WSJ, Guardian, VG+ share details of their digital subscriptions success

By Paula Felps

INMA

Nashville, Tennessee, United States

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By Shelley Seale

INMA

Austin, Texas, United States

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By Chandler Wieberg

INMA

Austin, Texas, United States

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After INMA Researcher-in-Residence Greg Piechota shared detailed data on the state of media subscriptions, three news media companies brought that data to life with real world case studies.

On the fifth of seven modules of the INMA World Congress of News Media on Thursday, attendees heard from executives at three well-known media brands from around the world:

The Guardian (UK)

The reasons and ways people support The Guardian are different. Supporters and readers are different. Guardian Deputy Director of Communications Jessica Hayes dug into those differences, sharing how the media company plans to grow its support network around the world. 

Reader revenues at Guardian are now larger than its advertising revenues, Hayes said: “The product landscape and the way we ask readers to fund our journalism has gone through a process of evolution and design thinking.”

Guardian Deputy Director of Communications Jessica Hayes shared the 90% improvement in paying readers after a marketing pivot.
Guardian Deputy Director of Communications Jessica Hayes shared the 90% improvement in paying readers after a marketing pivot.

The Guardian does not charge readers to access its content. Hayes shared how the company turns readers into supporters.

Instead of using a paywall approach to expanding revenue, Guardian leans on a different approach, one Hayes called a “supporter model.” 

Guardian lets the individuals set the price by asking what they can contribute, no matter how big or small. The model, Hayes said, “allows users to pay as little at $1 for services if they want to support, and they also have higher tiered premiums for users that can be above $2,000 a year. This model keeps the business sustainable, while also allowing millions of users to have their journalism completely free.”

Data uncovered the main reasons that motivate readers to support the Guardian, including:

  • Editorial independence.
  • Factual and unbiased journalism.

“This data shows how we categorised the motivation our readers have in order to craft our message and craft our supporter strategy,” Hayes said.

From that, the pitch to readers was simple, she said: “We need money, here is why, and here is why it’s important to get support from our readers and why the Guardian is not possible without them.”

The Wall Street Journal (United States)

Subscription growth only occurs with retention, and that retention depends upon engagement. With 4.27 million subscribers across all its products, Dow Jones is using innovative methods to track and cultivate reader engagement — thereby reducing churn.

Belma Kolayli, engagement marketing manager at The Wall Street Journal, said Dow Jones uses what it calls “active days” as its North Star. Active days refers to the number of days a subscriber has a logged-in session on one of the platforms over the course of 28 days. It has a direct correlation with churn; more active days means less churn.

“There are many factors we can and do look at, but active days is by far the greatest indicator of churn,” Kolayli said. But it’s not the only predictor of subscriber behaviour: “Our research also defined key timelines for engaging our audience, so we put a big focus on the first 100 days, when they’re most prone to adopting habits.”

Investing in that first 100-day period has had a direct effect on retention, she said. And it has led to a heavy emphasis on engagement that begins “as soon as a subscriber enters their credit card information.”

Building an engagement programme begins with asking “the three Ws,” which are key questions well-known to journalists: who, what, and where. Kolayli shared details of these Ws with attendees and how they connect to the company’s strategy.

Belma Kolayli, engagement marketing manager at The Wall Street Journal, explained the media company's three Ws of engagement.
Belma Kolayli, engagement marketing manager at The Wall Street Journal, explained the media company's three Ws of engagement.

“Our engagement team helps provide value to our members by encouraging them to read more and make the most of the membership they’re paying for,” she said. “It’s really important to build a strategy centered around your subscribers and their needs from your publication.” 

VG+ (Norway)

When Apple launched iPad, many thought it might save the publishing industry. VG in Norway thought it would be the solution to its digital challenges. The media company hastened to launch a premium subscription product, VG+, exclusively for the iPad.

In the small country of only five million people, VG nevertheless has enormous reach. Why?

“It’s because Vikings pay for news,” Jane Throdensen, head of paid content at VG+, told World Congress attendees.

The four pillars of the audience engagement strategy at VG+.
The four pillars of the audience engagement strategy at VG+.

Since the VG+ launch for iPad in 2011, the company has seen soaring growth and revenue numbers, hitting 245,000 subscribers by this year. However, Throdensen acknowledged, “keeping the subscribers is such hard work.”

She outlined the key value factors offered in the VG+ premium subscription model:

  • Consumer journalism.

  • Digital storytelling.

  • Documentaries.

  • Livestreamed sports.

In 2019, VG’s digital services became profitable on a stand-alone basis. In 2021, the company’s growth in digital revenue will more than mitigate its decline in print newspaper revenue.

Beate Koren, head of editorial at VG+, shared the team’s five major learnings in their digital transformation, including this one: World-class storytelling is key.

The team developed a new unit for digital storytelling. This unit creates digital content for both VG and VG+.

“This new invention has been very valuable for VG+,” Koren said. “The stories we put the most effort into, we see that those stories are the ones driving the best numbers in sales and also pageviews. It’s been a very important shift for us.”

The World Congress continues Tuesdays and Thursdays through May. Register here for future and recordings of past sessions.

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