As media executives from around the world traversed Manhattan on the INMA World Congress of News Media Study Tour, they heard rapid-fire research points on audience engagement and digital subscriptions coming at them as fast as they could capture the images on their smartphones. 

Trevor Kaufman, chief executive officer of Piano, tells his news brand clients they should run 12 to 15 price promotions each year because there are so many different ways and moments to reach potential subscribers.

The customer journey “fundamentally starts the moment we get people to start clicking on stuff and reacting to offers,” he said. “That’s when the conversation really begins. How do we get people to start engaging with things we’ve asked them to do?” 

Trevor Kaufman, chief executive officer of Piano, explains that free trial offers aren't always the most successful.
Trevor Kaufman, chief executive officer of Piano, explains that free trial offers aren't always the most successful.

Those on Tuesday’s tour, all partners in some way to news media’s audience journey, told similar stories with their numbers. Piano. Google. Facebook. Chartbeat. Everyone off and on the record agrees: Site visit frequency is the No. 1 predictor of whether a reader will subscribe. 

And, perhaps just as important, people who come to news brand articles through social media are the least likely to subscriber. 

Machine learning is important to gathering this data. But it isn’t everything. 

“Machine learning has an uncanny accuracy to predict behaviour with a potential subscriber,” Kaufman said. “But the bad side is you don’t know why. You also need to be looking at a lot of data and characteristics because we want to make it more likely to get subscribing audience members.”

Here are some interesting bits of research from throughout the study tour day: 

  • If 40% of a reader’s pageviews are in the morning, those readers are unlikely to subscribe (Piano).
  • Desktop traffic on news sites drops the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Mobile traffic does not (Chartbeat).
  • Direct mobile traffic has grown by more than 30% (Chartbeat).
  • Consumers who have been asked to turn their ad-blocker off (and do) — or have watched a video ad so they can continue to content — consume more content (Piano).
  • Readers who have registered on a news brand’s Web site are 10 times more likely to subscribe (Piano).
  • Revenue from subscriber acquisition increases 64% in a month with a promotion, an 8% lift one month later (Piano).
  • 93% of non-trial offers are retained after one month; 89% of paid trial offers are retained; 81% free trial offers retained (Piano).
  • 37.9% of BuzzFeed said they expected no offer to become a member (Google). 
  • Freemium models convert more than metered (Piano).
  • The more expensive an offer is, the more times a reader must be shown the offer before she buys in (Piano).
  • Offering potential subscribers three subscription offers works best. Label one “best offer” (Google).
  • Use warm colours for action buttons (Google). Round buttons are better than squares or rectangles.
  • Most subscribers are monthly. Annual subscriptions churn less frequently than monthly. Converting a reader to a monthly subscription is easier than to an annual subscription. So landing the monthly subscription then upgrading is the best practice (Piano).
  • New Yorker magazine increased mobile conversion 20% by adding a subscribe button on their mobile app (Google).
  • 45% of readers who land on article will leave within 15 seconds; 60% of them don’t return in the next week (Chartbeat).
  • Media traffic from Facebook is down nearly 40% since January 2017 (Chartbeat).
  • Google search for news on mobile has grown more than 2X since January 2017 (Chartbeat).
Jill Nicholson, head of product education at Chartbeat, shares data about what reaches and keeps readers.
Jill Nicholson, head of product education at Chartbeat, shares data about what reaches and keeps readers.

“While Facebook was declining, Google traffic was more than making up the difference,” said Jill Nicholson, head of product education at Chartbeat. “While in 2016 we would’ve said social is the dominate source of traffic on mobile … that path has diverged. Now Google is the dominate source of traffic on mobile the way it has long been the dominate source on desktop.” 

Audiences are more interested in a benefit to them than in the news brand, research shows. For example, Kaufman offered: You can target a potential subscriber with the pitch that The Economist writes 100 articles a week that a reader might be interested in. Or you can offer that if they are the kind of person who likes to be up to date on global affairs, “you’re an Economist subscriber.” The latter is always the more successful pitch.

“The greatest mistake media companies ever made was thinking their product was articles,” Kaufman said. “You’ve never bought a magazine or a newspaper and said, ‘Fantastic, there’s 30 articles in here.’ That’s not the experience you’re paying for.

“The idea of a loyal user base is a total fallacy. Many of the loyal users today were not your loyal users two months ago. It’s a constantly refreshing group.”

Gordon Saft, stratetic partner development manager at Google, explains changes in Google News.
Gordon Saft, stratetic partner development manager at Google, explains changes in Google News.

Google talked about three Google News objectives and its recent relaunch, designed to simplify the product: “We really want to make Google News an experience that is very easy for publishers to use,” said Gordon Saft, stratetic partner development manager at Google.

Saft said Google wants to help news brands with retention (developing loyalty and reduce churn), conversion (into paying digital customers), and discovery and growth (reaching new audiences with premium journalism). 

The ability for potential subscribers to go to a central account page where credit card information is kept and to stay logged in on all devices are key, Saft said. Google does not keep audience data, he added, addressing a long troubling rift between Google and news brands worldwide. 

“We don’t hold onto subscriber information and data when someone subscribes through Google. We pass that data to you. We don’t want to be in the middle of this relationship other than to offer the tools to do it. Your subscribers are your subscribers.”