subscription best practices that have changed the fortunes of publishers in the past six weeks.  

The GNI Subscriptions Lab is a nine-month programme to help eight European publishers strengthen their digital subscriptions capabilities and grow reader revenue. Perhaps most importantly for INMA members, we aim to share those stories with you.

We are pleased to announce that eight publishers were selected from 54 applicants: 

  • La Croix, France
  • Dennik N, Slovakia
  • Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland
  • The Independent, United Kingdom
  • Kurier, Austria
  • MittMedia, Sweden
  • El Mundo, Spain
  • RP Online, Germany 

Each publisher was put through a rigorous examination process. A shortlist of finalists was then personally interviewed. What were we looking for? The right mix of geography, experience, data savvy, seeds of early success, and potential. 

The lab aims to address every step of the digital subscriptions process from discovery to conversion to retention with one-on-one support. And they will share their success and learnings to the broader news industry later in 2020 through INMA.  

We are running the European lab through the “North Star” prism of the Financial Times’ successes in digital subscriptions — and its consulting arm, FT Strategies. This is a practical framework that focuses each company on a shared goal and a single measurement of success. 

While Greg Piechota and I represent INMA in this joint venture, the key point I would share with you in these early days — behind the curtain — is that the experience is methodology-rich. Fuse the FT processes with the Google News Initiative’s passion for outcomes, and I believe you will see rich accelerations of subscription programmes at various stages of development.

Crucial to success at each company: Subscriptions are not the purview of any one single department. One of the key criteria in the application and evaluation process was not just CEO support but that all key departments buy in — editorial, tech, marketing, sales, product, HR, and more. That is a surprisingly high bar for most companies. 

The programme launched last week following a number of guiding principles.  

  1. Collective challenge: One is a shared belief that building a sustainable revenue model for journalism is a collective challenge of news publishers, industry associations, and vendors. “The more publishers charge for content, and the better they are in it, the easier it is to convince audiences to pay,” said Tom Betts, chief data officer of the Financial Times at the first virtual meeting of the group. 
  1. Learning through experimentation: Another principle is learning through experimentation that is perhaps the strongest capability publishers need today. What content ideas worked for the FT in the United Kingdom might not work for MittMedia, a regional publisher in Sweden. But the data-informed decision-making is what gets them into the stars. At the meeting, we learned both introduced a new metric to measure the quality of reading and not just page views. 
  1. Shared goals to be readers-first: The third principle is to align organisations behind shared goals and common language that is to have readers at the center — to be readers-first. The publishers’ responses to the COVID-19 crisis proved the point: Their commitment to deliver essential information and advice was rewarded with spikes in online traffic and subscription sales, with El Mundo in Spain boosting daily sales by 355%! 

The first meetings showed the participating publishers are eager to share ideas with their peers abroad and to inspire change at home. It seems they learn as much from their peers, as from the giants of the FT and Google. We at INMA are excited to share all the best practices over the months to come. We will keep you posted on our progress.

About Earl J. Wilkinson

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