Diving into local reader revenue, faster growth, smart attribution, and the value of comments

By Grzegorz Piechota


Oxford, United Kingdom


Good morning! This is Readers First, a monthly newsletter for INMA members on reader revenue innovation. I’m researcher-in-residence at INMA, heading up it Readers First Initiative. E-mail me at: grzegorz.piechota@inma.org or DM via Slack (sign up here). 

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1. LOCAL NEWS MEDIA. Content is digital already, but the print culture is deeply rooted 

Local publishers in Austria and Germany have online reader revenue strategies but they are not satisfied with the execution, finds an in-depth benchmarking study by INMA and The Institute for Media Strategies based in London.

Methodology: Between March and July 2019, 10 local and regional publishers answered to the survey of 50 questions on strategy, organisation, their subscriptions initiative, and performance. The findings were discussed and validated during an in-person workshop in Graz, Austria, followed by brainstorming and road mapping paths forward. The key findings were shared last week at the INMA/Mather Reader Revenue Symposium in Hamburg, Germany.

Print business: In the past three years, the print newspaper customer base shrunk on average 4% per year, and the number of active print subscribers at the end of 2018 ranged from 28,000 to 190,000.

Online business: They all launched paywalls or equivalents between 2009 and 2017, growing the number of digital-only subscribers in the past three years at a rate of 20% per year, reaching up to 48,000. None of the publishers was very satisfied with these results, and a quarter was actually very dissatisfied.

Mystery behind the numbers: To my and the fellow researcher Dietmar Schantin’s surprise, not a start date, neither a paywall model and pricing, nor the Web site traffic characteristics (such as a share of direct visits) were predictive for the success in online sales.

Publishers’ themselves linked the success with factors such as qualities of a product and user experience, quality and relevance of content, and talent and skills of people responsible for the execution.

Transformation that has not yet happened: Analysing the publishers’ goals, internal organisation and resource allocation, we realised the secret might be hidden in the differences in ways these local publishers approached the digital business.

We found that roles, responsibilities, and resources did not follow the success factors as identified by the publishers:

  • In 80% of companies, product and editorial staff were not sharing any responsibilities of driving acquisition or engaging for retention. This was usually relegated to a marketing or an old-fashioned circulation department.
  • Despite having all the responsibility for the execution, the marketing and circulation departments enjoyed, on average, only 17% of all full-time staff dedicated to reader revenue. The resources, but not the KPIs, were mostly allocated to the newsroom and the product team.

During the workshop, one publisher explained: “We used to think that our current employees could do anything: social media, data analytics, online sales. Results are not satisfying. Perhaps we need specialists, but we cannot find them in our town.” 

2. GROWTH. In digital subscriptions, time in market and a number of experiments are indicators of success

Fears of a possible downturn in economy create a sense of urgency to accelerate the digital growth. Reader revenue executives tell me about being summoned by the boards and pressured: “Can we grow any faster?”

How fast is fast: How fast do you think you could grow if you had better editors, unlimited budget to spend on content, marketing and technology, and access to the best know-how on e-commerce? Double or triple the current rate? Faster?

Look at The Washington Post and your board’s expectations may get more realistic.

  • Since December 2012, The Post has had Marty Baron as its editor-in-chief. Mr. Baron is famous for his leadership at The Boston Globe during the investigation of sex abuse at the Catholic Church. In the U.S. press, he is heralded as the best news editor of all time.
  • Since October 2013, it has had Jeff Bezos as its owner. Mr. Bezos, a founder of Amazon, is currently the richest person in the world, with estimated net worth of more than US$ 150 billion.
  • Guided by Mr. Bezos’ experience in e-commerce, the Post invested in technology and built its state-of-art publishing tech stack from scratch, offering it now to other publishers for a fee.

Despite all this, The Posts paywall (launched in June 2013) enjoyed no traction until 2016, or its fourth year. Based on the data shared by Miki King, its chief marketing officer, The Post acquired most of its one million digital-only subscribers in 2017 and 2018, or its fifth and sixth year.

A closer analysis of the Post’s meter paywall development shows that between 2013 and 2016, the newspaper decreased its limit from 20 articles to 10, and then to 5, without any significant increase in sales. That suggests the newspaper might have lacked readers viewing more than five articles per month, and it had to mobilise its readership first to visit more frequently and view more articles before it could convert them into subscribers.

Learning curve: It’s no coincidence. It simply takes to time to learn a reader revenue business and to condition users to pay. Having studied performance of its long-time customers, Piano, a subscriptions software vendor, found time in market was the greatest indicator of success.

In 2018, Piano looked at customers who had been on its platform for at least 15 months and compared their first two quarters to the last three quarters. For nearly every customer, the average number of new subscribers acquired monthly increased significantly over time — from 33% up to 1,119% (sic!).

Iterative process: The growth is usually a result of rigorous data-driven experimentation. Earlier this year, a group of Swiss Ringier and German Axel Springer executives gathered in Budapest. Claudius Senst, then head of consumer subscriptions at The Business Insider, presented what it took his team to grow the reader revenue. The chart featured 402 changes to the user experience of the Prime customers, 171 design updates, and 99 different A/B tests — all applied within one year. 

3. ATTRIBUTION. Which articles do best convert readers into subscribers? 

As the focus shifts from driving traffic to subscriptions, editors tune their newsroom dashboards to feature the best converting articles. Is this the right approach?

Who killed that whale? Attribution, or identification of actions that led to a desired outcome, is an old problem. Harvard Business School Professor Thales Teixeira teaches MBA students about the complexity of advertising attribution using the 1823 court case of the dispute of a whale carcass. Several whaling ships claimed its ownership based on each one’s contribution to the killing.

Value of solving the problem: Acquiring subscribers luckily isn’t as violent as whaling, but the stakes are high. The converting articles data suggest topics that editors might prioritise, commission, and display more. Topics that don’t convert might get buried, and commissioned less, frustrating their reporters. The best converting articles usually get boosted on social media, tying ad expense.

Methods: In advertising, attribution based on the last touch or the last interaction before the purchase is the most popular form, as it is the easiest to identify and measure. Other methods include the first touch and the multi-touchpoint attribution in which the order of interactions and time matter.

  • First touch: In the news context, the first touch would be the most viewed pages. This metric used to guide many newsrooms in the past, skewing the coverage towards the needs of flybys. These users were mostly referred by social media and search engines, and they visited once and never came back.
  • Last touch: Shifting to reader revenue, newsrooms are focusing on the last touch or the article pages on which the reader clicked the subscription button. In case of meter or dynamic paywalls, the stop might be completely random and the topic irrelevant to the customer’s decision to subscribe. In case of premium walls, the results are skewed towards the “hit” or “blockbuster” articles, neglecting the daily coverage. As in movies, music or books, the “hits” are naturally rare, hard to get and therefore expensive. The safest bet in a hits-driven business is to follow-up endlessly the best performing stories, as Disney with “Avengers,” rather than risk new original stories.
  • Multi-touch: The most complex is the multi-touch attribution model, of which example was presented and explained to INMA by Deep.BI, a customer data platform provider. The company attributes the highest score to the last touch (the converting articles) and the first touch (“the hook articles”). Then it scores all articles between the first and the last touch, attributing more value to articles re-engaging after a break in reading and to articles closer in time to the last touch.

Bottom-line: If visiting a news site is like enjoying a meal, the last touch is like a Wiener Schnitzel, for which you visited the Figlmüller restaurant in Vienna. You might leave hungry, though, if not for a potato salad that filled your stomach and a glass of Grüner Veltliner that kept you going.

4. INMA CLINIC. What’s a value of comments? 

An executive of an American regional newspapers chain asked me whether comments are worth all the effort and cost to moderate them: “We have a problem with racist trolls, and we are considering getting rid of comments altogether.”

Problem: It’s a great question. In our polarised societies, comment boards on news sites often become battle grounds for extremists, or cesspools of disinformation and hate speech. News editors fear their sites might become as toxic as the social Web and that frequent abuses drain editorial resources as well as put off readers and advertisers. Many respectable sites have recently dumped comments.

Background: They will be missed not only by trolls. Businesswise, comments help drive both reader and advertising revenues.

  • For some readers, social features — not content — is the main reason to visit media sites. They want to interact with other people, connect to a community, and feel pleasure when creating and getting feedback. This has been well documented by academic studies.
  • Users’ engagement is related to the willingness to pay for access: A 2016 study by researchers of New York and Tel Aviv universities found visitors more readily convert into paying customers when prompted to gradually increase their engagement with others on a site, for example, by sharing content and adding comments.
  • Subscribers of news sites are up to 10 times more likely to read comments than non-subscribers, and they spend up to one-third of their engagement time with a site interacting with comments — and not with editorial content. This is based on data of two news sites, in Europe and in the United States, collected between January and August 2019 and shared with INMA by Viafoura, a community software vendor.
  • Contributors to sites visit more frequently and view more content right before and after posting, found a 2016 study by Cornell Tech and Facebook. Psychologists interpreted that users were inspired to contribute by observing first what others had done on a site, and then they returned in the anticipation of feedback to their contributions.

Solution: The question, therefore, is not whether comments have a value, but how to limit the risk of abuses. You can focus your moderation efforts on qualifying the comments or the people who comment.

  • Firstly, you can moderate comments yourself, or ask the site’s community to help you, by flagging abusive comments and voting to help surface the quality ones (and bury the others). One can also automate the process by employing AI algorithms to analyse the contents and pre-moderate comments in real time. For example, Viafoura claims its Al tool saves up to 90% of the time and effort spent moderating.
  • Secondly, you can grant rights to add comments only to a class of readers such as the registered ones or only to subscribers. In August 2017, Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza did the latter. Today, it shares its learnings exclusively with INMA.

Initially, the number of comments decreased by more than one-third, but the site regained the volume in a year. At the same time, the average percentage of comments deleted for any kinds of abuses decreased from 13% to 4%.

Mateusz Szaniewski of Gazeta Wyborcza explained: “We got rid of free-riding trolls and created a safe space for paying readers that encouraged them to contribute more. From a troublemaker, the comment feature became a valuable benefit of a subscription.”

Do you have a question about reader revenue? Ask the community on Slack or e-mail me at grzegorz.piechota@inma.org 

5. PREMIUM CONTENT. A designer on how to tell stories worth paying for.

What’s premium? What’s the quality that people would like to pay for?

For journalists, based on interviews, quality journalism is the story that required the greatest effort to dig out and report. We value novelty and originality, the style of presentation, and the impact or the change our coverage brought to the community.

For marketers, based on my analysis of 128 online subscription offers worldwide, premium is about familiarity and qualities of brands — of the media outlet and its journalists. It is about rich media formats, beyond a simple text, and a superior user experience brought, for example, to mobile.

For readers, based on a survey of news consumers in 33 countries, it’s about convenience coming from being able to access news on any device, about the trust to a news brand, about the relevancy of coverage, exclusivity, expertise, and value to the society that journalism delivers.

For Mario Garcia, a world-renowned news designer, it’s all about The Story.

Aged 72, Mr. Garcia sees himself as a steward of the storytelling, having helped newsrooms across the decades tell stories in broadsheet and in tabloid, in black-and-white and in colour, in print and online.

Travelling a million miles per year, this avid runner whose fitness shames teenagers offers a new gospel in its 14th book that has just been published in the United States: “Mobile is where the action is. It is all about that phone in your hand.”

With phones as our constant companions, the story has never been closer to us. Delivery of a superior user experience on a mobile cannot be a job of a newsroom alone. It requires collaboration with photo and video teams, product and UX, and others.

In Mr. Garcia’s view, the way to coordinate all of them is to focus, again, on a story, and appoint content managers who will chase the most engaging stories throughout the day.

Another newsroom revolution that Mr. Garcia urges is to have content managers take business goals into account and to look at data to learn about the type of stories readers are willing to pay for.

Thinking of all the transformations in storytelling in the past half a century, it’s actually incredible to see Mr. Garcia with a glass of his favourite champagne at the industry’s every turn. Cheers!

About this newsletter 

Today’s newsletter is written by Grzegorz (Greg) Piechota, researcher-in-residence at INMA, based in Oxford, England. Every month, I share here the results of my original research, notes from visits to digital subscription leaders, reflections on talks at conferences, and my favourite readings. Previous editions are archived online: 

This newsletter is a public face of a year-long reader revenue and media subscriptions initiative by INMA, outlined here. E-mail me at grzegorz.piechota@inma.org with thoughts, suggestions, and questions. Sign up to our Slack channel.


About Grzegorz Piechota

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