The best performing publishers studied in the cohort analyzed tended to leverage content strategy, social media engagement, offline events, video, email, newsletters, and site optimization to increase engagement among audiences and subscribers.
As a rule of thumb, generally all audience engagement activity that occurs prior to the subscription should continue post-subscription. Best practices included:
Establishing a Content Strategy Focused on Substance: Across the publishers studied, content strategies play an important role in engagement as well as sustaining subscribership. While social virality might appear promising, the alternative might be the case – articles with fewer social shares or lower page views might be more popular with subscribers than general audiences.
Site Recirculation: Site recirculation strategies additionally provide an opportunity for publishers to create more engaging relationships with their reporting, considering how to best drive a particular user to read the next article. Other approaches might evaluate what might appear in an infinite scroll following a particular article. Using propensity to subscribe scoring, a high-performing publisher might, for example, recirculate content based on the user’s prior section readership, rather than articles relevant to the previous article. The Business Case for Local and Unique Content: According the publishers surveyed, users who view local news appear to be 2-5 times more likely to subscribe than those who view national and wire-sourced stories. Of news organizations studied, publishers that produce more local (and non-wire-sourced) stories tended to generate greater subscription sales. High-performing editorial and business teams tended to clearly identify the unique value proposition of local news, incorporating editorial and coverage to improve readers’ lives within their communities. Critically, our analysis identified a correlation between subscription sales and amount of local content produced by the publication, reinforcing the business case for local reporting.
Information as a Service: Similarly to the business case for local content, publishers studied that provided “information as a service” to subscribers, including information that helps them live more informed lives, tended to see greater subscription sales. This category of information includes public transit and resource coverage and other information that does not require “reporting”.
Unique Content: High-performing publishers studied tend to offer a distinctive value proposition to the reader, incorporating reporting only that publication can provide. For example, one metro newspaper in a major college football market studied readership of its football coverage and found that pageviews in this category largely came from its coverage of the nationally recognized team in its market, an audience for which it competed heavily with national sports properties like ESPN. The publisher noticed a smaller school in the area had higher engagement from paying subscribers, and diverted resources to enhance coverage of the smaller school, driving subscriber engagement and reporting a greater number of new subscription starts.
Building Repeat Audience Attention: Effective publishers tend to help create “habit of news” among readers; the highest-performing publishers produce content readers want to refresh and read regularly. Our analysis found the most engaged subscribers expect daily and often hourly materials, rather than articles that merely resurface and repurpose content from the news organization’s print edition (if one exists). While wire stories help a publisher furnish regular content, wires tended to leave an audience impression of low quality of content. Publishers should prioritize customized, frequent local coverage that address a community’s particular needs, concerns, and interests.
Content Scoring and Evaluation: Across high-performing publishers studied, content elements were seen as sources of data to inform an exchange of value with the reader.
Publishers should score content in the following areas:
- the percentage of news subscriptions sold in a given time period when a particular article falls within that user’s conversion path
- the percentage engagement or story viewership by occasional readers, regular readers, and subscribers
- the percentage engagement by these segments by percentage engagement across all users.
Charting a path to subscription using content scoring might enable a publisher to see articles that over-perform relative to the norm, and map patterns that emerge. Newsletter and Email Signups: A variety of tactics tended to help a publication increase newsletter and email signups. These materials included overlays and modals, contests, slide-outs, registration reminders, embedded modules, and registration walls. Our surveys found publishers additionally experimented with tools from newsletter providers like Mailchimp to enable newsletter automation through RSS feeds. High-performing publishers also tended to leverage email sign-ups for direct subscription marketing and promotion; direct marketing tends to increase a reader’s likelihood of subscribing. Email newsletters also play an important role following the subscription action, increasing engagement and likely retention – and the best performing publishers see newsletters as editorial products of themselves. High-performing news organizations will track open rates, click-throughs and propensity describe through newsletters and optimize to maximize engagement.
Site Optimization: Our analysis found site optimization (especially reducing website load times) remains a critical challenge for many publishers. Page load times represent the largest difference between successful publishers in the top decile and fiftieth percentile of publishers studied, with a median load times of 5.76 seconds. Page load issues can generally challenge publishers, as revenue-generating activities such as third-party embeddable content marketing engines like Taboola or Outbrain tend to drain page load efficiency. Publishers might evaluate their return on investment on these third party features through benchmarking consumer experience and advertising revenue. Given the high lifetime value of a digital subscriber, a reduction programmatic advertising revenue might improve conversion or retention. Generally, that payoff can be calculated and estimated in advance using CLTV formulas. Effective site optimizers avoid advertising overload, use real estate to drive readers to subscription options, and encourage content discovery through customized recommendations and infinite scrolls – offering seamless customized recommendations and infinite scrolls – offering seamless reading experiences in desktop and mobile environments.
Meter Optimization: Publishers might additionally explore optimizing how their meters function. Welcome messages offer an important avenue to capture readers and create email registration leads. Thirty percent of onsite digital subscriptions originate from “welcome” messages that provide an introduction to new readers, and ”warn” messages that serve as reminders as the reader approaches the meter limit. Successful publishers test multiple strategies to determine the most effective marketing messages for readers. Browser overlays and customized warnings have proven effective, particularly those that underscore meter limits for individual users and offer customized options for unique subscriptions based on the reader’s profile and viewing history. The most effective stop messages include a single clear call to action, offer attractive introductory trial rates and include buttons that make clear the location(s) to click to advance the offer. Others include content-specific messages that link to the specific articles or sections the readers are pursuing. Publishers like the New York Times use homepage interstitials to maximize attention and page resources with marketing and subscription messages. Checkout flows are an important and often-ignored step in driving toward a successful subscriber engagement. Publishers should limit registration and billing fields, include pre-checked (opt-out) marketing provisions wherever possible, and make clear the savings from trial rates. Load time data, with key national publishers highlighted (median - 5.76s) (Source: Lenfest Institute for Journalism)
Marketing and Promotion: Marketing and promotional best practices appeared to also improve publishers’ subscriber acquisition and performance. Effective marketing messages typically incorporate part or all of the below messages.
- Campaigns focused on deeper and better content, focusing on independent journalism, supporting public interest messaging, social good appeals, or highlighting the impact of a particular news organization’s journalism
- Campaigns that prioritize convenience and access to content, anywhere and at any time.
- Campaigns that put the user in the driver’s seat – including informing and building intelligence, making the reader a better person.
- Campaigns that emphasize sampling, including trial rates and introductory offers that compare the cost of entry to a cup of coffee or another familiar low-cost item.
Publishers that excel in marketing and promotion typically focus house advertising, holiday promotions, seasonal offers, and flash promotions around these efforts, and punctuate these offers with content-specific promotions (e.g. promoting introductory rates for sports coverage heading into a particular season). Other publishers leverage retargeting and abandonment marketing tied to an abandoned cart or purchase experience. High-performing publishers additionally message and optimize effectively once the user has completed an article or decided to stop reading; a news organization will ideally present them with the action that is of highest value, offering a sign-up if the user is not an email subscriber, or presenting articles in another section if the user has read three articles in a particular section. Efficient news organizations tend to consistently design user experiences and content with an eye toward what action the user might take next. A Note on Customer Lifetime Value Customer lifetime value (CLTV) is a critical benchmark for publishers.