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How The Atlantic amassed over 300,000 paying subscribers in a year, “by bearing down on quality, quality, quality”

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The Atlantic launched a new paywall last September. A year down the line, it has more than 300,000 paying subscribers. The publisher’s goal was to cross 100,000 subscribers in the first two years of the paywall’s launch. Now with legacy print subscribers taken into account, it is more than halfway to its goal of 1M subscribers by December 2022, CNN Business reports.

100,000 subscribers in two months

Bulk of these subscribers came in the wake of the pandemic pursuing the publisher’s much lauded coverage of the virus. It got 36,000 new paying subscribers in March when traffic was at an all time high (87M unique visitors and more than 168M pageviews) and despite the paywall being taken off from coronavirus coverage. 

It got even better in the following months. Although traffic dipped after coronavirus news fatigue set in, subscriber growth continued. According to Michael Finnegan, President of Atlantic Media, they added 100,000 new subscribers in May and June alone, with each month surpassing 50,000.

More recently, a single news story about President Trump’s comments on the US armed forces was read by over 10M people and drove a record 20,000 subscriptions in just five days.

“Constantly trying to punch above our weight”

Although specific events, like the above have contributed to The Atlantic’s growth, the magazine has been ready to take advantage of such extraordinary circumstances for some years now. “I feel like our journalists are doing so well in the pandemic coverage because we’ve been practicing for this kind of high-intensity, highly fraught journalism for three years now,” Jeffrey Goldberg, Editor-in-Chief, The Atlantic told NiemanLab. 

Goldberg attributes the success to their commitment to high quality journalism. 

I’ve been arguing for a long time that we will be saved as an institution by bearing down on quality, quality, quality. Just do the most deeply reported, beautifully written, carefully edited, fact-checked, copyedited, and beautifully designed stories — and the reader will come. They want to be supportive and they want access. And it turns out to be true. Thank God for it.

Jeffrey Goldberg, Editor-in-Chief, The Atlantic

While the coronavirus coverage helped with brand awareness, articles on other topics also have converted readers to subscribers, according to Finnegan. These include The Atlantic’s political coverage and its less newsy content like Lori Gottlieb’s “Dear Therapist” and Arthur Brooks’ “How to Build a Life” columns.

“We’re constantly trying to punch above our weight,” Goldberg told CNN Business. “We have an advantage in that nobody comes to us looking for sports, traffic, or weather. Our readers aren’t expecting anything other than excellent stories about important subjects.”

“From a few hundred to around a thousand”

Apart from the quality of its content The Atlantic has also been benefiting from other changes made after the launch of the paywall, according to Max Willens, Senior Reporter, Digiday. “A tightened paywall, developing onboarding and engagement strategies both on and off its sites, and a careful approach to paid marketing have driven gains.” 

In November, the publisher had “overhauled a number of things in its checkout flow, including everything from changing the color of buttons on its subscribe page to reducing the number of payment options it showed readers there,” he explains. 

Those changes helped roughly double the number of subscribers it was gaining every day, from a few hundred to around a thousand.

Max Willens, Senior Reporter, Digiday

Readers were also given the option to subscribe via Facebook Instant Articles and Google AMP pages. Finnegan said these formats normally drive around 6% of the new subscribers per month. Also that a “surprising” number of subscribers have authenticated their subscriptions on Facebook and are now reading more Atlantic content there.

The Atlantic sold nearly 8,000 Subscriptions from March to June 2020 via Instant Articles, according to the Facebook Journalism Project. 

“Constantly evolving and developing our retention plans”

Other strategies included placing readers who subscribed suddenly into a separate cohort and observing their response to the onboarding process. It involves steps that can help build reading habits like signing up for newsletters and following the magazine and its authors on social media. 

Finnegan told Digiday that three visits per month can create enough engagement to keep a subscriber from lapsing. Those who fall below that threshold are pushed articles via paid social ads.

We really value the relationship with our readers. We’re constantly evolving and developing our retention plans through email welcome series and onsite experiences as well as how we talk to people throughout their life with email marketing and on social media.

Emilie Harkin, Executive Director of Customer Growth, The Atlantic

“Model that other publishers should be able to leverage”

“We knew that the investment that we put in was going to pay off, but we had no idea that it was going to pay off in this manner and at this scale,” commented Finnegan. “It was helped a little bit by the news cycles, but also by the fact that we were well positioned to take advantage of it.”

Their editorial is truly top notch and I think that is driving a lot of their success. The Atlantic seems to have employed a model that other publishers should be able to leverage.

Melissa Chowning, CEO of Audience Development Consultancy Twenty First Digital

“Our focus will be on extraordinary journalism, exceptional user experience, products and features that encourage greater reader habit and loyalty, and a data and tech infrastructure that allows us constantly to learn and improve our offering,” Finnegan wrote in a memo to The Atlantic’s staff.

The Atlantic plans to invest more in its editorial team. “I don’t need all the coronavirus writers in the world; I just need the best ones,” said Goldberg.

At the end of the day, there’s only one reason for somebody to subscribe to a magazine or a website: It’s the quality of the stories.

Jeffrey Goldberg, Editor-in-Chief, The Atlantic