Retention is the new subscriber growth, centres on engagement

By Nevin Kallepalli

New York, United States


By Sarah Schmidt


Brooklyn, New York, United States


By Dawn McMullan


Dallas, Texas, USA


Whether it’s through habit-forming games like Wordle, must-hear podcasts for news junkies, or hyperlocal coverage of high school sports, news publishers are finding new ways to build strong ongoing relationships with audiences. 

Throughout study tours, workshops, and conference sessions during the recent INMA World Congress of News Media, news publishers shared how holding onto existing subscribers is increasingly becoming a key part of the news business as publications of all sizes with a wide variety of news missions are shifting to a more digital subscription-based revenue model.

This often means winning over new subscribers and converting them to loyal, long-term readers. The secret sauce often is product engagement.

The Washington Post focuses on early onboarding

Across the board, news publishers agree high engagement is closely tied to retentions — the more often subscribers read, listen to, or interact with content, the more likely they are to renew, even when the price increases. Engagement also must be established early. 

“The first 14 days are crucial,” said Anjali Iyer, head of lifecycle marketing at The Washington Post.

The company has found the onboarding phase to be quite valuable in improving early engagement, she said, as it’s the best opportunity to encourage a daily habit with whatever the particular subscribers prefers in terms of topics (like local Washington, D.C., news) and formats (like newsletters).

The New York Times highlights differentiated content

“Retention is the name of the game,” Ben Cotton, New York Times Company senior vice president and head of subscription growth, told INMA World Congress study tour participants two weeks ago.

The Times is known for its US$1-a-week offers to new subscribers, but the company is now putting more work toward converting those subscribers into regular long-term readers by encouraging them to make a daily habit of engaging. Key to this strategy is the evolution to the NYTimes All-Access subscription bundle, in which a basic news subscription is packaged with popular features like Games, Cooking, Wirecutter, The Athletic, and the recently launched Audio app. 

Last year, when digital subscriptions reached 10 million subscribers, the company announced a new target of 15 million, but this goal is predicated on preventing cancellations. 

The idea, Cotton said, is to both showcase “differentiated content” like the enterprise journalism The Times is known for while also providing plenty of additional incentives for subscribers to stay once the discount ends, by, hooking them on favourite games like Wordle, The Crossword and Spelling Bee, recipes in the Cooking app, shopping reviews in Wirecutter, or thoughtful sports coverage in The Athletic. 

“News will always be the center of what we do. If our bundle is the solar system, news is the sun,” Cotton said.

Newsday creates FeedMe product

The Long Island newspaper Newsday has taken a similar approach by expanding broadcast coverage and launching a culinary franchise FeedMe. What was once their dining section now comprises a quarterly magazine, Web site, and live events.

FeedMe has been tremendously successful in maximising readership. Shawna VanNess, associate managing editor, described their strategy aptly as “giving them that snack on the way to becoming a digital subscriber.” 

Hearst builds loyalty through engagement

Other publishers are likewise focusing on subscriber retention but using strategies more tailored to their particular markets.

Hearst Newspaper Group, which publishes 24 local dailies and 52 weeklies, is aimed at customising for its local publications, which include its flagship San Francisco Chronicle as well as a portfolio of print and digital pubs in smaller markets. 

Hearst first attracts new digital subscribers to its local digital newspapers by segmenting audiences by zip code and demographic characteristics. Its retention strategy is to build loyalty through engagement. Locally targeted newsletters and strong local lifestyle features have been a big part of HNP’s strategy.

The company has developed a set of tools to make it easier for its local newsrooms to create customised features on things like elections, weather events like storms, and restaurants, said Tim O’Rourke, vice president/content strategy.

Advance Local engages with high school sports

Advanced Local, the U.S.-based group of regional, local, and community-based newspapers and websites, has also had big success engaging local audiences with high school sports coverage to convert and retain subscribers.

The company did deep audience research in New Jersey, home of some of its core markets, to determine who the potential audiences were, what they were willing to pay for, and what other interests would help retain them as subscribers, said Lamar Graham, Advance Local’s vice president of content strategy.

The high school sports subscriptions were a huge hit, and the company has started branching out in high school graduation and prom-related packages.

Arizent ups content to up engagement

Arizent, a B2B digital media company based in New York, centres its retention efforst on serving up more relevant content: article round-ups (the five most important leranings from this tax season), data overview (original research or a data journalism project), and explainer videos (financial advisors explaining crypto currency).

The company put in place a growth content team in 2022.

Fundamentally, all of those things are geared toward topics we want to surface up and be most known for, said Fell Gray, senior vice president/brand and marketing.

The publisher tries to keep subscribers engaged by asking them what journalists they want to follow and customising newsletters. If a subscribers engagement falls, they will get more content to try to reengage them.

Bloomberg seeks action from onboarding e-mails

Bloomberg sends 14 communications to onboard new subscribers because data indicates users respond best when more than 13 e-mails are sent in a three-month period. The e-mails showcase Bloomberg content and ask for action: downloading apps, signing up for newsletters, listening to a podcast.

An interesting data point: Users tend to retain their subscriptions when they listen to podcasts, Julie Beizer, chief digital officer at Bloomberg, told INMA study tour attendees visiting the company. If they get that e-mail and we know they click on the link, they are more likely to retain their subscriptions.

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