The Relationship Economy: How NRC used customer data and concerns to grow its subscriber base

By Dawn McMullan


Dallas, Texas, United States


NRC Media today finds itself at a data, cultural, and subscription intersection that is allowing the company to grow its business by focusing on relationships.

This journey, and the broader journey of news media companies reinventing themselves for a relationship-based subscription age, was the focus of an INMA Webinar Wednesday by NRC Media executives Xavier van Leeuwe and Matthijs van de Peppel and Mather Economics President Matt Lindsay.

The Webinar was based on the new book by the three INMA members titled How to Succeed in the Relationship Economy.

INMA members may view the complete Webinar in the Members-Only section of

Van Leeuwe, director of marketing and data of NRC Media, shared how the company went from hunting for subscribers — which had been steadily decreasing by 15,000 per year — to lower churn in every tenure category, and sustained financial growth from readers. 

Xavier van Leeuwe presents The Relationship Economy, with panelists Matt Lindsay and Matthijs van de Peppel
Xavier van Leeuwe presents The Relationship Economy, with panelists Matt Lindsay and Matthijs van de Peppel

According to van Leeuwe, this success is attributed to what he calls the Relationship Economy: adding empathy to the data mix. He has learned — and shares — a valuable lesson: caring for employees and customers leads to better results than hunting for profits.

NRC learned that it was important to listen to their customers, as well as collect data and market analysis. Customers were saying that they wanted longer discounts and did not like big yearly bills. NRC needed to take these customer preferences and figure out how to translate them into a fair income for the organisation.

To do this, they offered longer discounts and a monthly payment plan — and received one, two, or three year contracts from customers in return, in correlation with the discount given. These longer contracts also strengthened customer relationships; retention went from 4% for monthly subscribers, to 45% for annual subscribers.

Before achieving this, NRC made mistakes along the way that they learned from. They were focusing on selling whatever looked best in the Audit Bureau Standards. In that case, the best boost was the six-day newspaper, and so they gave more sales bonuses for six-day subscriptions.

However, the six-day subscription had less retention of new subscribers (33%) than the one-day newpaper did (40%). "We were not paying enough attention to our Key Performance Indicators," said van Leeuwe.

He offered tips on how to build a data team as a small news organisation, saying the key is to let business people lead your data teams. The deep learning they have achieved cannot be outsourced, and decentralising can avoid producing junk data.

NRC has three thresholds for its data projects:

  • Start with the basics — lay a good foundation first.
  • Have a good business case: start with your end goal, plan for how to monetise the data, and then work backwards.
  • Don’t store data if you can’t explain why you are doing so.

But does NRC sell less with this model?

In a word, no. The company saw 20% more influx in 2015 than the previous year, with subscriptions going up to 49,919 from 40,415 in 2014. Contract volume also went up 126% from 2014 to 2016. The greatest result, however, was in subscription cancellations: NRC had a 48% decrease in stops from 2014 to 2016.

Granular financial insights allowed them to set market-based pricing that avoids stops and increases revenue, while being less frustrating for the customer. In short, their statistical model enabled them to find the right acquisition price, and to increase prices with minimal strain. This brought NRC both more readers and more money.

To innovate despite a silo mentality, development needs to be stimulated in a way that offers customers an optimal experience, while creating optimal value for the company.

The Relationship Economy network model:

  • Creates a disruption committee, by putting sales and service closest to the customers.
  • Has a mission and goals that motivate every department.
  • C-level support acts as an umbrella; profound change requires experiments and allows mistakes.
  • Shows tangible results, however small. Start with measurable projects that include finance to improve KPI.
  • Develops projects with multidisciplinary duos — niche product launches with the same goals, and getting to know other co-workers from other silos.
  • Develops a course that includes all silos and layers. We recommend to afternoons to learn the basics of project management, and to teach the basics of customer experience.

The authors said their journey has been bolstered by a subscription economy that is dramatically outpacing the S&P 500 and other benchmarks for growth. Publishers should take advantage of this trend, they said.

About Dawn McMullan

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