How newsletters, data, journalism drive digital subscriptions

By Shelley Seale


Austin, Texas, United States


INMA Researcher-in-Residence Greg Piechota is a global expert in digital subscriptions. On Monday, he led a live Readers First Meet-Up to talk about the role of newsletters in media subscriptions, notably:

  • What makes great newsletters? How do you build a portfolio? And do you work with the newsroom to deliver it?
  • How do you get the newsroom onboard your subscriptions-first business strategy? How do you align KPIs across departments? What data should you share to whom and how?
  • What is the bad side of consumer engagement? Do we risk creating filter bubbles ourselves by focusing on brand enthusiasts? How far could or should we go in appealing to the core audience?

Consumer engagement is the most important piece of the media industry’s revenue puzzle right now, according to the new INMA report Unpacking the Reader-Subscriber-Lifetime Customer Journey, released today. And newsletters are a vital to that engagement. To delve into this topic, Piechota invited guest presenters Elisabeth Goodridge, editorial director at The New York Times; Martin Jönsson, head of editorial development at Dagens Nyheter; and Jerzy B. Wójcik, publisher of Gazeta Wyborcza. 

Piechota shared some data about newsletters, collected from the Web sites of 128 nationwide news outlets in 33 Western countries — companies that charge for content.  In terms of the number of newsletters the outlets had, the breakdown was:

  • 20% have one newsletter.
  • 39% have two to 10 newsletters.
  • 24% have 11 to 20 newsletters.
  • 17% have 21 or more newsletters.

The average was 12 newsletters. Half of these are about news, and the other half are about lifestyle. “Most of the publishers seem to offer some daily newsletters,” Piechota said, “but there are also obviously some breaking news newsletters and some weekly ones.”

Statistics from 128 news outlets' newsletters around the globe.
Statistics from 128 news outlets' newsletters around the globe.

Elisabeth Goodridge, editorial director, The New York Times

Piechota’s first guest began by discussing the question posted by The Times of why newsletters and why now? First, there are numerous benefits for news media companies, Goodridge said:

  • Brand awareness.
  • Ad revenue.
  • Traffic driver.
  • Improved engagement.
  • Direct reader relationship.
  • Personal medium.
  • Easy to experiment.

There are also a number of benefits for the readers:

  • Ease of use.
  • No new platforms to learn.
  • Direct relationship with The Times.
  • No need to go down the “rabbit hole.”
  • Rising concern over social media.
  • What I want, where I want.
  • Already a part of their day.
The New York Times shows the benefits of newsletters to both the media company and readers.
The New York Times shows the benefits of newsletters to both the media company and readers.

“First off, it does a tremendous amount of brand awareness,” Goodridge said. “If you get someone to open your e-mail every time it lands in their inbox, they’ve really become accustomed to it arriving at the same time. The ability to give them Times’ journalism in a spot they’re familiar with is invaluable. We’re realising that they really do enjoy to ability to go into their inbox and find Times’ journalism there.”

Piechota confirmed this, saying that in terms of reader engagement, newsletters are invaluable. “We need to get them [the readers] to use our product every day, if possible. People who are most likely to subscribe are also people who are regular readers.”

“We have noticed that there is a relationship between newsletter readership and subscriber retention,” Goodridge said. “So as an engagement tool, it’s a pretty strong one. That’s why there’s been a lot of attention the past couple of years on newsletters.”

There was no one in Goodridge’s position before she came to The Times in 2016. She had been a digital editor for eight years prior to taking that position. At that time, the newspaper had 40 newsletters that were all grown organically because there was no editorial strategy behind them.

The problems facing the company at that time included clunky systems with little training or documentation, editors who rarely used analytics, little understanding of the audience or their needs, and no mapping of those needs to company goals.

There were a host of challenges facing The New York Times newsletter operation in 2016.
There were a host of challenges facing The New York Times newsletter operation in 2016.

“What we did was a complete audit first, and then we could figure out what we needed to do next,” Goodridge said.

Some first steps included an audit of existing products by format, subject type, audiences, and reader needs. The team also conducted a competitor analysis, did newsroom research on their readers, established goals, and identified KPIs.

“We had a lot of work to do, and it’s been a lot of fun,” Goodridge said. “What we’ve realised is that [with]nnewsletters, regardless of what subject type or what format, you just have to decide what goals should be aligned to those. But they’re all pretty successful if you follow a certain formula. You have to have trustworthy and valuable information; but you really have start with your audience first. Taking that audience-first approach allows us to craft products and write editorial content that really fits that audience.”

To that end, under Goodridge The Times added new staffers, a new pitch process, more reporting tools and data given to editorial, and has done lots of experiments of different types of newsletters. “We have a much better editorial strategy behind these newsletters, and we’ve had some really tremendous results.”

Today, The Times has seen great results with its new strategy for newsletters.
Today, The Times has seen great results with its new strategy for newsletters.

Her team has also been pleased with the results of its personalised newsletters, which recommends articles based on a reader's reading habits and the reading habits of readers like that person. “It allows us to say that we’re really on the cutting edge of AI technology and machine learnin,” she said.

This does take a little bit of editorial curation, Goodridge said: “The last thing we want to do is send you a couple of election run-ups the day after the election.”

Martin Jönsson, head of editorial, Dagens Nyheter, Sweden

Jönsson discussed digital subscriptions and what the end game is on the topic. A new pricing strategy is simply the beginning: To charge for content, publishers need to optimise the content and to have a redefined business model.

Over four years of digital subscription growth, Dagens Nyheter went from 4,000 subscribers in early 2015, to 153,000 in October 2018. “We expect that by May/June next year, we will have more digital only subscribers than we will print subscribers,” Jönsson said. “We’re going against the current in Sweden. We are growing, and one of the reasons is that we have changed the entire way we operate the organisation.”

In 2017, the company experienced problems with churn. Team members realised recruitment was too costly and the value placed on lifetime subscribers was too low, Jönsson said. Some of the major changes in how the outlet worked to combat this and succeed at digital subscriptions included:

  • Creating a truly cross-functional team.
  • Doing a 15-minute check-in every morning.
  • Holding a weekly 30-minute demo.
  • Doing continuous and regular problem solving.

“We took a deep dive into our data,” Jönsson added. “After all that, we saw very good results; lower churn by 30% after just a couple of months. Some people asked, so is this project over now? But we realised, no — this is the way we need to work in the future.”

To increase digital subscriptions and retention, Dagens Nyheter completely changed how its newsroom works.
To increase digital subscriptions and retention, Dagens Nyheter completely changed how its newsroom works.

Before these changes, staff at Dagens Nyheter often didn’t know about problems in the digital subscription process or issues that customers were having until it was too late.

“We wanted to integrate truly the organisation so that we could focus on the entire journey — the lifetime journey — so that people would value our content and value it so that they wanted to stay on for a long time. To build that loyalty, we have to have quality in everything we do, from the content to the reader relationship and how we value them.”

To do this, the No. 1 strategy of the organisation is to increase digital subscribers and make sure those subscribers stay. “That is very much present in our day-to-day conversations in the newsroom,” Jönsson said. “We share stats on everything.”

This new way of working filters all the way down to the end result of how the content is packaged, received, and engaged with by the consumer. “One of the important things is that this isn’t just about our strategy — this is about our survival,” Jönsson said. “We tried to turn it into a positive spiral by saying that if we can get people to subscribe to us digitally, then we can improve journalism.”

For the first time in several years, two years in a row in fact, Dagens Nyheter has increased the number of journalists in its newsroom, showing the digital subscription strategy is working. In fact, the newsroom itself actually runs digital subscriptions. The editor-in-chief is also the CMO responsible for marketing the business.

This came about due to “the efforts to put more money into the high-quality journalism that we want to do,” Jönsson said. They knew that this meant they could no longer be dependent on ad revenue. Two-thirds of their current revenue is reader revenue, and he only sees that increasing.

“By having the top leaders committing to this, and showing it on a daily basis, we are shifting readership from the print to digital subscribers. We are also changing the type of person that is buying into our content. We have to understand this new readership and have a balance between them.”

Jerzy B. Wójcik, publisher, Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland

Gazeta Wyborcza, the largest daily newspaper in Poland, has grown its digital subscription base from 3,000 subscribers four years ago to 134,000 subscribers today — and it’s growing.

One of the things the company does is give awards to its journalists, based on the engagement of their stories by the audience. This is really working, Wójcik said.

Piechota, who is from Poland, noted his home country is currently shifting towards nationalism politically, and Gazeta Wyborcza is the leading liberal newspaper. “The newspaper can no longer rely on advertising — not only because of Google and Facebook, like everyone else in the world — but basically because if anybody is doing any business with the government, they might not be willing to advertise with a newspaper that criticises the nationalist and populist government.”

This is one driver behind Gazeta Wyborcza’s focus on digital subscriptions — and one of the ways it is doing this is by using very bold, cause-led journalism.

Gazeta Wyborcza leads with cause-led, progressive journalism in a nationalistic political climate.
Gazeta Wyborcza leads with cause-led, progressive journalism in a nationalistic political climate.

“For us, it’s a quite obvious way of surviving,” Wójcik said. “We are talking to the government as an enemy of state. If you want to survive, we are trying to do our best in journalism. The marketing is mixed in politics in this situation.”

Gazeta Wyborcza receives strong feedback from its readers that it should engage in this political situation. “We protect freedom of speech, different demands of the liberal society, etc. It’s a very tense situation.” The news media company treats the consumers as citizens, first and foremost, Wójcik said.

In such an oppressed environment, how did Gazeta Wyborcza work around it in terms of digital subscriptions, and where are they today?

“We focused on our readers, our citizens, for this big battle between black and white, whatever it is, about engagement, including digital engagement,” Wójcik said. When the company put up its paywall and required a subscription to read its digital content, it was a big shock to the market, he said.

“We wanted to connect the responsibility for comments to the subscribers. Now, we see how comments drive subscriptions. Because people have the space where they can talk in a friendly atmosphere about the important issues.”

The big challenge now is how to build a space that can be used as a common ground. “We want to establish such a platform for quite opposite sides to build a common ground,” Wójcik said. “We cannot leave the future in such a divided society.”

About Shelley Seale

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