The Winnipeg Free Press was founded in 1872. It’s fair to say that despite our long and storied history, we have never before experienced the upheaval that’s happening right now. That upheaval is affecting every corner of the news media industry, and as a local newspaper we are certainly not immune — but with change comes progress.

For the first time ever, our subscriber revenue is projected to surpass in-newspaper advertising revenue. This puts our subscribers in the driver’s seat more than ever. It was also a wake-up call for us. We knew we needed to rethink our relationship with the readers we answer to, examine why that matters, and determine how we can use that new understanding to grow our subscriber base.

This led to the creation of our Winnipeg Free Press Insider programme for loyal readers. Here are some of the things we’ve learned:

Subscribers should be treated as members of a unique community

Through internal research we learned that we retain multiplatform customers at much higher rates. This made our path forward clear: to make as big a push as possible for digital activations on existing subscriptions and to attract new digital subscribers. Our loyal readers became “Free Press Insiders,” and we heavily encouraged them through multi-faceted marketing campaigns to explore our new Insider portal.

The Winnipeg Free Press Insider programme rewards reader loyalty with exclusive offers.
The Winnipeg Free Press Insider programme rewards reader loyalty with exclusive offers.

This portal offered exclusive perks and new opportunities for reader engagement, including a dashboard option to track what they’re reading and how often. The portal also offered exclusive front-of-the-line access to our new Insider event series (more details on this later).

Always improve your subscribers’ online experience

We sought out new and creative ways to improve our readers’ digital experience with a focus on engagement, in keeping with our goal of treating subscribers as members. Some of the improvements included:

  • Allowing readers to create a customisable homepage.
  • Giving them fewer and less intrusive ads.
  • Offering early beta access to our technology as it was developed.
  • Giving real-time feedback on reading activity, through the dashboard on the Insider portal.
  • Launching an Insider newsletter written by Editor Paul Samyn, which gives subscribers unprecedented insight into the workings of the Free Press.
  • Offering subscribers a chance to shape the news themselves through our CuriousCity initiative — where they can provide us with direct feedback on stories they’re interested in.

Venture beyond the newsroom

The Insider programme was always meant to expand beyond our digital products. We decided to use it as a launch pad for a series of exclusive, Free Press-branded events that allowed our subscribers to benefit from our resources:

  • We started with a wildly successful series of Insider tours of the newspaper itself — inviting a group of interested subscribers to an on-site visit of the Winnipeg Free Press and join our morning news meeting, where they offered insights on our news priorities and what they wanted to read.
  • We created a dynamic arts and culinary series called Sunday Brunch Collective, which included a four-course meal with a celebrated local chef and a performance by a local musician.
  • We also hosted ticketed events at our downtown venue, the Winnipeg Free Press News Café. These exclusive events featured guests such as local Olympic soccer medallist Desiree Scott shortly after her return from Rio, and former premier and former Canadian ambassador to the United States, Gary Doer, in a U.S. election-focused discussion. These events were offered to subscribers first, and often sold out quickly. Engagement with our digital hub was necessary for readers to participate.
Tickets for special events at the Winnipeg Free Press News Café are available to Insiders first.
Tickets for special events at the Winnipeg Free Press News Café are available to Insiders first.

Key takeaways

Overall, our Insider programme acknowledged that our readers have more control than ever, and our goal was to drive them to digital. We found great success in this initiative. A few thousand people visit our custom portal every day, and the reactions to our editor’s Insider newsletters were very encouraging, as well.

The open rates for the newsletters were more than 50%, and click rates were nearly 25% — both of which are significantly above average. Over the course of 2016, we gained nearly 200% in digital activations thanks to this initiative.

We also sold out (or nearly so) for every Insider event we’ve held, and plan to hold many more events based on this success.

But we aren’t stopping. Our latest project, launched in early 2017, is NewsBreak, a new paid app that is entirely dependent on, and responsive to, data we gather on reader habits.

We have been more than encouraged by the response to our Insider programme, which offered readers more opportunities for an individual, customisable experience with the Winnipeg Free Press. We are looking forward to the fresh and exclusive content we will be creating based on reader feedback from CuriousCity, and it will continue to be a driving force behind our future decision-making.