Sydney Morning Herald, Age launch premium subscription, products during pandemic

By Ben Haywood


Sydney, Australia


When The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in Melbourne launched new premium subscription tiers in late March, it was in a very different world from the one we’d anticipated when work commenced more than a year earlier.

It was a very different Herald and Age, too. Both underwent rapid changes in the days before to adapt to the fast-changing needs of our subscribers as they navigated the growing coronavirus pandemic in Australia.

Reflecting on those few weeks of change — some planned across a year, others in just hours — provided a timely reminder: Little is more important to sustaining subscription growth than being alert to the shifting habits of your subscribers, and having the capacity and will to shift with them.

The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age evolved based on readers needs.
The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age evolved based on readers needs.

Seeing the shifts

While the changes in our subscribers’ lives brought on by the pandemic were plain to see, the changes leading us to reimagine our premium subscription tier emerged gradually.

For our most loyal subscribers, The Herald and The Age have always been more than just mastheads. They’re a companion, a comfort, and a cherished part of what makes each day feel complete — qualities that have been central to the robust growth the mastheads have seen since they launched digital subscriptions in 2013.

But while our standard tier had gone from strength to strength, growth in our premium tier had begun to ease. Our offering wasn’t keeping pace with our readers’ changing habits.

The problem was easy to diagnose: Our premium tier was built around little more than access to an iPad app, and platform-based tiering was no longer aligned with how our subscribers valued the mastheads. They subscribed to The Herald and The Age, not an iPad app. Being available on every device was a minimum expectation. Access everywhere was an enabler, helping the mastheads find a place in readers’ habits throughout their days.

But moving to a single subscription tier would have overlooked an opportunity: Our research showed many of our readers were open to paying more for the right offering. By restricting that offering to iPad owners, we’d been putting an artificial cap on our growth potential.

Shifting with them

Those insights translated to a simple brief for reimagining our premium tier. To be successful, our new tier had to:

  1. Provide many reasons to upgrade, not just access on an app.
  2. Grow our market for premium beyond iPad owners.
  3. Reflect the way our subscribers value The Herald and The Age across every platform.

And while we understood those to be important to the success of the new tier, identifying what to include in that tier was a separate challenge.

Access to the daily crossword puzzle on multiple platforms was added to the premium tier subscription level.
Access to the daily crossword puzzle on multiple platforms was added to the premium tier subscription level.

Going deeper

We’re fortunate to have an in-house research team dedicated to helping us understand our readers and their relationship with our products. Working with them, we ran a series of focus groups with a balance of readers and subscribers from our six needs-based segments.

In the focus groups, we discussed dozens of concepts for premium tier inclusions, conducted a prioritisation activity to understand appeal, and looked for new ideas as we understood more about each participant’s habits with the mastheads.

Of several concepts that showed great potential, two resonated best with a wide range of segments when we tested more broadly in a quantitative study: Today’s Paper and daily crosswords.

Today’s Paper, a digital replica of our daily print edition, was actually an existing product that had been available to subscribers in all tiers, though not on all devices. But our research showed potential for this product to command a premium if it was available everywhere for people who love an edition-based print format, but whose habits no longer fit a printed newspaper.

Daily crosswords also stood out. We learned many people had been printing the crossword from the daily digital replica so they could keep up their habit when they didn’t have the newspaper. And users of digital crosswords in our iPad app were frustrated they couldn’t play on the Web or their smartphone.

In March, we launched our new cross-platform premium tier with daily crosswords and Today’s Paper as the first components of what we hope will be a growing set of premium tier benefits. (We continued to make Today’s Paper available to existing subscribers, limiting it to the premium tier for new subscribers only.)

Launching in an uncertain time

While the design of our premium tier was based on a set of pre-COVID-19 reader habits, launching in a moment where habits were being remade only seemed to help with adoption rates. During a time of enormous financial uncertainty for our audience, the premium tier is now growing as a percentage of total acquisitions, and the fresh offering has enabled some successful upgrade campaigns to subscribers on the standard tier.

With more time to spare and in search of escape, subscribers have been flocking to our daily crosswords on the Web, iOS, and Android. And at a time when the news is more relentless than ever, Today’s Paper has met a surge in appeal for an edition-based experience that our audience can check off as done each day.

Applying the same process to COVID-19

It was by noticing shifts in our subscriber habits as a result of the pandemic that led us to fast track broader changes to The Herald and The Age’s digital experience, too.

  • With subscribers increasingly looking to follow pandemic updates throughout the day, we made changes to surface more of our live coverage on the homepage. 
  • We also added a data widget to the homepage and our live coverage showing the latest COVID-19 numbers across Australia as we all monitored the nation’s progress in flattening the curve.
  • For those finding the relentless pace of the unfolding news overwhelming, we launched an evening newsletter summarising the key events from the day, while also taking the time to highlight the good news in an otherwise gloomy time.
  • With the morning commute a thing of the past for much of our audience, the newsroom transitioned our weekly Please Explain podcast to a shorter, more frequent update every weekday afternoon. 

Continuous evolution is key to growth

Like other news outlets around the world, The Herald and The Age have seen a surge in subscriptions as readers turned to trusted sources in this time of uncertainty. And so far, the efforts we’ve made to evolve our editorial and digital experience in response to those shifting habits have helped us retain those subscribers at higher rates.

Staying alert to the opportunities that changing habits create for our mastheads to be an even more valuable part of each day for readers is central to how we’ll sustain that growth.

About Ben Haywood

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