SCMP uses paywalls, team infrastructure to understand readers

By Michelle Palmer Jones

Nashville, Tennessee, United States


Everything moves fast at the South China Morning Post: the news cycle, the culture, and the decision-making by its leaders. Subscriptions for SCMP have had two stages of life already, and its 18-month-old second life stage is proving to be much more lucrative than the first, according to Adrian Lee, senior vice president/audience growth for SCMP.

“We surpassed our almost 10-year initial digital subscription in terms of the number of subscribers within our first 12 months of this one,” he said. He credits that growth to changes at SCMP and the world’s interest in what’s happening in China. SCMP offers month-to-month, one-year, and two-year subscription options.

The mission of the paywall is a rigorous approach to understanding readers and what they are looking for, and being able to make decisions around product and growth at a high rate of speed.

“I think some of the questions that we’ve had to answer have not been easy ones to come to a resolution around,” Lee said. “A lot of the decisions that I’m making actually impact many other cross-functional leaders across the organisation.”

SCMP has built an engine and culture for agility, and that’s where they’re starting to see things click, Lee said: “I feel like we have got to a state where our paywall is as dynamic as a number of other global peers who have been in the market for a much longer time than we have. I think about it in terms of building the right pipes but also convening the right people to make these decisions.”

Creating an infrastructure

The pipes are the way to build an infrastructure, and the people part is making sure the right folks are making the decisions, Lee said. SCMP’s digital transformation was made up of five pillars:

  • Newsroom restructure.
  • Redefining editorial product.
  • New product expertise.
  • Analytics enhancements.
  • Tech enhancements.

The company went through a fundamental physical and mental shift from print-first to digital-first, as well as focusing less on local Hong Kong readership in favour of a global readership. 

“That’s all a balance we are trying to straddle and make sure that we’re getting right,” Lee said. “We want to make sure we are still serving that global readership but making sure our local Hong Kong readers don’t feel forgotten.”

Service journalism has changed dramatically, and what best serves the local readership is different than it was, Lee said. Now, when a company brings in new talent, it’s important for the new hires to be able to think about what best-in-class digital products look like and have a growth mindset already instilled.

“You have to find people who are living and breathing a cultural change and are able to communicate those cultural changes and leadership changes to their teams as well,” Lee said. 

It’s crucial to be able to look in real-time at what the readers are doing, communicate what that data is saying, and educate the company on how to analyse and interpret how the data can feed back into building a product, he said.

“I think the thing that we have done that’s maybe slightly different is the way that we have weaponised that ability to act on our first-party reader data,” Lee said. 

Three squads, one purpose

SCMP organises its operational team on three mission squads: reader acquisition, reader engagement and retention, and reader conversion.  The editorial, advertising, and revenue teams are all part of these conversations. 

SCMP's operational teams are divided into three squads, and each squad has different goals, KPIs, and drivers.
SCMP's operational teams are divided into three squads, and each squad has different goals, KPIs, and drivers.

“These three mission squads meet every week on a Monday and there is an hour when everyone communicates their top three priorities for that week,” Lee said.

Those priorities ladder up to cross-functional OKRs and quarterly company goals. The next day, SCMP looks at ways to remove barriers for those operational teams. Department leaders from editorial, audience growth, product, and communications departments attend the secondary meetings.

“We start with a review of the past week’s core traffic vitals, editorial then briefs us on the week’s upcoming newsroom priorities, and then we really get into the thick of matters,” Lee said.

SCMP created an initiative to keep the non-editorial teams informed of what the editorial team is working on.
SCMP created an initiative to keep the non-editorial teams informed of what the editorial team is working on.

SCMP believes it’s much easier to be agile and dynamic if they know what’s coming down the news pipeline. They went as far as to create an initiative that informed non-editorial team members about what the editorial team was thinking about for the near future. 

“This has actually been so successful, we extended it to an annual planning calendar,” Lee said. “There are so many editorial tent poles coming out of China and Asia that we feel from a subscription perspective, it’s a really exciting 12 months we have ahead of us.”

About Michelle Palmer Jones

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