News publishers can borrow 9 lessons from streaming to build subscriptions

By Shelley Seale

Austin, Texas, United States


The Washington Post has intentionally set up the company organisation to build cross-functional teams focused on outcomes and achieving them as a whole team, rather than the specifics of who does what. This is part of what makes it successful when launching new products.

Michael Ribero, chief subscriptions officer at The Washington Post, said news media companies have much to learn from leaders in the video streaming space and can use some of the same ideas to grow their own subscriptions at scale.

Before the Post, Ribero was at Paramount+ (part of Viacom), and Sling before that, where he learned a lot about streaming models. 

“What can we learn from streaming?” he asked, then answered: “You need to spend a lot of money.”

Massive amounts of money are spent not just on the production of streaming shows but on advertising and marketing them — perhaps more than in any other media category.

Beyond that, however, Ribero has identified nine ideas news media publishers can take away from streaming. These ideas fall into three main categories: customer expectations, marketing and promotion, and content.

The nine ideas fall into one of three main categories.
The nine ideas fall into one of three main categories.

1. Customer expectations

When it comes to consumer expectations, three isn’t a crowd.

“One thing we learned in streaming is this concept of one service providing you all the journalism or all the streaming content that you need — that’s just not what customers expect,” Ribero said. “There’s comfort in purchasing and using more and more services to deliver on very specific needs.”

This opens the playing field for many offerings, including smaller and niche ones. While Netflix, for example, might be the obvious go-to choice for streaming entertainment, there are many others that offer specialised content and enjoy success: Curiosity Stream for documentaries, CrunchyRoll for anime, and FloSports for less-represented sports. 

“What I would ask here is, do you see that happening and, if so, how do you use that to your advantage? Positioning yourself as an add-on service could be an interesting way to approach it.”

The second idea in the expectations category is that membership has its benefits. Ribero used Disney as an example. When visiting Disneyland Park and Disney’s Hollywood Studios theme parks, Disney+ subscribers are offered a number of premium benefits that come with being a member of the Disney streaming community.

Offering exclusive member benefits can be an enticing incentive to get people to subscribe.
Offering exclusive member benefits can be an enticing incentive to get people to subscribe.

“Think about what you have in your existing ecosystem that you can add to make that subscription more valuable,” he suggested. 

These exclusive member benefits can be just as valuable to people, and should be used to support your subscription efforts.

Lastly, in this category there is something for everyone

This has to do with tiered pricing offers. Most streaming services offer a “good/better/best” subscription pricing framework, with some offering some sort of free tier, and nearly all offering a free trial. Price increases happen over time.

“How do you use sampling to ultimately drive adoption?” Ribero asked. He urged publishers to consider if they have the right pricing and product mix.

2. Marketing and promotion

In streaming entertainment, there are bundles of bundles

“It’s a really efficient way to piggyback and drive incremental volume,” Ribero said of bundling. “Are there other services or subscription products you can go with?”

Publishers should evaluate whether bundling their offers with other complementary services or products makes sense.

What’s old is new is another idea in this category.

More streaming services use “old,” i.e. offline, advertising. Examples of this include direct mail, linear TV, and out-of-home. News media organisations can explore whether more traditional marketing and advertising channels might make sense for them.

Ribero urged members to use data when deploying these offline tactics as well — the data is extremely valuable at targeting whether that’s digital or traditional.

Streaming services are very good at the idea of “you can check out, but you can never leave.”

This continuity marketing is extremely effective, and churn can be turned into a positive by using win-back tactics. Former customers who have cancelled can be a subscription service’s best source of leads for future subscribers.

Streaming services use continuity marketing to lure back cancelled subscribers.
Streaming services use continuity marketing to lure back cancelled subscribers.

Fighting customer behaviour is hard, particularly patterns such as seasonal behaviour and customers who sign up for one specific thing, then cancel when they’re done with that. Making it easy for previous subscribers to come back is a vital part of increasing these numbers.

3. Content

Day and date disruption is the first idea with content that publishers can take from the streaming giants.

At Paramount+, Ribero said disrupting the traditional movie distribution roll-out was very effective. The old method of a movie releasing into theatres, and then coming to streaming some weeks or months later, was accelerated by COVID-19. Now, more movies are launched in the theatre and in at-home streaming simultaneously.

News media publishers can consider this tactic and how it might apply to their content distribution models.

Lastly, when it comes to content, it’s a whole new world.

“Now, with global distribution, there’s this opportunity for global connections that maybe never existed before,” Ribero said.

He pointed to the success of “The Squid Game” on Netflix, which is a South Korean show that had huge impact and success in the United States and elsewhere around the world, simply through its streaming distribution.

As streamers expand globally, they realise lower cost and higher rewards for testing foreign shows in their domestic markets. News media companies could apply this by thinking of ways in which they can bring their regional content to a national or global stage.

About Shelley Seale

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