Digital Publishing Reader Revenue
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6 inspiring growth strategies from successful publishers

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Here are some of the most successful growth strategies for gaining new digital subscribers other publishers have used

Not a week goes by without a story of a news outlet’s success with digital subscriptions or memberships, and that’s some good news we all need at the moment.

In almost each such story, a careful reader will find an approach the newsroom has adopted thanks to which it reached its goal. 

Here are some of the most prolific – and lesser-known – strategies outlets have used to gain more digital subscribers.

1) Introductory offers

These offers are possibly the most used strategy practiced especially by big publishers. For a certain introductory period, the outlet will charge new subscribers a lower price. There is a spectrum publishers use, and it is pretty wide, depending on  how big a discount they are prepared to offer.

Some of the most aggressive introductory offers have been (and are still) used by the sports news site, The Athletic, which will charge new subscribers only $1.00 for the first 6 months and then bump it up to $7.99 monthly. The strategy has worked. The news outlet has gained more than a million subscribers, although there have been stories about high churn rates.

The Economist used to have a  popular 12/12 introductory offer –  12 weeks for £12.00. Last year,  its SVP and Global Head of Customer Claire Overstall told WAN-IFRA the experience wasn’t working, and that they had to overhaul the strategy because of a big drop in subscribers  after the 13th week.

Having an introductory offer was a good tool for acquisitions, but the team had to do something about retention. The revised introductory offer (still in place) gives new subscribers a 50% reduction during the first 12 weeks.

At the moment I see an introductory offer for €39 for the first 12 weeks and autorenewing at €85.00 quarterly. I suppose the initial strategy brought in lots of subscribers eager to give it a try at a very friendly rate. However, it is also possible that  a large portion knew they would cancel after 12-13 weeks. The new offer is not for everyone, but it still makes a good case for those considering strongly, even if perhaps not being too sure.

The third case I’d like to highlight is The New York Times with an introductory offer lasting one year at a 75% discount (new digital-only subscribers pay $2.00 every four weeks instead of $8.00). I’m sure you know that NYT hit its goal of 10 million subscribers with the acquisition of The Athletic.

Not all newsrooms can offer a 75% discount for a year without feeling it on their bottom line. If one does this on The Times’ scale (or on that of other big news organizations), one can afford it. Of course, such a strategy cannot exist in a vacuum. That’s why NYT invests so much in retention tools: subscriber onboarding, subscriber-only newsletters, games, and podcasts.

Introductory prices are a convenient gateway for readers to try out a subscription offer and see whether it’s a fit. Although this strategy needs a strong retention component, it is widely used outside news (e.g., Spotify, Disney+, Xbox Game Pass, Adobe Creative Cloud, etc.).

2) Newsletters

The Fix has been on the newsletter beat since its inception, and you are most likely to find a new story on the subject almost every week. Here is a recent one: How publishers are growing subscriptions with newsletters.

Last summer, I put together a list of all the ways publishers are using newsletters to grow paying members.

Paid newsletters are an obvious grow-digital- subscriber choice  and many news startups, including PuckPunchbowl News, and Air Mail, chose this path. NY TimesThe InformationBloomberg and others have introduced paid newsletters to “make your subscription more valuable”, as goes the tagline.

From December 2019 to December 2020, Funke Mediengruppe increased the number of subscribers from 56,000 to 250,000. Funke — one of the largest German multimedia companies, with 13 regional daily titles —  registered 250,000 newsletter subscribers, an extraordinary five-fold increase in just one year.

Funke sends out free newsletters with paid content links. They expect a stable 5% growth of paid subscribers every four to six months. Read Funke’s story here.

The news outlet I work for, Dennik SME in Slovakia, has marked success in converting newsletter subscribers into paying digital subscribers by offering a follow-author option. Each author who contributes to Dennik SME can be followed via e-mail notifications.

There is a built-in conversion: Paying subscribers receive a notification and the whole article by email. Non-subscribers get a notification with the article link (most articles by authors are behind a paywall). They are further advised that the subscriber gets the entire content by email, plus a button that leads directly to subscription.

3) Audio (paid podcasts and audio articles)

For many news publishers, podcasts and audios in general have proved  to be another strategy for finding and especially cultivating subscribers. I wrote  a long report last August about how paid podcasts are starting to grow in Europe. 

News publishers such as Der Spiegel in Germany, Agora with their platform TOK FM (the publisher of Poland’s leading national daily Gazeta Wyborcza), Tortoise Media in the UK, Zetland in Denmark –  all use various kinds of paid audio to attract and cultivate digital subscribers.

The Economist in the UK  and the weekly Respekt in the Czech Republic offer audio versions of the magazines. You can listen to every article – if you are a subscriber.

4) Premium features: gift articles, no ads, newsroom participation

Gazeta Wyborcza’s recent feature “What’s New In Publishing” provides an insight into how subscriptions can be boosted.

Wyborcza’s Club premium tier offers subscribers direct contact with the newsroom, including participation in online meetings.

The most used technique, the opportunity to pass on two additional subscriptions to friends or relatives, is taken up by nearly 70% of Club members. In a sense, this is a win-win and a useful network effect often practiced by startups.

The Washington Post uses a bonus subscription to lure subscribers into opting in their Premium+ offer. The bonus subscription is tied to the main subscription and is active as long.

WaPo’s premium subscribers get an ad-free website, monthly 30-day digital passes, and exclusive e-books written by Post’s journalists (a deal likely due to good relations with Amazon and their multiple publishers).

5) Support mission (Guardian-like membership)

In December 2021, The Guardian announced it had reached more than 1 million recurring digital supporters. The Guardian’s unique ownership model means the publisher is not controlled by a billionaire owner, or a group of shareholders demanding financial returns – any profits made go directly towards producing quality, independent journalism, the paper wrote at the time.

Katharine Viner, Guardian’s editor-in-chief, says it took six years since they first asked readers to contribute financially to support Guardian journalism. The strategy has been brilliantly successful and shows a deep connection they have with readers; so many have chosen to support the outlet without the imposition of a paywall.

Although the outlet has begun to show readers a registration wall, they can decide to register later and finish reading the story with a click of a button.

The Guardian’s model has followers all over the world, mainly among the news nonprofits that have a strong mission with which they rally supporters to subscriber or investigative outlets. A Guardian-like model is also being used by the Slovak digital only news site, although it does not disclose the number of supporters.

6) Using a “time wall”

In 2017, the Swedish media group MittMedia introduced a ‘time wall’ across 20 sites. MittMedia is no longer there, after its local sites  were acquired by Bonnier News (80%) and Amedia (20%).

Digiday explained the strategy at the time.  All content published is open for the first hour in order to get the maximum reach before readers hit the paywall. Opening up all content for the first 60 minutes has led to a +20% subscriber conversion rate.

The idea behind the experiment boils down to using the first hour to distribute the content as widely as possible. Once the audience comes, they will hit the paywall, but by then everybody will be interested in the story.

Don’t just copy

The above far from exhausts the list. I will try to update it each time I come across new proven strategies. That’s not to say there aren’t any out there even as I write this. I am more than sure this is just the tip of the iceberg.  For the time being, I tried to give an overview of the most popular ones.

Last but not least, copying a winning strategy isn’t likely to make one successful right then and there. Even if you come across two news outlets using seemingly the same strategy, there will be differences rooted in personalising the approach to each audience.

There is no harm in testing strategies to find the most effective one. It is important to keep in mind one’s audience, to make sure they are listening to podcasts and see if it’s worth starting a paid podcast. Be that as it may, newsletters have proved to be a good starting point for any publisher.

David Tvrdon

This piece was originally published in The Fix and is re-published with permission.