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Why content (NYT) wins over camera (Snapchat)

By Kevin Curnock

Brunswick News

St. John, New Brunswick, Canada


Early in May, both The New York Times and Snap released their Q1 earnings. For each company, the event was significant.

In the case of the NYT, the results were positive. For the quarter, digital subscription revenues were up nearly 40% (to US$72.9 million) and, most notably, the company added more than 300,000 net new digital subscribers. A strong consumer appetite for news on the new American presidency, as well as the newspaper’s sustained marketing efforts, have driven digital subscribership to more than 2 million.

The New York Times offers a feature that sets it apart from other companies.
The New York Times offers a feature that sets it apart from other companies.

This represents a new record for the company. As recently as 2015, the company was satisfied with adding 50,000 net new subscribers in a quarter. The news media company has come a long way. The market reacted favourably. Shares jumped more than 12%.

And this is in spite of the continuing ad declines that the company is experiencing. For the NYT, print advertising was down nearly 18% in the same quarter. This confirms the importance the market places on users and subscriber growth. 

It was a different story on the West Coast. Snap, the parent company of Snapchat, released its very first earnings report on May 10, exactly one week after The New York Times. And for this media company that calls itself a camera company, investors reacted. Shares fell 20% when the market opened after the earnings call. The reason? Slowing user growth.

Yes, Snapchat is growing its user base. In the first three months of 2017, the app added 8 million daily active users (DAU). By the end of the quarter, the company reported 166 million DAU — an all-time high. That’s a 36% increase over the comparable period in 2016.

That sounds like a strong number until you consider the DAU metric was growing at 50%+ last year. As leadership at Twitter and LinkedIn have learned, if you are going to be free, you have to post massive and growing DAU numbers.

For Snapchat, the technology is the message. The drawback is the tech is easy to copy. Facebook and Instagram have added numerous features to match Snapchat’s innovations. Snapchat is still cooler than Facebook, but it will be hard for the app to draw users outside of the 20-something bracket.

For The New York Times, the distinguishing feature is content — highly readable, meticulously researched, and reliably factual and direct (“The Truth is Hard” is one of the new branding campaigns). This is more difficult for competitors to copy.

It is reassuring to news media companies that there is a market for paid content. It takes patience and persistent marketing. And, of course, it requires high-quality content that keeps readers sated.

Here’s to The New York Times for showing what can be achieved with the right content strategy. Snap may want to reconsider calling itself a camera company.

About Kevin Curnock

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