El número inaugural de Snapshot de suscripción digital global (GDS) de FIPP se publicó en 2018 como una celebración de los editores que aumentaron con éxito sus ingresos de contenido pagado en línea. Desde su lanzamiento, hemos visto cómo los medios de comunicación y las noticias convierten una meta que antes parecía imposible, en una fuente de ingresos cada vez más importante para sus empresas.
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In this report we not only illustrate continued stellar digital subscription growth rates, but reveal a dogged determination and growing confidence in making reader revenue models work.
New York Media is following suit by placing New York magazine, the Cut, Vulture and all their other titles behind a dynamic paywall as well. And, of course, no article would be complete without mentioning another New York native that has become the de facto north star of subscription inspiration; The New York Times.
The New York Times’ digital future is growing from strength to strength, and the title added 265,000 new digital-only subscribers in the 4th quarter of 2018. Their total subscriptions now number more than 4.3 million, of which 3.3 million are digital-only subscribers. The impact of this growth firmly reflects on their bottom line.
Digital revenue for 2018 was over $700 million, and this is expected to rise to $800 million by the end of 2020, and optimism about the company has seen its share price hit a 15-year high. The company is also seeking to buy back its New York headquarters. Of course, what is most interesting is that the company has set itself a lofty target of 10 million digital subscribers by 2025, a goal it believes it can eclipse.
But the market is heating up across the pond as well, and German publishers, in particular, have shown impressive gains in the nine months since our last report. Zeit has notched up an impressive 123% growth to more than 100,000 digital-only subscribers, Süddeutsche Zeitung boasts an increase of 42%, Der Spiegel is up 50%, and Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung has doubled its digital-only subscribers.
German market leader Axel Springer continues to enjoy success with WeltPlus and BildPlus which have a combined digital-only subscriber base of over 500,000. In a strategic move, the company has acquired CeleraOne, one of the leading providers of paywall technology in Europe. (Disclosure: CeleraOne is the sponsor of this report for the second year running).
Whilst there is a clear strategic advantage to owning a paywall technology company, from statement made by the company, that their own success will be easier attained by working with other publishers to nurture a culture of acceptance amongst consumers to support quality journalism, preferably with their wallets wide open to the cause.
But the growing optimism about, and confidence in, the potential of reader revenue models delivered by paywalls, is not restricted to the market leaders highlighted above.
According to Reuters, more than half of publishers identified subscriptions as their primary revenue focus for the next year.
Sport becomes the local content kingpin driving digital subscriptions.
The Athletic burst on to the scene with much fanfare. This well-funded digital start-up has attracted investment totalling $70million and has over 100,000 subscribers. From the outset, their model was based on establishing local content teams, most frequently by poaching sports writers from local newspapers trapped in the unenviable position of constant cost cuts to stay afloat.
Their model has been hugely successful, and they boast that the new areas they launch into become successful in an incredibly short time. But their success has attracted attention and is spawning a series of nimble competitors focussed on providing the same local focus on sports in the US market.
DK Pittsburgh Sports, The Capitol Sports and Hookem.com owe their existence to a strong focus on local teams in a limited number of sports. In doing so, they are feeding moderately sized fanbases with a depth of coverage not available elsewhere, and are building up a dedicated following in the process. Counterintuitively, with fans for specific teams scattered across the country, their local content is developing national appeal, and more than half of DK Pittsburgh Sports subscribers are national rather than local.
Many of these start-ups are, however, not managing to replicate the Atlantic’s success in breaking out of narrow content areas. DK Pittsburgh Sports attempted to broaden their content offering, but in the end, had to do a very public climb-down and narrow their focus back to covering the three core teams on which their content was initially focussed.
The success of the Atlantic and other start-ups has also not gone unnoticed by local and regional newspaper groups which have now set their sights on clawing back their once dominant position on local sport and are using it as a potential subscription driver. Regional chains like McClatchy, are using lower-priced unlimited sports subscriptions to draw in subscribers.
Although most evidence of using sports as a subscription driver is coming from the US, The Telegraph in the UK recently placed all their rugby content behind their paywall alongside politics and business.
Less free content, more intelligent dynamic paywalls.
Irrespective of which model publishers are using, there is a general trend which sees more content placed behind paywalls. Those using hard meters have steadily been lowering the number of articles they offer for free. On average this number is around five articles per month, but others, like the Boston Globe, has reduced that number down to two.
Dynamic paywalls continue to grow in popularity. In short, dynamic paywalls are best described as data-rich, artificial intelligence systems able to predict how likely a reader is to become a paying subscriber, and what actions it will take to convert them. Using this approach, the number of articles the reader is shown depends on their behaviour and user profile, all with the goal of using the best method to convert them to paying subscribers.
Swiss Newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) has used this to significant effect and claims that they have increased their conversion rate fivefold in the last year on the back of experimenting with propensity modelling.
The technology has also brought some fascinating insight to life and has revealed that content which enjoys mass appeal on social media, tends to perform poorly in subscription conversion. Most frequently, it appears that it is specialised or local content that is the strongest predictor of a reader’s propensity to become a subscriber.
The changing face of Facebook
While Facebook remains an important marketing channel for many publishers, the dynamic of the relationship with the platform has shifted dramatically in the last year. Research from Reuters has shown that Facebook is rapidly losing favour with publishers, and both reputation and functional considerations drive this.
Facebook’s deepening woes around privacy and data usage have seen the company face increasing levels of scrutiny. In the US, presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has even called for digital companies to be reclassified at platform utilities and split up, as was done to the telecoms monopolies in the US decades ago. She has made this pledge central to her election campaign.
In the UK, Chancellor Philip Hammond has asked the government to instigate an investigation into the dominance of Google and Facebook in the digital advertising market. In Europe and Australia, lawmakers are also applying increasing pressure to get greater visibility into the business model and finances of the digital duopoly.
But it may very well be performance issues that see the platform lose most favour with publishers. Algorithm changes in 2018 have choked referral traffic for publishers. And, while Facebook introduced these changes on the back of messaging to bring people closer together, but the reported fall of 50% in engagement levels on the platform is harder to ignore, or whitewash.
Publishers with advertising lead models who scale their audiences through platforms like Facebook took a particularly hard hit on the back of these changes, with more changes already on the way. While referral traffic for news and politics was down just over 30%, in categories like art and entertainment traffic is down as much as 71%, and for music and fashion, it’s down over 60%.
Publishers focussing on subscription models have built increasingly sophisticated data systems to understand where their subscribers are coming from. And by using such data, publishers like Le Figaro and Amedia have given Facebook an enormous thumbs down as a source of new subscribers, stating that more than 90% of subscription conversions come from their own platforms.
Newsletters are making a comeback
As part of an effort to keep readers engaged, and to market on own and owned platforms, many publishers are focussing on newsletters with responsibility for these returning from the marketing department to the newsroom.
The Washington Post has more than 70 newsletters with content varying from parenting to politics, and they are being deployed to serve two vital purposes;
Firstly, to keep readers exposed to the brand and its content, whether they are actively visiting the site or not. In essence, it is being used as a secondary channel to stay in touch with the reader and keep the brand within their repertoire.
But the other purpose of newsletters is to serve as lead generation tools, which are marketed and promoted on social media channels and used to register users. They give readers the opportunity to enrol with the publishers without becoming a subscriber but ensures that the company has the chance to be in constant contact and can draw readers into the content ecosystem that puts them on a path to subscription.