Research points to nurturing light readers

By Greg Piechota


Oxford, United Kingdom


News subscription leaders are revisiting their approaches to light-reading visitors. The quick win they seek is to improve retention. The next opportunity is to open for broader acquisition. 

This analysis applies to the publishers with established subscription programmes:

  • When launching new paywalls, these publishers usually see the fans of their news brand and the heavy readers convert the soonest.
  • As subscription products mature, the publishers usually adjust paywalls to stop the light-reading visitors and promote the brand to those less familiar.
  • New challenges then arise, as light-reading subscribers churn more than heavy-reading cohorts. If not fixed, churn flattens the growth curve — one acquires many new subscribers but loses that same many.

While news publishers in general recognise the value of reader engagement, they often focus on understanding and following the needs of heavy-reading subscribers. This might be a strategic mistake.

“Heavy-reading members make up majority of page views of the Journal, but there are only so many of them. Beware of losing insight of light-reading members,” Louise Story, chief news strategist and chief product and technology officer at The Wall Street Journal, told me in December.

In 2020, the Journal and other leading news publishers, such as Aftenposten in Norway and The Washington Post, revisited their product, editorial, and marketing approaches to light-reading visitors, and shared their learnings during an INMA master classes.

Know your light subscribers: Aftenposten relied in 2020 on trials for acquisition. On average, 25% of the subscriber base was on trial ‚ these were new trialists or returning ones. Retaining them was critical for Aftenposten to continue growing.

“Unfortunately, most trial subscribers visit the home page of Aftenposten less than once per day. They are most likely to churn if not engaged,” said Karl Oskar Teien, product director, during the INMA Master Class on the Digital Subscriber Experience

In 2020, he led a home page’s overhaul, focused on driving the number of days readers visited. When studying light-reading subscribers, he and his team found insights useful in designing the new experience:

  • Their visits were logged-in, so there was reliable data to study in the first place — differently than when trying to analyse behaviours of non-subscribers who mostly did not log in.
  • Their interests in features or content were also more noticeable and distinctive than when studying heavy-reading subscribers who were basically reading everything.
  • The biggest opportunity was not in making heavy readers read more articles but assuring that both visited at least once per day. 

Aftenposten’s retention challenges are not unique. In 2020, The Wall Street Journal focused on improving retention of its light-reading subscribers, too.

Optimise for your light subscribers: In the 2020 review of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial content, Louise Story and her teams found light-reading subscribers were more selective, which helped the teams see the difference between their behaviours and the heavy-reading peers:

  • In general, the topics attractive to light readers were successful with heavy readers, too — generated as many pageviews or time spent on average — as the topics over-indexing with heavy readers.
  • This association did not work the other way: The topics uniquely attractive to heavy readers did not necessarily fare well with light readers.
  • At the same time, interests of light-reading subscribers overlapped with the interests of non-subscribers.

This analysis showed the Journal’s newsroom a clear path not only for retaining the light-reading subscribers but for making the newspaper attractive to new customers. For example:

  • Create new story types for busy readers to catch up.
  • Explain the news and not only report it, as the light readers might enjoy more background or advice how to act on the news.

According to Story, these insights helped shape the editorial coverage during the COVID-19 pandemic in Spring 2020 and the U.S. presidential election in the Autumn. 

Open doors for casual readers: Many news brands saw a spike in online traffic in 2020, and The Washington Post was no different. 

Its explainer on “flattening the coronavirus curve” went viral on social networks and with a further promotional boost it reached over 8.6 million people. Many of those were non-subscribers. In the first 30 days, 19% of all paywall hits on the Post site were a result of visitors landing on this single “flattening the curve” article! 

“The problem was the new COVID readers converted at lower rate than those who were hitting a meter on other articles,” explained Shauna Plesmid, digital marketing director/ subscriptions, during the INMA Digital Subscriber Acquisition Accelerator

News about the pandemic mobilised casual readers to actively search for news, and many came to the Post sideways through social networks or aggregator apps. Unfortunately, before they discovered more of the Post, they bounced of a paywall. And the Post had limited means to reach back to them.

This insight led to a revamp of the marketing strategy. Instead of stopping new COVID readers, it decided to trade free articles for registrations. For example, 600,000 new readers signed up for the Coronavirus Updates newsletter. They could read any linked story for free, regardless their meter limit, if they were logged in. 

As a result, the Post collected reliable data about those new light readers, could understand them better, and further engage by sending more links via e-mail or targeting them with recommendations via paid advertising on social networks. 

The Post redesigned its article pages to help the COVID readers discover more metered content. It also experimented with the dynamic paywall rules — the automated decision of whether it’s time to offer a subscription depended on, for example, whether they have visited articles in politics or world news sections.

According to Shauna Plesmid, the shift in the treatment of casual readers in 2020 helped the Post grow its digital subscriber base to 3 million by December.

Looking for new ideas for subscriber growth in 2021? Join the INMA Media Subscription Summit. We start today, February 11, and will continue on Tuesday and Thursdays in February with 12+ hours of programming and 30+ speakers and moderators. Register today to watch live or on demand.

About Greg Piechota

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