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4 ways publishers are building loyalty during COVID-19

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Loyalty is a rare, but valuable commodity for publishers. 

Acquiring new paying customers and members can be an expensive business. As a result, we’ve seen numerous outlets invest heavily in retention efforts in recent years, as content creators look to reduce churn and retain existing audiences.

In the COVID-era, many publishers have seen spikes in traffic as consumers have sought out coronavirus related information, or, alternatively, distractions from the crisis.

As publishers increasingly pivot to reader-revenue, finding ways to keep new (and existing) audiences on board is a strategic priority. 

Here are four ways that publishers are endeavouring to do this during the pandemic.

1. Launching new coronavirus products

With COVID-19 rapidly circumnavigating the globe, it didn’t take long for publishers to seize the potential to create, and launch, coronavirus-focused news products. As Nieman Lab’s Hanaa Tameez noted at the start of March, “If you’re itching for more information about coronavirus and its specific impacts, there’s a product for you and it’s probably free.”

The most common of these have been coronavirus-themed podcasts and newsletters. Typically free, these new products don’t just meet audience needs for information, publishers also hope that they will offer a pathway to subscription for non-subscribers. 

Sometimes this aspiration is implicit, but more frequently than not publishers are including a specific call to action within their content. The New York Times’ daily Coronavirus Briefing newsletter, for example, makes the ask clear and simple.

It’s an approach that they’re weaving into other non-COVID content too. NYT’s The Daily, is one of the most popular podcasts in the world. In the middle of each episode, you’ll now typically find an explicit call to support the NYT’s journalism with a subscription. 

The New York Times’ newsletter CTA

In seeking to drive and develop subscriptions, a key goal for media creators is to build habit and loyalty. Consistency, such as publishing to a regular schedule, which many newsletters and podcasts do, can help with this. 

COVID-19 related products can also play a vital role as a gateway to other content and services.  Coronavirus newsletters, for example, do more than just meet an immediate consumer need. They’re also an opportunity for publishers to highlight non-COVID content. This is important if you want to try and build a long-term connection with new users; ideally, a subscription-based relationship that lasts beyond the pandemic. 

Nic Newman, in a deep dive into “The Resurgence and Importance of Email Newsletters,” as part of 2020’s Digital News Report, also comments how newsletters can go beyond being a fishing expedition for new subscribers.  “…They can be equally valuable in providing regular prompts for existing customers to use the product more regularly.”

And lest we forget, these platforms – even during the COVID crisis- are also ripe for monetisation. 

In the States, advertising revenue is expected to grow by 14.7% in 2020, the fourth annual IAB Podcast Advertising Revenue Report reveals. However, that’s a substantial slowdown from the 48% growth in advertising revenues the format saw in 2019.

“Despite COVID, which has slammed everyone, we’re still seeing growth in podcast advertising,” said Zoe Soon, VP of consumer experience center at the IAB. “It’s definitely a resilient media.”

Meanwhile, Digiday observes how The Washington Post’s coronavirus newsletter has created new sales in the form of sponsorship opportunities with companies like Goldman Sachs, Slack and Salesforce. 

Image: IAB/PWC – FY 2019 Podcast Ad Revenue Study, July 2020

2. Hosting digital events 

Pre-COVID, a number of publishers were heavily invested in the revenue potential of events. 

As HubSpot commented back in 2016: “As a media company, one of your biggest strengths is your ability to create communities of people… Why not extend your value and offer in-person events to complement your content?”

“Even small independent publishers find events and publishing natural bedfellows,” FIPP observed at the time, highlighting the success of Embassy Magazine, a niche publication catering for “news and views from the London diplomatic corps.”

Before COVID-19 upended these prospects, publishers were confident about the role that events would play in revenue growth this year. 

In January, a Folio: survey of 182 industry professionals found that live events were seen as the second biggest driver for revenue growth in 2020, with more than four in ten respondents identifying events as a driver for revenue growth. This was the second most popular revenue vertical after digital advertising and branded content.

Lockdowns and quarantine orders kiboshed many of these ambitions, although this hasn’t stopped publishers from pivoting to digital events.

Esther Kezia Thorpe, in an article for What’s New In Publishing examining how Hearst Live and New Scientist on running successful virtual events, shared takeaways from their pandemic experience. This includes monetising virtual events and using digital delivery as a means to overcome the geographic boundaries which many physical events face. 

Looking ahead she quotes Nikki Clare, Head of Events and Client Service at Hearst Live, as saying that the pandemic experience will carry over into their post-COVID events strategy.

Image for Women’s Health Live 2020, from Hearst Live and Women’s Health 

“In the short to medium term, we’re looking at virtual events as our core products, but then our medium to longer term strategy will be hybrid events,” Clare said. “We still believe very much in the power of live experience, but we also believe that we can translate a lot of that into virtual or hybrid events. It’s a really exciting time for the industry in some ways.”

3. Dropping paywalls

As the spread of COVID-19 gathered speed, many publishers made the decision to drop their paywalls for coronavirus related content. However, there have been notable exceptions, such as the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times, to this trend. 

In Poynter, Kelly McBride and Rick Edmonds debated the ethics of this, with Edmonds noting:

“Legacy newspapers have a business imperative to build revenue from paid digital subscriptions. It could turn out to be a matter of survival. But dropping the paywall in a time of crisis makes essential and comprehensive local coverage available to the whole community, not just those who can pay.”

At the same time, citing Poynter’s writing coach Roy Peter Clark, McBride rightly warns us: “If you are out of business, the great journalism you had been doing is not going to be available to anyone.”

Acknowledging this, numerous news outlets, whether they dropped their paywall or not, have used the crisis as an opportunity to remind audiences of the cost of producing journalism, and why financial support is imperative. 

Image via Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

This is important because as Joy Mayer at the Trusting News project reminds us, most people don’t know how journalism is funded, or the financial state that it is in. 

In doing this, publishers have not just to deliver on their public service responsibilities, but they’ve also hoped to parlay this renewed reader interest into subscriptions.  

Some magazine publishers, like Condé Nast, Dennis Publishing and Bauer Media, have reported growth in subscriber numbers. 

News sites, as Grzegorz (Greg) Piechota, researcher-in-residence, INMA, demonstrated at May’s INMA Virtual World Congress saw an initial subscription spike. Although that has slowed, at the time the current rate of growth remains higher than pre-COVID. 

Picture: Screenshot of Greg Piechota’s presentation, courtesy INMA. Via

One major challenge, of course, is that even with increased subscriptions and donations, these revenues do not get even close to the revenue losses that publishers are seeing from other income streams (such as advertising and events).

In response, some publishers, like the U.S. newspaper group McClatchy have reinstated their paywalls. At the end of March, Axios reported that the company was letting local editors determine which stories would be in front of the paywall, and which ones would be behind it.

4. Offering premium content and new services

At the same time as many publishers have tweaked their paywall during this crisis, others have used the pandemic to launch new paid-for products.

This is most obviously true of streaming services. Disney+ launched in the UK during the pandemic. (The timing was incidental.) In the U.S. NBC launched Peacock, it’s long-planned OTT channel, which also – like Hulu – includes ” a premium ad-free version.

Not surprisingly, many of us are watching a lot more content during lockdown, and streaming services have been the main beneficiaries of this. 

GlobalWebIndex’s Coronavirus Multi-Market Study finds that in a number of major markets more than half of internet users are spending more time watching shows and streaming services. They also found 13-16% are listening to more podcasts too.

Alongside these long-planned streaming launches, other content creators are also unveiling premium services at this time.

In July, Skift, the travel industry intelligence site, has launched a new membership product, Skift Pro. Costing $135 a quarter, or $365 for a year (and $595 for 2 years), benefits for users include unlimited access to news stories, a members-only weekly newsletter, conference calls with Skift editorial staff and guaranteed access (plus a discount) for Skift events.

According to co-founder and Chief Product Officer Jason Clampet the product had been in the pipeline for over a year. Its launch, however, comes at a time when the travel industry has been heavily impacted by furloughs and layoffs. Marketing and advertising spend for the travel vertical have been one of the most hit by the coronavirus. 

“It’s hard to know what is a good time right now for anything,” Clampet told Digital Content Next. “The reality of business is that direct from consumer revenue is vital to just about any media business.”

“We also know that the people who are still at companies in Europe and Asia, which is waking up again. They need actual information to do their jobs better and make smarter decisions. We’re still here providing that, so in that sense, it is a good time [to launch].”

The move, CEO and founder Rafat Ali said on Twitter, means that “Skift is now officially a Subscription-First business information company.”  “This is an important shift for Skift,” he wrote. “This decision builds a key revenue stream that will be more resilient to industry down cycles.”


What these examples demonstrate is that many publishers are using tried and tested techniques to serve audiences and build loyalty. 

Other efforts, such as digital events, are more experimental, but are an opportunity to pivot existing revenue models (events being an area many publishers have invested heavily in), harness digital platforms to meet existing – and pandemic-emerging – needs. 

Deloitte, in their report “COVID-19: Maintaining customer loyalty and trust during times of uncertainty,” stresses that the foundations of customer loyalty are trust and confidence. These “are being put to the test,” they observe, “and people are scared.”

“By putting your customers’ interests first, this can be a time for your company’s brand to lead,” they advise. “Even though you might be taking a short-term hit to your bottom line, putting flexible refund, pricing, and change policies in place, and finding other ways to help your customers through this crisis will be beneficial to the long-term health of your company.”

This guidance isn’t aimed specifically at publishers, but as we have seen many outlets are putting these ideas into place with new products, changes to their paywalls and new services which meet consumer needs, as well as on-going revenue requirements. 

Publishers should optimize for loyalty, Content Insights’ Milos Stanic argued last year. Many players have already made that move, or begun that process. For all publishers, regardless of where they are in this transition, COVID-19 has made this strategic imperative more relevant and important than ever.

This article is adapted from our free to download report, The Publisher’s Guide to Navigating COVID-19.