Digital Publishing Reader Revenue Top Stories
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“We have recorded about 80% growth”: How publishers are building reader revenue streams by doubling down on engagement

Key insights from WAN-IFRA’s reader revenue bootcamp for Indian publishers

India is a challenging market for growing reader revenues. It’s still at a nascent stage, and as much as 80% of the readers want to consume news for free, says Utsah Kohli, Head of Strategy & Execution at The Print, a purely digital Indian publisher launched in 2017. 

However, the pandemic has accelerated the drive towards reader revenues in the country just as it did across much of the rest of the world. And many Indian publishers are proactively experimenting with various strategies to overcome challenges and get readers to sign up for paid subscriptions. 

WAN-IFRA organized a six-month ‘Digital Subscription Bootcamp’ program in 2021-2022, supported by Meta Journalism Project India, and aimed at helping news publishers in India launch their reader revenue initiatives. It had six leading news publishers ranging from young digital players like The Print, to a 130-years-old legacy outlet, Manorama Online. All of them were successful in varying degrees – the aforementioned, The Print grew engagement rate by 48.1% during the bootcamp itself.

The case studies of the experiments by participating publishers are presented in a new report, Subscription Bootcamp – Summary of Project Experiments.  

Key lessons learned include:

  • A cultural or mind shift is critical for success when moving from a print and ad-based revenue model to a reader-revenue one.
  • Engagement is a key element and needs to be measured with the right metrics.
  • User data about registrations, behaviors, and preferences of loyal readers and brand lovers among others, are vital for informing future strategies. 
  • It is important to understand what the reader considers valuable, and cater to that. 
  • Registration and navigation should be simplified to attract and retain readers. 

“Unless you measure it, you don’t see it”

ABP Digital was looking to “move from volume metrics to content quality metrics, and embark upon a reader revenue journey,” according to Dipanjan Dutta, the publisher’s Head of Business Operations. They decided to focus on two key metrics: 

  • Time spent by readers on a page
  • Number of pages visited per session

The publisher also experimented to improve engagement. It included altering print headlines for online content and adding sub-headlines in all articles. They worked on producing premium content in a more structured, measured, and focused manner. These are not necessarily exclusive pieces, but those with a unique angle. Additionally, everyone was encouraged to focus on engagement rather only on reach. “Once the leadership was aligned we drilled down the length and breadth of the editorial team, which was crucial for individual responsibility and accountability to drive it,” says Datta.

Change is in the air. The subscription journey is a reality – the reader revenue strategy is being accepted across all departments. We all know that engagement is the way forward, and learning has to be nimble.

Dipanjan Dutta, Head of Business Operations, ABP Digital

The publisher’s engagement scores shot up within a few weeks. “We have recorded about 80% growth – so it’s a brilliant response that we have seen from the audience,” says Datta. 

Source: Subscription Bootcamp – Summary of Project Experiments

The cultural shift was the most important element according to Datta. “All of us across business and editorial were talking about reach in terms of page views and users,” he explains. “But now, we’re talking of reach plus engagement. It’s critical to have engagement in any of our discussions about what we are doing.” 

What we have done is to create this whole measurement of the engagement score. Unless you measure it, you don’t see it, and unless you see it, you don’t know which way it’s going. So, the measurement has been absolutely important.

Dipanjan Dutta, Head of Business Operations, ABP Digital

“Understand every story that gets a higher engagement”

The engagement score is vital for Deccan Herald which aims to develop an exclusive subscription product or sections that can be placed behind a paywall. “We have been doing constant analysis of the engagement score and a weekly analysis of the engagement percentage to understand every story that gets a higher engagement score for us,” says Riya Chakraborty, Manager, Data & User Engagement, The Printers Mysore, the publisher of Deccan Herald. The idea was to understand how and why those articles were returning high scores – how readers were interacting with the content and which categories were showing high engagement.

They experimented by adding more text links within articles. It helped the recirculation of other articles within the website by 5%. The publisher also created curated newsletters for readers from different segments. This was done to increase registrations and subscriptions. “With the newsletter program we intend to increase user engagement and create touch points for readers to land on our website in an easy and hassle-free manner,” explains Chakraborty.

The initiatives were successful. There was a 10% increase in the website’s monthly active users between November and January. Website sessions grew around 20%. “Our brand lovers increased by 1% each month, and loyal readers increased by 36% during the period,” she adds.

“Your users don’t want to go through a complex maze”

Most of the participating publishers are aiming to get more users to register themselves so that they have access to the first-party data. This can be used to engage them better and eventually get them to subscribe. “Unless we have user details, we can’t be sure of how they are going to interact with us in the coming years,” says Shyamal Datta, Principal Product Manager, Indian Express. “The more registrations we have, the better the position we will be in, to personalize the user journey and be able to protect our ad revenue.”

Arun Rahim, Head of Business Development, Manorama Online, the digital outlet of Malayala Manorama, recommends simplifying the process. “The simpler the better,” he says, “your users don’t want to go through a complex maze. They just want to have a very simple registration process.”

The 90-years-old Indian Express increased its registration rate by 4% when it positioned sign-up via social media as the primary option. Earlier, registration with email was the first option followed by social media. 

Source: Subscription Bootcamp – Summary of Project Experiments

The publisher was also able to increase its Click Through Rate (CTR) by an average of 20% after testing premium stories with two headlines and going with the better one.

“Anyone who engaged with our newsletters early, have stuck on”

Tracking brand lovers helped The Print increase the numbers by about 14.5% within a very short time, according to Kohli. The publisher also launched new products around trends and to cater to different audience personas. These included curated newsletters, events, and opportunities to speak with reporters. “There was an increase of 48.1% in engagement rate, purely during the period of the Bootcamp, so I think these experiments really helped us,” she says. The Print is also experimenting with different formats like YouTube videos, podcasts, and infographics which are attracting readers. 

Talking about newsletters Kohli adds “we figured out that anyone who engaged with our newsletters early, have stuck on, and they’ve renewed their subscription month-on-month or annually. So this was something that was very critical for us.” 

We have realized that our readers, our user base, want premium offerings. They want deep dives. They want investigative reports. And they are willing to pay money for that.

Utsah Kohli, Head of Strategy & Execution, The Print

The full report is available here:
Subscription Bootcamp – Summary of Project Experiments