Audience Engagement Reader Revenue Top Stories
4 mins read

“The power of community”: How a small publisher hit 50,000 paying members through audience engagement

Founded in 2004, The Local provides news and essential information for foreign residents in nine European countries including France, Italy, Germany, Spain and Switzerland. Published solely in English, the title focuses on newsworthy tips and advice at a time when bureaucratic obstacles to living abroad have proliferated due to Brexit, tighter migration laws, and of course, Covid restrictions.

A small publisher with 5M monthly unique users, The Local operates using a centralized commercial and editorial team, with ‘on the ground’ editorial staff creating local content for each of its nine markets. Whilst native advertising and programmatic advertising account for 30% of revenue, it has been the publisher’s pivot to a paywall subscription model in 2018 that has been transformational – not just in terms of revenue (70%) but also in terms of audience engagement.

The Local Team, January 2022

Paul O’Mahony, The Local’s Editorial Product Manager, explains that the move to a deeper membership model required a complete change in mindset for the publisher. Talking to WNIP, he says, “It’s not that we hadn’t tried before: even when we were funded entirely by advertising we did try to engage in dialogue with readers. But from the moment we decided to launch membership we got more serious and systematic about it.

“We made a conscious decision at management level that we would only succeed with a much tighter audience focus. This meant recalibrating our entire journalistic output, which didn’t happen overnight.”

For years our journalists had been asked mostly to write for reach. Consequently, the shift involved the managing editor and membership team working closely with country editors and reporters to ensure they were meeting the needs of our core audience of foreign residents in our respective countries.

Paul O’Mahony, Editorial Product Manager, The Local

Two-way dialogue with members

The Local’s experiment with a paywall didn’t pay off immediately – in the first year the title attracted only 8,000 members, and just 14,000 in 2019 – but this had risen to 50,000 by December of last year. The key according to The Local’s CEO James Savage has been its approach to audience engagement, “Our success has been predicated on a move away from traditional one-way reporting in favour of a two-way conversation with readers that allows us to dig into the issues that really matter to our members.”

O’Mahony continues, “Every single editorial decision is made with members in mind. Whereas before we might have slavishly covered a story just because it was big in the domestic media, we now always ask ourselves if it’s really that important or if resources could better be deployed on an issue that really matters to members.”

A key part of its efforts has been in the form of answering audience questions directly in the form of articles as well as regularly using embedded forms to get reader feedback on a given issue. O’Mahony explains, “By way of example, we recently asked readers for their tips on getting a French visa, which resulted in a full article.”

This way of thinking is now second nature. Our daily editorial newsletters are conversational and the editors routinely use them to remind readers that we are very keen to answer any questions they might have. There’s also a section at the bottom of every newsletter encouraging readers to contact us. 

Paul O’Mahony, Editorial Product Manager, The Local

The Local’s focus on audience engagement has borne fruit, not just in terms of subscriber growth but also in the low rates of churn, as O’Mahony explains, “We’re working hard on retention and in the last two years we have got the churn rate down to less than 4% each month.”

What we really do well is engage very actively with our audience to an extent that’s unusual for a publisher. We identify very closely with our readers because we share the experience of setting up lives in foreign countries.

Paul O’Mahony, Editorial Product Manager, The Local

The Power of Data

A key part of The Local’s membership model is its selective and careful use of data. The publisher pays close attention to articles that convert into paying subscribers using its network of nine territories to roll out successful articles. As O’Mahony explains, “We’re getting better at understanding our audiences, the similarities and differences between them, the kind of special offers that work and don’t work. We’re tweaking and A/B testing all the time. If an idea doesn’t work we’re not precious about it, we’ll move on and try something else.”

Fundamentally we’ve got a team of selfless, data-informed people at all levels of the company, from the CEO to the journalists and the membership and commercial teams. 

Paul O’Mahony, Editorial Product Manager, The Local
The Local’s paywall messaging

The publisher also uses App notifications that push readers closer to the paywall, as well as paid ads on social media and Google to attract new users.

Future Plans

As for the future, O’Mahony is optimistic not least because of the need for practical news and information at a time of severe disruption across Europe. The publisher is also undergoing a full site redesign and launching a new mobile app, both slated for release in the coming months.

On membership, France and Italy are our fastest growing markets with just under 10,000 members each. We’re actually growing everywhere just at the moment. Spain is on an excellent upward trajectory and in a smaller market like Austria we saw members streaming in recently after we covered major political and Covid-related news really well. 

Paul O’Mahony, Editorial Product Manager, The Local

And advice for other publishers? O’Mahony makes a point that other smaller publishers will be all too familiar with, “We learn a lot from other publishers and watch very closely what works for them so we’re not always having to reinvent the wheel.”