Subscriptions & Loyalty (or why content trumps coffee cups)

It’s nice to get some good news about journalism for a change. Last month The New York Times reported an increase in total revenues. The great news here is that is this growth was driven by an increase in reader revenues. In the past week both the FIPP Global Digital Subscription Snapshot and the Reuters Digital News Reports have come out and although The Times continues to be something of an outlier, it is by no means an anomaly. Subscriptions are starting to work. Before we get too carried away, though, a word. Switching to a subscription model nowhere near guarantees success. The success is in the hidden work. Our Content Manager, Em Kuntze, explains more.

As someone with a fair share of news subscriptions, I have also found myself the recipient of a number of associated gifts. I have mugs and tote bags. Pencils and notebooks. There’s a key ring floating around somewhere. If you find it, it’s yours.

None of those things are a good enough enticement to renew a publication though. No. In these days where – if you’re not careful – you could be dropping in excess of a hundred bucks a month on subscriptions, the thing which is likely to keep you renewing isn’t going to be that mug.

No. It’s something even simpler. It’s something linked to your attention. It’s the content you actually read.

If you decide you need to cull a publication or two, your decision is more likely predicated on your enjoyment of and investiture in the content than it is the free notebook that you get sent out at the beginning of each renewal cycle.

The success is in the graft: the hidden analysis, audience research, public engagement and deep strategizing which places exemplary content at the heart of the publication 

In percentage terms, subscriptions make up a surprisingly small number of readers. Ten to fifteen percent is a figure that’s bandied about – with many publishers unwilling to be drawn on the specifics.

What the latest Reuter’s report tells us is that when looking at the proportion of readers who’ve paid for digital content over the past year, the numbers range from 6% (Greece) to 30% in Norway. Even so-called subscription-receptive nations such as the UK and US sit somewhere in the middle (7% and 16% respectively).

Yes, the New York Times’ total digital subscriptions hovers around the 2.8million mark, but it’s not clear what percentage of readership this represents.

Amedia, the local news organisation in Norway, and one which has had a stellar record in its subscription growth, has managed to grow its paid readership to 160,000 over its 60 local titles, which sounds unremarkable – particularly when uttered in the same breath at the Times, but as a percentage of population it is, as the good people at Reuters calculate, the equivalent of the UK’s Trinity Mirror attracting 2 million subscribers, or the US’s Gannet at 10 million. Yes, these are crude extrapolations, but they’re ones worth noting. What are Amedia doing right?

FIPP’s Global Digital Subscription Snapshot, published last week, makes for fairly compelling reading. Deloitte reports that by 2020, subscriptions will account for 50% of digital revenue (equal to that of advertising). Only six years ago this split was 10:90. That’s quite a shift.

The pivot to paid is good. Juan Senor made the bold statement that ‘you shouldn’t be in the business of publishing – and certainly not journalism – if you’re not charging for your content’. The New York Times’ success is beguiling. The Washington Post’s too. In the UK, the Guardian’s operating model (more a membership set up) has apparently been very successful. The Local Europe (with whom we had the great pleasure to share a stage with at WAN IFRA a few months ago), Amedia in Norway, Zetland in Denmark – and of course De Correspondent in the Netherlands are all quotable successes. In Poland, Gazeta Wyborcza’s story is one worth looking at.

Here’s the ‘but’.

You see, it wasn’t switching operating models towards a reader-revenue-based one which has been the Times’ saviour, just as it wasn’t a paywall which has made the Amedia story such a good one. The success is in the graft: the hidden analysis, audience research, public engagement and deep strategizing which places exemplary content at the heart of the publication and fosters a loyal reader base who consider the content so good, so indispensable that they’re invested in it and prepared to invest in it also.

We talk a lot about engagement in journalism, and rightly so. When it comes to subscriptions, though, Loyalty deserves as much attention.

On a recent Digiday podcast, Hayley Romer of The Atlantic talked about this very issue. Around 10% of their readership are, as presenter Aditi Sangal describes them, ‘superfans’. These are the ones who are engaged (yes, that word again). These are the ones who are habitual readers, who consume content the most ravenously.

‘The more people read, the more likely they are to subscribe’ says The New York Times’ Clay Fisher. It isn’t exactly rocket science to state that more highly engaged readers are those more likely to subscribe, and critically, less likely to churn.

It might sound incongruous to focus on the hard-core readers that make up the paid readership base at a publication, but if that small percentage are the ones keeping it financially buoyant, of course it isn’t.

‘The problem with looking at loyalty is that people aren’t clear about the definition, and therefore unsure about how to measure it. When we’ve looked at how others are tackling this, we’ve found the parameters are non-specific, too broad and they’re often not sure what to do with the information’. That’s Ognjen Zelenbabić of CI Labs talking. He and the team define loyalty as ‘sequentially higher-engaged readers’. That’s the key, he says: loyalty is best measured by looking at people, not articles. If loyal readers hover around the 10% mark (which, because you’re switched on, you’ll notice broadly corresponds to subscription rates), then the value of looking at this metric is substantial. It is possible to calculate the degree to which they’re loyal and how they’re loyal. Once you know that, you’re onto a winner. 

Content which is deftly aligned with the key audience is likely to be more effective at renewing than any mug can hope to be. 


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