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“The glue that keeps customers engaged”: How publishers are using data to fuel subscription growth

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The French daily newspaper, Le Parisien, doubled its digital subscriptions in 2020 by putting its best content behind a paywall. In just one year, it had 90% subscribers coming via premium articles. But that’s not all, the publisher also doubled its digital subscription revenue by raising prices. It went from five euros a month to eight, and then leapt to 10.  

This is just one of the many deeply insightful and inspiring case studies featured in FIPP’s Innovation in Media 2021 World Report. The report covers the whole gamut of innovation strategies undertaken by publishers in various areas ranging from managing the workforce to content formats to revenue generation. 

It has been authored by John Wilpers, US Director and Senior Consultant, Innovation Media Consulting Group. Juan Señor, President, Innovation Media Consulting Group, serves as co-editor.

Here we dive into how some publishers tweaked and tuned their subscription strategies as the extraordinary year of 2020 unfolded. 

Aiming for a 1:1 article/subscription ratio

Data has been singularly important in driving subscriptions growth, according to Sophie Gourmelen, MD and Publisher, Le Parisien. It gave them the confidence to put the most valuable articles behind paywall, as well as raise subscription prices. 

The publisher uses data to understand what type of stories convert. It has found long reads, human interest stories, real estate and local mobility topics, such as cycling to be top converters. All journalists at Le Parisien have access to dashboards that show how stories are performing with premium subscribers in real time.

The insights gained from data allowed the publisher to steadily increase the number of articles it placed behind the paywall. Starting with ten premium stories per day in the early months of 2020, the figure went up to 50 by the end of the year—Le Parisien uses a hybrid of metered and paywalled content. 

Gourmelen told WAN-IFRA that each premium article triggers 0.4 subscriptions at present. The publisher is aiming to increase that ratio to 1:1. It plans to do so by focusing on the quality of stories (to serve readers better) rather than quantity, and boosting its digital arsenal. 

“Enormous potential for further growth”

A digital-first publishing strategy helped Amedia, the second largest Norwegian publisher, turnaround a 15-years running decline in subscribers. 

“In 2014, we were at a critical point,” said its Executive VP, Victoria Schultz at WAN-IFRA’s Digital Media Asia 2020. “We had experienced 15 years of falling subscriptions and felt increasing competition from international, social media, and search players, and were losing a considerable amount of advertising money.”  

Six years down the line the graph has sharply turned upwards. The publisher’s subscribers have grown from 430,000 to 675,000 and half of them are now digital. 

Not long ago, we had 1% digital subscribers. Today we have over 50% of our subscribers who are digital-only readers. 

Victoria Schultz Executive VP, Amedia

“We have 1.6M, or 40%, of all the Norwegian population over the age of 18,” Schultz added. “They have registered with us. This gives us an enormous potential for further growth.”  

“Changing the mindset of the editorial department,” played a crucial role in turning around Amedia’s losing streak, according to Schultz. The publisher’s new digital-first policy includes the following elements:

  1. Own and control reader relationships: It’s critical that publishers own their readers’ data and control their journey. Schultz discourages collaborating too much with Facebook or Google and other third parties.
    “Control is about customer contact, customer journey. Most important of all, it’s about data capture,” she said. “Third parties will reduce the control you have.”
  2. Help subscribers derive maximum value from their purchase: Amedia encourages subscribers to login. It even launched a marketing campaign with editors and local celebrities to persuade subscribers to do so. They were also encouraged to share their login information with family members – a strategy that can improve reach of the newspaper, as well as boost loyalty.
  3. Use data: Just like Le Parisien, Amedia gives it journalists access to data depicting their articles’ performance.    
  4. Improve content quality: The newsroom is constantly at work making its content more relevant to readers based on facts and insights. 
  5. Reach out to new subscribers: Amedia uses SEO and Facebook as well as its front-page to sell subscription products.
    The publisher can predict with 82% certainty whether a story will sell even before it is published, based on usage data from 600,000 articles every year. “Targeting of those stories to nonsubscribers on newspaper front pages is very important in the recruitment channel for our newspapers,” Schultz said.
  6. Reduce churn: The publisher has found that churn is between 7-12% for readers who read once every 3 days or less. It’s 5-6% for those who read every two days, and 3-4% for daily readers.
    And so it continuously focuses on building habits by encouraging readers to consume content. It also uses algorithms to create personalised homepages and story recommendations based on readers’ history and segments. This has led to a 13% increase in reading time.

The Economist also uses its audience data to create a personalized experience for its readers. It has led to a 3x increase in digital subscriptions since 2016, increased dwell time onsite and helped reduce cost of customer acquisition by 80%. 

“Build personal relationships with readers”

“The reader relationship strategy is about creating engagement, customer satisfaction, and lifetime value with users through targeted content, products, advertising, and services for individual customers,” Martha Williams, CEO, Data & AI for Media, wrote in the FIPP 2020 Paywalls Report. “It’s about collecting user data with permission through registration and paywalls, and leveraging those data to drive user satisfaction.”

Building those relationships requires not only that deep data but also an acceptance throughout the media organisation of a reader-first focus, daily discipline, and a commitment to pay attention to the data. 

John Wilpers, US Director and Senior Consultant, Innovation Media Consulting Group

“The relationship strategy requires a deep understanding of each user through audience data, and a whole-organisation transformation that requires a customer-focus discipline,” according to the Paywalls report. “The real-time data collection, analysis, and targeting is the glue that keeps customers engaged with relevant information.”

“Our brands and broad print distribution are no longer enough. The Internet requires media companies to build personal relationships with readers,” said Troy Young, former President of Hearst Magazines, in a 2019 memo to his staff. 

“Our ability to capture interaction data at scale, turn it to insight, and leverage it broadly across our organisation will define our success.”

The full report is available here:
Innovation in Media 2021 World Report