Why INMA is joining GNI Subscriptions Lab in Europe

By Earl J. Wilkinson

INMA

Dallas, TX, USA

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Elevating the digital subscriptions growth path for local and mid-sized European news publishers is the focus of a Google News Initiative (GNI) Subscriptions Lab being created in 2020 in partnership with FT Strategies and the International News Media Association (INMA). 

INMA’s partnership with the Google News Initiative and FT Strategies in Europe aims to burrow into companies that have the foundations necessary for growth yet could use a helping hand. Most important for INMA members and the global news industry, we want to take the lessons learned in that uplift and share with all so that we can all, collectively, improve and accelerate worldwide. 

Richard Gingras, vice president news at Google, announces the partnership in Amsterdam on Wednesday.
Richard Gingras, vice president news at Google, announces the partnership in Amsterdam on Wednesday.

If you are interested in applying to be one of the eight publisher participants in the European Subscriptions Lab, click here. Here is an explainer deck with complete information. Deadline for application is February 28, 2020.

This is not INMA’s first rodeo when it comes to digital subscriptions. 

In fact, INMA has tracked the digital subscriptions progress of its members worldwide since the first paywalls emerged 24 years ago — first hard walls among B2B publishers, then as protective plays for print, then as freemium models and metered models to more exotic hybrid models. 

While The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, and The New York Times used digital subscriptions as a way to smash through international borders, publishers emulating these models came nowhere close to the success of these global brands. 

That is why INMA is joining GNI’s Subscriptions Lab in Europe. Despite being the North Star of digital subscriptions, European publishers have not universally solved the reader revenue challenge. Even at the high end of the continental market, CEOs tell INMA their companies aren’t moving fast enough or far enough. What does that look like for publishers under three years into their journey? 

This partnership is a fantastic opportunity for INMA members, bringing together some of the best minds at the Google News Initiative and FT Strategies (INMA’s researcher-in-residence, Greg Piechota, will represent us).

I asked Greg what he thought of this partnership, and he responded: “INMA will be the poet telling the story, a Homer of news subscriptions. You can follow their journey through our Readers First Initiative.” 

I believe this GNI-FT-INMA partnership in Europe will add new dimension to a story we’ve been telling for a long time. Here’s some back story and perspective on what we’ve learned through the Readers First Initiative. 

How we got here

Tracking alongside the collapse of advertising models and the rise of subscription models over the past decade was a parallel technological and cultural development: the use of real-time data analytics to drive company fortunes. Data was fundamentally rejected by newsrooms, choosing the age-old gut instinct. 

By 2015, the roads of a reader-focused business model, data, and newsroom culture collided to create a spark that is still rippling through news media companies around the world. Editors and business managers had grown comfortable enough with data and confident enough that data would inform editorial decisions — not dictate them.

The continued decline of the advertising model ratcheted up pressure to general more revenue from readers. Taken together, newsrooms evolved from cost centers to opportunity centers with some publishers centering digital subscription activity in their editorial departments.

Europe — notably Scandinavia — became the epicenter of this collision. Norwegian and Swedish publishers universally created paywalls. In some cases, competitors agreed to go together and share experiences together.

Schibsted titles took the lead, with different approaches for its quality titles vs. popular titles. Bonnier’s Dagens Nyheter put its editor directly in charge of subscription efforts. Finnish publishers created unique centers for content with a high propensity to trigger subscriptions. Regional publisher Amedia centralised data and subscription efforts and figured out how to drive paid readers to the hyper-local level. Mittmedia developed a timewall. Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza, facing press freedom issues from government in print, re-configured the situation with digital subscriptions. British national publishers went on a registration rampage: win the data battle and subscriptions will follow (they did). 

Shattering the print culture has been crucial to success. Walk into a morning newsroom meeting at Aftenposten and hear how the editor explains what content triggered subscriptions overnight and what content engaged subscribers vs. non-subscribers. The new lingua franca is neither Norwegian nor English; it’s data. And journalists and editors have learned the language. 

The deadline to apply to be one of the eight publisher participants in the European Subscriptions Lab is February 28.
The deadline to apply to be one of the eight publisher participants in the European Subscriptions Lab is February 28.

Lessons from Readers First Initiative

INMA has led the news industry in understanding the art and science behind digital subscriptions with conferences, study tours, Webinars, meet-ups, newsletters, research, reports, Slack channels, master classes, and more. Since 2018, we have packaged these efforts under our Readers First Initiative.

What are the over-arching themes in our journey so far: 

  1. Value propositions: Content is perhaps only half of the reader perceptions of value, which is a startling realisation for newsrooms. The other half of the value proposition is community, convenience, and cause. 
  2. Empty calorie content: Data has revealed a lot of “empty calorie content” that made a lot of sense in a print world, but has little relevance in a digital world. Every piece of content needs a business rationale: subscription trigger, subscriber engager, social media sharer, brand-builder. 
  3. Must be company-wide approach: Companies that focus on growth and an enterprise-wide approach perform at a higher rate than companies that try to departmentalise subscriptions or are more concerned with preserving legacy sides of their business. This is why culture change is so vital.
  4. Retention and engagement: An engagement-focused membership mindset may be more important than mastering subscriber acquisition. 

We’ve also found four key lessons, especially in INMA’s work with European publishers: 

  • Have confidence in pricing: Start with the Netflix line in your market and build your subscription storyline around that. Lean toward being a premium publisher
  • Have confidence in paywall settings: This is the consistent mistake publishers have made worldwide. Most research suggests lower meters or higher freemium locks, yet publishers ignore the research — not believing it. They almost all come around to what the original research suggested.
  • Set data foundations first: No publisher can fly blind on subscriptions like they did in the print world. This remains a struggle for local and community media. 
  • Just ask people to pay: The original sin of publishers in the Digital Age was communicating that storytelling outside of print had no commercial value. Your consumers are waiting for you to charge and chuckling when you don’t.

Every publisher with whom INMA works has a number for subscribers needed to replace the print advertising model and maintain newsroom scale. Some publishers on the front-lines of the reader revolution are beginning to see growth slowdowns in news subscriptions, with some choosing to evolve focus and chase niches while others are burrowing into next-generation tactics to acquire and retain. 

What we hope to achieve with European Subscriptions Lab 

GNI, FT Strategies, and INMA have developed a tight criteria for candidate publishers that will work best with this programme. 

Over a nine-month period in 2020, we will work with eight European news publishers representing a cross-section of the local news industry. They will be moderately new to working on digital subscriptions. These publishers will have sufficient data foundations already in place. They will have direct involvement from their top executives. They will be willing to share their experiences with peers and competitors after the fact.

Building on the successful experiences at the Financial Times, FT Strategies has developed a process for each publisher participant involving evaluation, benchmarks, research, optimisation, and more. 

INMA will share the learnings from the GNI Subscriptions Lab later this year — through conferences, Webinars, reports, and the like. We view this as a value added to our Readers First Initiative. 

Our aim is to constantly improve as an industry. We believe the GNI Subscriptions Lab will make all publishers better in the art and science behind digital subscriptions. Digging deeper into the epicenter of subscriptions (in Europe) will further these aspirations.

About Earl J. Wilkinson

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