3 news publishers share 3 paths to digital subscription growth in COVID times

By Paula Felps

INMA

Nashville, Tennessee, United States

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By Shelley Seale

INMA

Austin, Texas, United States

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The COVID-19 pandemic sent publishers scrambling to develop new strategies to address traffic and subscription bumps, along with hits to advertising. Some of the biggest concerns have been how to provide a public service while monetising content and how to take advantage of new subscribers to create engagement and lifetime value. 

At the INMA Virtual World Congress on Tuesday, media companies shared how they have pivoted their subscriptions strategies in this “new normal” in the sixth of nine modules entitled “Building Brand and Community: How Will You Be Remembered Post-Crisis?” Eleven news media companies, finalists for the Global Media Awards in an added category related to COVID-19 initiatives, shared their stories on increasing digital subscriptions, building community, and sharing community resources.

The Hindu, India 

When COVID-19 began gripping India, The Hindu Group realised it was up against more than just a pandemic. It also had to fight the onslaught of misinformation that accompanied it.

The news media company launched its “Stay Home. Stay Vigilant.” campaign to not just keep readers, advertisers, and channel partners safe, but to build awareness about fake news. 

The Hindu fought misinformation through its "Stay Home. Stay Vigilant." campaign.
The Hindu fought misinformation through its "Stay Home. Stay Vigilant." campaign.

“It was unbelievable the kind of misinformation that was happening,” Suresh Balakrishna, chief revenue officer at The Hindu, said. “So, therefore, the whole talk was stay safe, stay away from fake news, believe in credible newspapers because we do our homework before we report. That was the whole platform.” 

They quickly identified three key components to the campaign:

  • Trust: Five days before the national lockdown began on March 25, The Hindu published a 21-page magazine with information on how to stay safe, what to do if you show symptoms of the disease, and more. The e-book was published in 15 languages and had more than 6 million views. 
  • Inspiration: Hindu Group used its popular Sportstar magazine to showcase India’s biggest sports stars: “We got all the sportsmen in this country on Instagram doing interviews about their lives and times, and telling interesting anecdotes, talking about what happened to them — and also telling them to stay home and stay vigilant,” Balakrishna said.

  • Agility: The final component saw the company pivoting from print versions of its Sportstar and Frontline magazines and going completely digital, offering free downloadable versions of each. At the same time, a series of online surveys were offered to gain insight into what consumers were thinking and what their post-lockdown plans were — something that was critical for advertisers, marketers, and agencies who needed to develop a post-pandemic communication plan. 

Facebook traffic went up 68%, while Web page views increased 40%. The Hindu e-paper saw a 60% growth in paid subscriptions, and digital subscriptions also went up 60%. 

La Voz de Galicia, Spain

Like other Spanish newspapers, 2020 was to be the year in which La Voz de Galicia (LVG) accelerated its subscription business. Yet faced with the COVID-19 crisis, LVG had to strategise how it could keep the reader revenue momentum going without giving up its mission-centric public service commitment.

LVG had to rethink its reader revenue strategies after the pandemic hit.
LVG had to rethink its reader revenue strategies after the pandemic hit.

Through a campaign aimed at supporting readers, increasing brand perception, and driving new subscriptions, LVG creatively enhanced the wave of visitors via newsletters, social engagement, and Q&A sessions with experts, explained Chief Digital Officer Tomás Garcia Moran.

LVG entered March 2020 with 11 months of digital subscriptions and 3,490 digital subscribers, Moran said: “Paying for news is not something that people are used to doing in Spain.”

LVG was on a growth trend before the coronavirus. Then in March through May, its traffic spiked, like most news publishers. The company also saw a subscription bump: In March, digital subscriptions multiplied by six times in comparison with average for the prior six months. In April, they multiplied 2.7 times again.

Moran shared four key initiatives that led to these increases, including a new paywall approach: Subscriptions by seven times grew overnight when LVG offered COVID-19 content for free and a free 30-day digital subscription.

The Big Issue, United Kingdom

On March 20, the entire business model of The Big Issue — a weekly U.K. magazine sold by vulnerable people — was upended when government called on The Big Issue to take its vendors off the streets. Zoe Hayworth, group marketing and communications director, called it a “heartbreaking decision” that was devastating for the vendors, who had no form of income overnight. In addition, 80% of The Big Issue Publishing business disappeared.

“The work we do with the vendors is vital,” Hayworth said. “Helping them replace that income was vital.”

The Big Issue had to rethink everything after its vulnerable vendors weren't allowed to distribute the weekly magazine because of the lockdown.
The Big Issue had to rethink everything after its vulnerable vendors weren't allowed to distribute the weekly magazine because of the lockdown.

The company had to develop an immediate response to support its vendors and ensure that the company would stay in business. The solution the team came up with was to launch an appeal to the public to support The Big Issue and the vendors in several ways, including:

  • Asking the public to subscribe to the magazine while vendors were unable to sell on the streets, with 50% of the net proceeds going directly to vendors.
  • Launching a weekly magazine into a series of retailers across the U.K.
  • Launching “The Big Community,” a curated channel in the app and online content hub that delivers daily news and weekly features with positive and inspiring stories.
  • Developing marketing initiatives to engage the public with the plight of the vendors, and asked the public to encourage their friends and family to support The Big Issue and its vendors through a subscription.

In eight weeks, 9,000 customers contributed financially, 8,000 customers subscribed to the magazine, and 3,000 customers downloaded the app.

“We’ve created a whole new audience base for our vendors who are no longer able to sell The Big Issue on the streets and kept the revenue alive,” said Ruth Law, group public relations manager.

The Congress continues on Friday with a Brainsnacks module featuring 10 case studies with actionable lessons learned from INMA members around the world. Register here for individual sessions or the entire Congress (the latter includes access to this and previous sessions).

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