Publishers Rethink Value to Avoid Subscription Fatigue for New Paid Readers


This story is part of “Now what?” Digiday Media’s Fall 2021 Sneak Peek, a look at how media, marketing and retail has changed over the past 18 months, and what it means for their future. Check out the rest of the stories here.

For all of the business challenges of the past year, the publisher’s focus on subscriber acquisition has worked.

In 2020, publishers’ subscription revenues increased by 16%, according to a study by the subscription management platform Zuora; About a fifth (21%) of American adults now pay for at least one online medium in the United States, according to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2021. The majority of those who pay have an average of two subscriptions.

But how many subscriptions can a reader pay? And how many will they keep, especially without the roller coaster of 2020 to keep them locked in the news cycle?

Retention rates are holding up – for now. But to ensure they can retain the clients they’ve gained over the past 18 months, publishers are hiring more people focused on retaining and recruiting subscribers and also investing more in content in multiple formats. to add to the value of a subscription.

More people for more segmentation

Publishers are investing more manpower in figuring out how to retain and attract paying subscribers.

Several publications have made additions or changes to their leadership ranks to maintain the momentum of their subscribers. On August 16, Michael Ribero assumed the role of Washington Post’s senior director of subscription, responsible for overseeing the company’s digital subscription activities. Karl Wells was promoted to a new role at Dow Jones, director of subscriptions, in April, and he will have three new vice president positions reporting to him starting this fall: vice president of core subscriptions WSJ, vice -President of Barron group subscriptions and vice-president of Young Audiences.

Others invest in large teams to improve specific functions. The Los Angeles Times, for example, saw a “significant increase” in the number of digital subscribers last year, said marketing director Joshua Brandau, although he declined to share specific numbers.

“Like most news editors, we’ve certainly seen more attention and time spent on our content in 2020 – especially the latest pandemic news and local openings. [and] closures for neighborhoods in LA, ”he said.

Focus now? How to keep them. “The growth in subscriber numbers comes from finding new leads but also, in large part, keeping more of our current subscribers,” Brandau said.

The LA Times uses first-party data “to inform creative messaging and perform content testing with specific user segments,” Brandau said. This same data is used to create referrals that he uses for spending in acquisition channels.

Over the past year, The Times has hired “about 10” people each in its creative departments and growth marketing teams to support its subscription strategy, including designers, editors, acquisition marketers. , retention marketing executives, a media manager and media planners, among others. Brandau expects the company to continue increasing the size of these teams over the next year, especially when it comes to figuring out how to retain subscribers – the churn rate was a big challenge for the LA Times a few years ago.

More of what subscribers want

Sometimes giving people what they want can mean simplifying. Quartz’s strategy is to give its subscribers more of what they want, in the format they want.

Business news publisher Quartz has had a notable year of growth in subscriber numbers. Its subscriber base grew 71% year-over-year, according to editor-in-chief Katherine Bell, to reach 27,000 paying members, each paying $ 14.99 per month or $ 99 per year.

But on August 1, Quartz announced that it was refocusing its three-year subscription program around its email newsletters, after the publisher found in a March 2021 survey that 75% of its paid subscribers were directed to most of Quartz’s content through their inbox. .

“The members were telling us, ‘There is a lot to read here [on the website and app], we can’t take advantage of it all, we don’t know where to look, ”Bell told Digiday.

In other cases, it means doubling the coverage areas. Atlantic’s subscriber base has grown almost 50% over the past 12 months, adding 280,000 paid readers from the first half of 2020 to the first half of 2021. It now has over 830,000 print and digital subscribers in total.

To maintain that growth, Nicholas Thompson, CEO of The Atlantic, said the editorial is investing in areas of coverage that have “defined and distinguished” its reporting over the past year: on the pandemic, the rise of the authoritarianism, the dangers of extremism, the divide of the country across political and racial lines, and examinations of culture and society. The Atlantic is also expanding its coverage to topics such as climate and technology.

Thompson said he doesn’t think much about competing with other publishers. Although some media watchers have expressed concern that the growth in news subscribers primarily affects a handful of players – the same Reuters Institute study found that nearly half of news subscribers pay for at least one of the articles in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal – Thompson said that Atlantic’s goal is rather to “be better ourselves”, that is to say to produce journalism that gets people to subscribe and retain them.

“It’s not like we’re a gas station on one side of the street, worried that the gas station across the street is selling three cents less gas than we are,” he said. Thompson said.


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