Debut Readers First Meet-Up delves into reader loyalty, best paywall models, newsletters

By Shelley Seale


Austin, Texas, United States


INMA Researcher-in-Residence Grzegorz Piechota is passionate about reader revenue and engagement. With a beer on his desk — a nod to the idea of an informal gathering of peers at a pub on a Friday afternoon — Piechota and 120 or so of his closest INMA friends (from 33 countries) discussed loyal user behaviours, the best paywall models, and newsletters.

Piechota greeted the online INMA members live from the famed Eagle & Child pub in Oxford, United Kingdom, for the inaugural Readers First Meet-Up, joined by five guests: Terri Walter, chief marketing officer at Chartbeat, and Dawn McMullan, senior editor at INMA, speaking on loyalty; and Riske Betten, digital manager of De Telegraaf, Bard Skaar Viken, director/consumer business of Schibsted, and Robert Whitehead of McPherson Media.

Patterns of loyalty

Chartbeat did a study of online traffic with 471 news sites worldwide, finding news Web sites that enjoy more loyal visits see more direct visits and less visits referred from social networks. Page views from social networks have less reader loyalty.

“There is a very popular view among some marketers that bigger players will find it easier to have many more loyal users,” Piechota said. But when he looks at the 500 sites in Chartbeat, he finds that that doesn’t apply as a rule.

“You can be a very big Web site and have a big share of the market; but at the same time, your readers are not very loyal. At the same time, you can be a very small player, but you can have very loyal traffic,” Piechota said. “So, my hypothesis is that it depends on what you do — not who you are — when it comes to having loyal traffic.”

Size or scope of the news site does not seem to be linked with loyal behaviours. Rather, success and failure in attracting loyal readership depends on news outlets’ products, content, and marketing.

A world gone mobile

Piechota then turned it over to Terri Walter of Chartbeat to talk about three key shifts:

  • Changes in platform referral sources.
  • Emergence of a new class of referrers: the mobile portals.
  • Return in power to publishers in terms of direct traffic.

“You can’t talk about loyalty without talking about supply and demand,” Walter said. “What we see is that demand to news sites looks pretty much like a flat line; it’s pretty stable. When you look at that line, it doesn’t look like anything is changing. But there are dramatic changes happening in terms of where traffic is coming from, and that does have a tremendous impact in how we think about loyalty.”

Direct Web site visitors are far more loyal than those referred from social media networks.
Direct Web site visitors are far more loyal than those referred from social media networks.

The shift that Chartbeat is seeing as a primary drive is the emergence of mobile. Looking at company data from January 2017 through July 2018, Walter said traffic patterns from platforms haven’t just changed — they’ve reversed. At the beginning of this time period, traffic going to publisher’s sites on mobile was driven by Facebook, followed by direct, then followed by Google. But beginning in August to October 2017, key shifts began to happen. By July 2018, there was a complete reversale: Facebook is down 40% and Google is also down, but direct traffic is significantly higher.

“What this is telling us is that people are more likely to go direct to a publisher’s site,” Walter said. “More consumers on mobile are just as likely to go direct to your site than to be referred to your site.”

Beyond that, Chartbeat is seeing the rise of news aggregators and news app usage. This was termed as the shape-shifting reader:

  • This is a new class of mobile referrers.
  • The leading aggregators are not always obvious.
  • The reader is going to find the news.

App visitors are 5.7 times more loyal than platform visitors and, amazingly, mobile visitors exhibit more loyalty across the board. “This new class of referrer is really interesting,” Walter said. “It means there is an alternative to Facebook. The fact that publishers can also come together and aggregate their news in a successful business model is really interesting to us.”

Yet there are challenges with this change, Walter added. For example, with Google Chrome, there is no way for publishers to pitch their stories: “It’s driven completely by personalisation. But I think for most of the publishers we work with, we really need to put pressure on Google or figure out what this means.”

Chartbeat is looking at the Google changes carefully and has published quite a bit about this on its blog. “The changes have been swift, quick, and they’re accelerating. And it’s putting Google in a very powerful position — not just in search but across Google news and Google Chrome suggestions. We have to watch that carefully.”

Chartbeat has native app measurement and is in beta with a push alert system. “We believe that part of the power of driving loyalty that’s in the hands of publishers right now, is using push alerts to drive into app and deep link into other mobile properties. We really feel that this trend has happened so quickly, and it needs to be looked at with utmost importance by all of our clients.”

Loyalty: How newsletters are redefining media subscriptions

Next, Dawn McMullan, senior editor of INMA, discussed building loyalty with newsletters based on the INMA strategic report “How Newsletters are Redefining Media Subscriptions.”

INMA members can take advantage of the report, "How Newsletters Are Redefining Media Subscriptions."
INMA members can take advantage of the report, "How Newsletters Are Redefining Media Subscriptions."

McMullan began by talking about e-mail, which is the constant for professionals in the business world. “When search engine algorithms changed in 2013, and the unpredictability of social media — their algorithms changed in 2014 — suddenly the whole world was a little scary for us. We needed to figure out a way to reach people without the dependability of search engines and social media, which we thought we were going to rely on.”

Combined with the downturn of advertising revenue and the need to increase digital subscriptions, media publishers turned back to the silver bullet of e-mail. McMullan shared some valuable statistics about the reach of e-mail, from the Quartz Global Executive Study

  • 75% of high-level executives get their news first thing in the morning.
  • 94% of high-level executives get this early morning news from an e-mail newsletter.
  • 91% of consumers check their e-mail at least once daily.
  • 80% of U.S. consumers and almost 50% globally do this on a smart phone.

“The habit is already there,” McMullan said. “That means that e-mail is a direct relationship between your media company and the reader who provided the e-mail address. What we’ve really learned over the past few years is that having an e-mail address for a reader is just central to our audience strategy.”

One very interesting finding from this report is that when it comes to e-mail newsletters, there really isn’t a saturation point for the consumer — as long as the content is relevant to them. “That felt magical to me when I heard it,” McMullan said.

Members can learn more about this in the INMA report, which is free for members. 

Piechota asked McMullan which are the publishers to look to as role models for a successful newsletter strategy. Her response was The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Financial Times, and The Wall Street Journal are those to look at on the global market. The Boston Globe and the Arizona Republic are doing very interesting things in the United States. Digitally, Politico and Quartz are publishers to watch.

The question was brought up about whether e-mail newsletters work as effectively in non-English speaking markets. As attendees on the Meet-Up weighed in via the chat module, several non-English language newspapers said that the newsletter model did, indeed, work for them.

McMullan shared a few more details about The Boston Globe, which has built a highly successful newsletter strategy.

“They have made an incredibly aggressive push into this business,” she said. Over the past decade, the Globe has built a model that now offers 33 newsletters and reaches 1.7 million subscribers. These newsletters span multiple specific topics, including politics, skiing, and the Boston Red Sox baseball team.

“They really dove into what their audience is interested in,” McMullan said. This is something she heard time and time again from companies: you really need to know your audience and what caters to their interests. “You can e-mail them all day, as long as the content is relevant to them.”

An important point McMullan brought up was that while it is tempting for media companies to go straight to the content, that is not the place to start. Companies must start with their goals first. Are you trying to get readers to your Web site? Are you trying to engage them with specific content?

Technology is also a major piece of this puzzle to be addressed. Many media companies have encountered tech challenges because they didn’t start there. “If this newsletter doesn’t look perfect on a phone, then everything you’ve done is a waste of time,” McMullan said. “So really focus on the technology; make sure that your sign-up process is ridiculously easy, that there’s no friction.”

The last vital part of a successful newsletter strategy is to be authentic. McMullan again mentioned The Boston Globe and how the media company does this well. “That really is what makes you stand out and creates a relationship with the audience — which is really the point of all this.” Only then should the content be addressed.

Paywall strategy

Bard Skaar Viken, director of consumer business at Schibsted, discussed paywall strategy at the meet-up. The Schibsted-owned Aftenposten has gone through several shifts from one paywall model to another, from freemium to metered. Today, the company employs a hybrid freemium/meter model.

This slide illustrates the journey through various paywall models that Aftenposten has evolved through.
This slide illustrates the journey through various paywall models that Aftenposten has evolved through.

After experimenting with paywall for a year and a half, Aftenposten decided to go “all in” in 2015, Viken explained.

“We started looking at our data, we did some research and talked to our customers, and we discovered a couple of very important things,” Viken told attendees.

Aftenposten’s customers didn’t understand the model. They didn’t see the difference between the paid experience and the free experience. Very few users met the paywall. At the time, with 20 free articles per month, few readers went beyond that.

This combination led the Aftenposten team to focus on changing its model for success. “What we have done is continuously experimented, tested, and optimised. Right now we have a Hybrid 2.0; it’s not a metered model with some freemium content on top. It’s a freemium model with a meter on top.”

The results have come from continuous experimentation, Viken said, including:

  • Quantity.
  • Holdback tests.
  • Content packaging.
  • Reorganised telemarketing.
  • New brand profile.
  • Retargeting.

“I think the thing to emphasise is that there is not one model that fits all,” Viken said. Schibsted, for example, operates three different paywall models on its different media brands, including Aftenposten, depending on the needs and customers of each brand.

“I think testing and experimenting is the way to move forward,” Viken said. “There are obviously some things that are contributing more to our growth than others.” Aftenposten is also starting to slowly experiment with dynamic models, as well. “We believe that there are some significant possible uplifts for doing this.”

Using data to make each reader’s experience as personalised as possible has been a big key to the Aftenposten strategy. The company recently launched an algorithmic front page on the Web site. “We need to make sure that we are in control of the whole user experience,” Viken explained. “I think this is an important discussion going forward. Data will not solve everything. We need to make sure that we give each customer a good experience.”

Determining a paywall model

Riske Betten, digital manager of De Telegraaf, then took the virtual stage, coming from a unique angle of being in the planning stages of a paywall launch for 2019. De Telegraaf began looking at the various models out there. While the company hoped to get a clearcut answer of the one strategy that would work for them, such an easy solution was too good to be true, Betten said.

So, they set about choosing a strategy by using a needs matrix. The team defined three of De Telegraaf’s needs — subscription revenue, identified reach, and revenue from reach — and measured those out to different paywall models they were thinking about, from a hard paywall to freemium and hybrids in between.

“In the end, we had a winner,” Betten said. “We chose the hybrid model; it’s a freemium model with a meter on three premium articles. But what might be most important for us is that by using this needs matrix, we found out that most media players, as we did previously, were building a wall from two walls — the registration wall and the paywall. And we actually didn’t convert any of the people on this free content.”

Behaviour says all when it comes to the intention of buying, Betten said. The team wanted to optimise the registration wall and the paywall for selling subscriptions.

De Telegraaf looked at several models to determine what would work best for its paywall.
De Telegraaf looked at several models to determine what would work best for its paywall.

The question that De Telegraaf really wants to answer is that of identified reach. “The need of knowing who is using you and what’s the goal of that — what do people use you for?”

Viken spoke for Aftenposten on this question, saying the company uses such data for a lot of different reasons. “We use it for selling and cross-selling. We use it for sort of tailoring different kinds of messages, and also to understand more about how our users use our products, et cetera.”


Betten raised the question that De Telegraaf has been asking itself, which is whether it should separate the registration wall and paywall — to get more detailed user data from another registration point and use the paywall exclusively to get subscriptions.

Piechota weighed in on this. “We know that behavioural signals like the number of stories you read, the time you spend, the number of active days of your visits, are very predictive signals for subscription. The problem is that if you don’t log in ... you cannot actually trace [traffic] that well. People might visit your Web site from many different devices, so you might not know that this is the same person coming onto your site.”

That is one of the biggest benefits of registering people, Piechota said. Without it, segmentation of readers for subscription sales based on behaviour becomes much more difficult. “I think there are big benefits to registering people for subscription purposes; without it, you just don't know who you're talking to

The paywall of the future

Robert Whitehead of McPherson in Australia and moderator of the April 2018 INMA Media Subscription Summmit in London, took over the meet-up to talk about what the future holds for paywall solutions. “The dynamic model is going to be part of freemium and it’s going to be part of metered, and it’s not too far away from being an off-the-shelf solution. It’s coming.”

Robert Whitehead looks at where freemium is the happiest, and discusses the coming dynamic model.
Robert Whitehead looks at where freemium is the happiest, and discusses the coming dynamic model.


“Freemium is where the happy point is,” Whitehead said. “Globally, we know that the shift was the North American market went for metered, and Europe largely went for freemium, and then Europe invented the hybrid.” Both continents, Whitehead noted, are looking at putting the overlay of depersonalisation.

“It’s not just adaptive like The Wall Street Journal. The next part of that is connecting personalised pricing. You are already personalising the journey through the marketing outflow because personalised marketing is already well established. You put personalised marketing with personalised content and personalised pricing, and you get the pay gateway of the next 18 months to two years.”

There is a huge amount of work going on among smart suppliers in this space, he said.

“You can make any model work. It is really, really important to understand the fundamental differences between these models.” Whitehead said that although he used a needs matrix, like De Telegraaf, he found that it didn’t tell him the right things.

“I’d rather look to the examples now of the publishers that have had the courage to change models multiple times,” he said. “We now know categorically that the meter only works in certain circumstances. The thing that you’ve got to be able to nail is important across all these models. It is way more important on the needs chart to know that you have the company aligned around this cause. Do you have a very strong brand? Do you stand for something incredibly powerful, that your audience is going to want to opt-in and be a part of?”

If you have those things, and your editorial is nailing that value proposition — then you can make any of these models work, Whitehead asserted.

“The more concentrated, the more focused and the more aligned your brand is to the members that you are going to attract, the more likely that you are going to have a very tough gateway. You are going to have very few articles for free, if any.”

If you don’t put huge amounts of unique material out there every single day, do not even consider the meter, Whitehead said in conclusion.

“It’s just not going to work for you. And most importantly … every single part of your organisation needs to be aligned around subscription. This is not a marketing activity with digital product thrown in and then the tech guys having to deliver it. It is a successful DNA attribute — you must have the entire organisation around the brief. Everyone must understand exactly where it fits.”

About Shelley Seale

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