Digital Publishing
5 mins read

Converting news readers into paying subscribers: A primer for publishers

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With 52% of publishers focusing on subscriptions as their main revenue source this year, the need to better convert subscribers is continuing to grow. This week we’ve gathered the top research into subscription conversion for publishers to make sure they’re not missing any of the best practices.

Main paths to subscription

We know there’s not just one reason people read news so it stands to reason there’s not just one way to convert news readers into paying subscribers. Research from the Media Insight Project highlights the potential paths to subscription, which publishers can use to better target their subscription offerings.

Nearly a quarter of respondents stated they subscribed to the newspaper in order to support journalism; they felt that by paying for news, they were helping to ensure quality journalism would be around in the future. This is part of the “Trump bump” we saw in the US after President Trump was elected. It is related as well to the “fake news” crisis which has prompted more and more people to question the accuracy of free news.

Publishers can best convert these readers by highlighting how subscribers help fund quality journalism, for example how The New York Times is currently experimenting with having journalists explain in detail their reporting process in ads for subscriptions during some of their podcasts, including The Daily. These ads are great examples of educating readers on all the effort, time, and resources that are put into every story they publish.

Another quarter of respondents were triggered to subscribe due to specific topics they could only have access to after paying. Usually such readers are interested in local politics or sports and engage highly with that content, meaning they often hit a paywall until they ultimately decide to subscribe. This is good news for local publishers as it’s one way to better compete with national titles for subscribers. To activate these readers, publishers need to understand the specific verticals that generate high engagement for them. For The Dallas Morning News, high school sports stories are key. So instead of an article-counting meter, they placed a day-counting meter on high school sports stories. After the first day, visitors are asked to provide their email address, then after four days they’re locked out to additional content. The Dallas Morning News put together a newsletter specifically for these readers which was used to generate more subscriptions in three months than the rest of the site combined.

Another important trigger for subscribing is a major life change. 16% of respondents started to pay for online news because of a transition in their life, such as a move or a new job. While it isn’t the editorial or marketing offer made by the newspaper that converts them, it is still important for publishers to be meeting these readers at the right time. Publishers can try to partner with local organizations such as realtors, colleges, or employers to reach such readers. The Financial Times is a good example of this, with their effort to extend free access to their content to 16-19 year old students around the world.

Best practices for conversion

Other research has dug into the best practices for the messaging aspect of conversion. The Wall Street Journal for example conducted research into the small changes they could make to convert more subscribers. One interesting finding is that publishers often take for granted certain benefits so do not promote them when showing subscription offerings. For example, we’ve heard before about a feared “subscription fatigue”, and we know signing up for a new subscription can be a bit anxiety-inducing. The Wall Street Journal was able to increase subscriptions 10% by simply highlighting the ease at which subscribers could cancel (which had no impact on the average tenure of subscribers).

The Seattle Times has also experimented with conversion, and they found that reducing the fields required to subscribe from 24 to just 9 helped increase conversions by 35%.

A report from the American Press Institute proposed that shifting from a quantity-driven audience strategy to a quality-driven one requires a rethinking of the product experience as well. While in the past the idea was to get articles seen by the most amount of readers possible, while filling all available space with advertisements, this experience is often not one worth paying for. The most annoying advertisements (popups, autoplay video, redirects, etc) may have felt like a “necessary evil” in the days of ad-driven revenue strategies, but this will prevent high conversion for reader revenue strategies.

Furthermore, research from the Center for Media Engagement suggests we’re thinking about the conversion funnel all wrong. Perhaps the goal of the website isn’t to get people to subscribe directly, but instead to register for a newsletter. Then the newsletter has the goal of converting readers to paying subscribers.

The team behind the report found that readers are not heavily persuaded by images of the newspapers’ logos or messages about what they’d lose if they don’t subscribe. Instead, readers are more triggered by messages about what they’d gain from a subscription, such as access to premium-only content.

Once a reader subscribes to a newsletter, there’s time to create the daily habit that helps to show the value of the news content. This also helps support the recent finding from Reuters that publishers who build direct relationships with their readers that are better able to convince readers to subscribe. While social and search are good for widening the funnel, it is the direct relationship that is key for conversion. 

New technology to increase conversion

At Twipe, we’re always proud to be at the forefront of media technology, which is why we’re excited to be bringing the learnings from our latest AI project to the industry. We’ll be releasing a report on our work and findings from the year-long collaborative project with The Times and The Sunday Times, called “JAMES, Your Digital Butler.” The report will be published later this month.

JAMES has been able to transform both the conversion and engagement strategies at The Times by personalizing the distribution, not the content, of digital editions in highly individualised interactions with readers. Currently the technology has been used to send newsletters but it can also be applied to other channels such as push notifications. We look forward to bring this technology to more publishers this year.

Mary-Katharine Phillips
Media innovation analyst @ Twipe

Republished with kind permission of Twipe Mobile, a European technology company offering state-of-the-art digital publishing, analytics and AI solutions for publishers.