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Registration walls trend worldwide while Hungarian news sites crowdfund

By Greg Piechota

INMA

Oxford, United Kingdom

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Good morning! This is Readers First, a newsletter for INMA members on reader revenue innovation. I am INMA’s researcher-in-residence. E-mail me at: grzegorz.piechota@inma.org 

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PRODUCT. Leading publishers invest in registration walls

The number of registration walls in the mobile apps quadrupled last year among the news subscription leaders. Apart of newsletters and comments, registration more frequently unlocked access to bookmarks, extra articles for free and personalisation options. 

Every year, I study for INMA the benefits, registration, and check-out flows on the 50 largest news sites by the number of digital subscribers (per the FIPP’s snapshot). 

In July and August 2020, I found 46 out of the top 50 sites allowed the registration for non-subscribers and offered them free benefits, for example, The New York Times in the United States, The Financial Times in the United Kingdom, or Bild in Germany. 

The remaining four offered benefits to paid subscribers only, for example, The Times of London or Republik in Switzerland.

Top registration benefits: The two most popular benefits for registered users were the publisher’s newsletters and ability to add comments, observed in 46 (100% of the sample) and 21 (46%) sites, respectively. No big changes here.

I saw though increases in the number of publishers that offered in 2020:

  • A feature to save articles to read later (bookmarks) — from 9 to 16, or from 21% to 35%.
  • A registration wall in mobile apps — from 3 to 14, or from 7% to 30%.
  • Personalised content recommendations — from 6 to 9, or from 14% to 20%.
  • Access to extra free content — from 5 to 8, or from 12% to 17%. 

Other popular benefits included: a feature to follow favourite authors or topics (15%), news alerts (13%), podcasts (11%), promotional offers (11%), and online events (11%).

In most cases, the registration benefits were clear from the very beginning. In 196 paths to registration analysed across the 46 publishers, the call to register did not mention any benefits in 62 paths (32% of all) only.

MODELS: News sites in Hungary crowdfunded more than US$1.3 million in 2020

Amid the 2020 crackdown on free media in Hungary, journalists ask readers for help — in a few weeks a new start-up Telex raised US$1 million and its peer 444 raised US$320,000. 

Since 2010, the Hungarian government dismantled press freedoms, took over most of the media outlets and turned into propaganda machines.

In 2020, a pro-government oligarch fired the chief editor of Index.hu, one of the last large independent news sites. More than 70 journalists resigned and after a few months launched a new site — Telex. By December, it had 2 million monthly users in a 9.7 million country (per DKT/Gemius), or more than half of what Index enjoyed in the past.

The history of 444.hu is intertwined with Index; it was co-founded by the people who had left Index a few years back. In December 2020, 444 reached 2 million monthly users, too.

Hungarian news sites were funded mostly by digital advertising, Gábor Kardos of 444 explained to me. But as government and oligarchs’ grip over advertising spend increased, this revenue model proved toxic.

Price of the free press: Crowdfunding proved to be a successful model for new media outlets in the past decade. UK’s Press-Gazette reported that the top 30 single-biggest campaigns in journalism raised more than US$20 million since 2012, with the largest one attributed to El Español in Spain (US$3.9 million in 2015).

For Hungarians though, the crowdfunding was more than a way to break into a busy market or a customer engagement tactic. It was the matter of life and death. 

In their campaigns, both Telex and 444 mobilised Hungarians who cared about democracy and the free press without offering any hard benefits.

Publishers claimed the donations would help them ensure independence of the newsrooms and fund journeys to future revenue models, its technology, and product. 

Crowdfunding let the publishers build databases of prospect members — responsive to their marketing and willing to pay — and study their needs. Donors were asked to advise on the contents, features, and benefits. 444 even called its programmw “The Circle” to underscore the exclusivity and influence the donors were getting, Gábor Kardos said.

The main marketing channels for both were e-mail and social media platforms.

Money and communities: The Hungarian campaigns mobilised thousands. By the end of 2020, Telex announced it attracted 42,000 individual supporters and raised US$1 million in total. Donors could choose an amount: the largest single donation reached US$8,500 and the average was US$23. 

444 asked for donations fixed at the amount of US$34. It attracted 9,500 members of the Circle by the end of 2020 and, by my estimates, raised US$320,000. 444 did crowdfund in the past; this was by far the largest amount collected. 

Most of the money was raised in the first weeks of each campaign. 444 though returned to its Circle donors and asked for more money in December, promising to onboard them to the final membership programme to be launched later this spring.

According to Nic Newman of Oxford’s Reuters Institute, between 1% to 3% news consumers across the United States, Sweden, Spain, Ireland, Germany, and the UK donated to a news organisation in 2018, but on average a quarter would consider donating in a future. Donors tend to be younger than 45. The key messages that resonated with audiences were promises to defend journalism and improve society.

ASK ME ANYTHING: Q&A about reasons for subscriber churn 

Every week, members reach out to INMA and me to help them find relevant research, case studies, or best practices in reader revenue. Here is a recent question and answer. 

Q: What’s a proven method for finding out why a subscriber leaves us?

A: Ask a reader for reasons she cancelled.

Regardless whether you require her to call to cancel, offer an online chat or simply stop a subscription on the site or an app, ask the question. 

News24, a leading online news brand in South Africa, found nine in 10 people who cancelled between August and December 2020 provided the answer. 

Most often they said they didn’t use the subscription enough (almost 30%), it was too expensive for them (17%), or they found fewer quality articles than expected (16%). A few percent of readers found it hard to use (5%) or they missed features they looked for (3%). 

This is based on the data shared with INMA by Charlene Beukes, general manager for digital news at 24.com. 

A good practice is to present a churning subscriber a cafeteria of reasons in a random order and an option to type a reason that is not on the list. 

For the cafeteria, choose the reasons that suggest where the problem might be — is it an issue with engagement, pricing, payment, quality of content, or user experience?

  • The aggregated answers might help you improve the produce and the offer. You can analyse them all together or by cohorts, for example, acquisition campaigns, or channels.
  • Individual answers might trigger actions to save the churning subscriber, for example, readers feeling they had not enough time to read might see an option to pause the subscription.

An option to type a reason not on the list might inspire future studies. Some quotes I found in a log of churners of one leading publisher included: “Your billing periods are not flexible to meet my needs,” “Stupid moderation policy,” “App doesn’t work on my phone.” 

Some publishers, such as Dennik N in Slovakia, experimented last year with asking churning subscribers about the economic hardships during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Coronavirus might have bumped sales in the spring, but the subsequent lockdowns devastated the economy. So by the fall, Dennik N found 34% of churners said they had been affected! 

According to Radoslav Augustín, online product manager, the site offered them an extraordinary 50% discount “if circumstances do not allow you to pay more” or — while acknowledging their hardship — an option to still “support independent journalism” and renew the subscription at the regular price.

The empathy shown to the past subscribers had an impact — up to 30% churners renewed.

In general, we know that 67% cancellations are initiated by readers rather than payment failures. This is based on the data of 285 subscription publishers that use the paywall software of Piano, the U.S.-based vendor. 

Director of Research Patrick Appel shared with INMA the results of its analysis that found the tenure, price, and engagement levels with the site were most predictive for churn. In short, readers who were newly subscribed, on a free or discounted trial, and readers who visited irregularly or read just a little were found more likely to churn. 

Hence, onboarding subscribers and helping them form a habit of reading is believed the single most effective tactic to get new readers through trials and keep them as subscribers. 

What’s your question? E-mail me at grzegorz.piechota@inma.org 

About this newsletter 

Today’s newsletter is written by Grzegorz (Greg) Piechota, Researcher-In-Residence at INMA, based in Oxford, England. Here I share results of my research, notes from interviews with news publishers, reflections on my readings. Previous editions are archived online.

This newsletter is a public face of a 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.

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