What reader revenue initiatives are working across the globe?

By Matt Lindsay

Mather Economics

Atlanta, Georgia, USA


Mather Economics was pleased to organise and sponsor the Reader Revenue Symposium held in Amsterdam during INMA’s European News Media Conference. We would like to thank the speakers for sharing their strategies for growing reader revenue across print and digital products. Also, we would like to thank the team at INMA for its collaboration in hosting this event and to Robert Whitehead for serving as an excellent master of ceremonies throughout the day. Lastly, thank you to De Persgroep for hosting us at its headquarters in Amsterdam.

Reader revenue, product value proposition, content economics, and engagement highlights

There were several common themes at the recent Reader Revenue Symposium. Among these were subscription and digital revenues growing as a share of total revenue, digital product value proposition development, content economics, and customer engagement.

A number of speakers mentioned the shift toward reader revenue, both digital and print, as they described their future business strategies. Tor Jacobsen of Schibsted shared the company’s goal is to reach 1 billion NOK of pure digital revenue by 2020 with a majority of that coming from readers. David Gurian-Peck and Janis Huang of The New York Times noted subscriber revenue from all products is now 60% of total revenue.

Annick Deseure explained the multi-year retention strategies Mediahuis implemented.
Annick Deseure explained the multi-year retention strategies Mediahuis implemented.

Reader revenue is growing through acquisition offer pricing strategies and retention initiatives to maintain customer relationships once people are customers. Annick Deseure of Belgium’s Mediahuis acknowledged her company had success with long-term offers where customers commit to a multi-year term, often three years, in return for a consistent price level. Xavier van Leeuwe of De Telegraaf in The Netherlands has implemented long-term offers at this newspaper too, after successful implementation of the strategy at NRC. Van Leeuwe emphasised this strategy is effective at all types of publications.

Communicating products’ value proposition is vital to a successful reader revenue strategy as described by a number of speakers. Astrid Jørgenson of Politiken in Copenhagen shared how the company supported a 400% price increase on its digital subscriptions with an effective campaign communicating the product’s value, particularly to younger readers. Politiken representatives acknowledge their product is expensive, but they emphasise the price is indicative of the product’s quality.

Mikael Nestius of Bonnier presented its strategy of sending a condensed newsletter of content to subscribers who have reacted well to the service. Sharing the content in this format builds engagement with readers who otherwise may have missed articles of interest to them.

Mikael Nestius explained the condensed newsletter Bonnier sends to subscribers.
Mikael Nestius explained the condensed newsletter Bonnier sends to subscribers.

Christian Röpke of Zeit Online shared bundling print and digital access is very promising as a strategy for growing readership and digital engagement. The company is testing online-only content to drive subscribers toward the platform, focusing heavily on the Millennial audience with product positioning and marketing.

Content economics and analysis was a common thread during the symposium with some interesting insights shared by Patrick Tornabene and Peter Long of Newsday. Their team has created a tool comparing an article to a comparative set of previously published articles with similar topics and formats. The tool suggests ways to increase article engagement with the audience, such as including data-supported arguments, leading the story with keywords, or telling the story from a narrative perspective.

Janis Huang and David Gurian-Peck of The New York Times discussed how some content categories are being developed into stand-alone digital apps, which present the opportunity to sell these new products in bundles with the primary Times product or separately.

Laurie Truitt and Josh Awtry of Gannett described an analysis of their content that found the least-read half of the company’s content only produced 12% of the pageviews. Gannett has re-allocated newsroom resources to produce more of the content readers are consuming, and the results are growing readership with fewer unique content items. They stressed it is important for everyone in the organisation to know the agreed-upon objectives for cohesive product execution, sharing a case study from the Milwaukee Sentinel demonstrating the success of focusing the organisation on the product strategy.

Analytics that produce results

Data-driven business operations continue to expand with publishers, and speakers presented case studies of how to monetise insights from analytics. Schibsted’s Jacobsen discussed how the company focuses on delivering the right message to a customer at the right time to grow engagement and reduce churn. Röpke discussed Zeit Online’s in-house propensity modeling to identify readers most likely to accept subscription offers. Deseure noted Mediahuis’ improvements in conversion rates by testing bundling free weekend print with digital subscriptions.

An interesting application of analytics to call center operations was presented by Tornabene and Long. Their company, Newsday, found routing calls to the best performing call centre representatives improved call performance metrics and financial results significantly. The company also found improving CSR satisfaction yielded improved performance, so investments in employee training and retention provided positive financial returns. Tornabene also shared an innovative strategy of offering opt-in premium products at no cost to subscribers. The company found customers that opted in to receive these products had higher retention than statistically comparable, look-alike customers that did not opt in. The retention increase was large enough to make these “free” products profitable for Newsday.

Frederic Filloux developed a formula that determines article quality.
Frederic Filloux developed a formula that determines article quality.

Finally, a compelling discussion of product quality was delivered by Frederic Filloux of the Monday Note blog and a recent senior research fellow at Stanford University. He developed a machine-learning approach for scoring article quality, a score not intended for sharing with readers but with editors and other applications that make content recommendations. He noted journalism lacks measures of product quality that exist in many industries; he founded a company, Deepnews.ai, to further develop this capability and bring it to market.

The session was concluded with an interactive audience survey of pricing and product preferences for The Daily Prophet, a hypothetical newspaper for the “magic community” featured in the Harry Potter stories. Magnus Gabrielsen of Copenhagen Conjoint and Dustin Tetley of Mather Economics demonstrated how a short conjoint survey completed earlier in the day by audience members yielded the optimal offer price for three levels of print and digital service. The optimal price was developed by combining the audience members’ price elasticity for new subscription offers with their predicted lifetime value at different price points. The approach was also able to identify the incremental price readers would pay for ad-free digital access. (This was a demonstration of the approach and not a comprehensive analysis.)

This synopsis is a very brief summary of the many excellent and insightful presentations delivered by the speakers, and were many recommendations that could make substantial improvements to publishers’ reader revenue. I wish we had the space to include them all here.

Mather Economics is very grateful for the opportunity to work with most of the companies included in this event on their reader revenue. We are often asked who in the industry is using innovative strategies to grow their businesses. This symposium, our fifth, is how we bring together leaders in the industry to share good ideas and best practices. Thank you again to the leading European and American publishers who shared their strategies and results and to the engaged audience that participated in the event. We are planning our next symposium now, and we will share the details of that event in the near future.

About Matt Lindsay

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