At the INMA Media Subscriptions Summit in London, there were two themes that appeared in many of the presentations:

  • Using machine learning, testing, and other analysis to drive product development.
  • Subscriber acquisition.

Ironically, in many cases, the opportunities for studying customer consumption behaviour enabled by digital platforms is improving print product quality, too.

Using data, the staff at Amedia identified the type of content its readers wanted most.
Using data, the staff at Amedia identified the type of content its readers wanted most.

Pål Nedregotten of Amedia discussed how his company has increased print subscriptions by focusing on the content its readers wanted and giving them more. The result was growing digital and print subscriptions. An inspiring result was many of the titles were very local publications for small communities — the types of markets most challenged by digital subscriptions.

The key insight for Amedia was to identify — after removing fly-bys from the data — what most subscribers were reading, which happened to be what the firm was producing the least of. Allocating resources to develop stories most in demand by the readers has improved engagement, increased sales, and grown revenue.

Jess Ross of Fairfax described how Fairfax developed products designed for different types of readers: those interested in news you can use and those interested in news you enjoy. The results have been impressive, with significant subscriber and revenue growth.

There are many other examples of how product innovation and improvement have led to subscriber growth and digital revenue. What was striking is there is so much more that can be done with product packaging and content bundling, particularly across platforms. The sense that the platform — digital, print, or mobile — is secondary to the relationship the customer has with the content was reinforced throughout this event.

On the customer acquisition front, there are many publishers using machine learning and propensity scoring to sort the best potential subscribers from the vast number of anonymous visitors.

Steven Neubauer of NZZ discussed how the company used machine learning to improve conversions.
Steven Neubauer of NZZ discussed how the company used machine learning to improve conversions.

One of the best presentations in this area was delivered by Steven Neubauer of NZZ in Zurich. This company uses the term “pay gate” instead of paywall. It also has a “registration gate” that moves candidates from anonymous leads into identified leads. Knowing who the reader is enables NZZ to use personalised greetings in its offers. The truly impressive innovation is a rules engine that learns from prior experience via machine-learning pattern recognition to improve conversion performance.

Another presentation on experimentation with customer acquisition by a representative from Financial Times showed how varying the first-click free permissions balanced the need for customers to sample the content while not giving away too much.

The combination of product innovation and scientific acquisition strategies is where the industry is headed. Just as dynamic pricing and product innovation have transformed many industries, the news media industry will be very different five years from now due to these developments. Interestingly, I believe these innovations will not only grow digital subscriptions but preserve the life of printed products too, and what an ironic outcome that will be.