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Which publishers are seeing “the strongest performance in subscriptions”? Key indicators from FT Strategies’ North Star report

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In February 2020, Google, INMA and FT Strategies launched the European edition of the GNI Subscriptions Lab. The goal of the program was to help news publishers strengthen their digital subscriptions capabilities and grow reader revenue. 

Eight publishers – Bonnier News Local (Sweden), La Croix (France), Denník N (Slovakia), The Independent (UK), Kurier (Austria), El Mundo (Spain), RP Online (Germany) and Gazeta Wyborcza (Poland) participated in it. Now FT Strategies has published a report sharing key learnings from the program. 

The report, Towards your North Star, looks into the common challenges faced by publishers as they build subscription driven businesses, and how to overcome them. It also shares key success factors, best practices and experiments from the lab. 

“Commitment to creating value for readers”

At the start of the programme, a few key differences were observed between publishers who were most advanced in their subscription journeys, compared to those still transitioning from an advertising model. 

Source: Towards your North Star

“These findings suggest that publishers who demonstrate the strongest commitment to creating value for readers see the strongest performance in subscriptions,” write the authors.

Publishers starting with a volume-driven mindset can find it difficult to shift to a value-driven organization. 

Volume metrics, the cornerstone of advertising-based revenue streams, are still a hard currency for newsrooms, marketeers and senior leadership teams, but growing a subscription business requires a change in this approach. 

Towards your North Star

An advanced subscriptions model can also generate substantial advertising revenues “in a world where first-party data is the holy grail of ad targeting monetization.” 

Here are the common challenges faced by the GNI Subscriptions Lab publishers:

Source: Towards your North Star

The above challenges arise from:

  • Lack of alignment: A profitable subscriptions model is a demanding goal that requires focus and resource from the entire organization. 
  • Basic understanding of readers: Many news organizations think they are reader-centric. But in reality they remain product-centric, dealing in audience averages and not using the right metrics.
  • Poor experimentation culture: Often, testing programs suffer from a lack of prioritization, proper iteration, and buy-in from all parts of the business. 
  • Deficiencies in tools & capabilities: Many publishers do not have robust structures in place to store and analyse subscriber and reader behavior, such as central data lakes and data analysis platforms. 

“One of the most powerful tools to align resources and accelerate growth”

The European GNI Subscriptions Lab addressed these challenges through the implementation of a growth framework called North Star. This framework was developed by the Financial Times to reach its goal of 1M paying subscribers. The publisher achieved the goal in 2019, a year ahead of schedule.

The North Star framework recommends the following measures for publishers who want to build a sustainable, subscription-first business: 

Clarify the vision: “Defining a single, shared objective across an organization is one of the most powerful tools to align resources and accelerate growth,” according to the authors. “This objective becomes your company’s North Star Goal, setting the vision for the future and galvanizing teams.”

The North Star Goal should demonstrate a clear priority of subscription over other revenue lines. The authors recommend setting an achievable but ambitious goal that challenges the organization to support its long term priorities. These can include financing high quality journalism, maintaining a loyal reader’s footprint, or becoming the most influential voice in the market.

Engaging readers in a long-term relationship is a very different task compared to generating traffic, and requires full commitment. Rarely have organizations succeeded without shifting their mindset and focus to creating value for readers.

Towards your North Star

Build a fast-learning and driven organization: The report recommends the framework below to achieve the North Star Goal.

Source: Towards your North Star
  • Setting outcomes – bringing focus to teams: Outcomes define what success looks like. They should be supported by metrics that help measure success and guide prioritization.
    An organization needs strong customer-centric data capabilities to grow subscriptions. Potential subscribers are only a small fraction of the overall audience. They should be identified and nurtured with a tailored approach.
  • Hypotheses & experiments – accelerating learning: Hypotheses and experiments form the test-and-learn approach, and can help reach key outcomes while navigating complex and ever-changing market conditions.
    A culture of innovation won’t emerge overnight, but focusing on simple experiments and sharing the results, both successful and unsuccessful, is a good place to start.

“Embedding reader value at the heart of an organization”

Having a North Star metric allows publishers to establish a common language and measure of success across their organizations. It builds critical alignment and focus and is an “important step in embedding reader value at the heart of an organization,” according to the authors.

Sharing and buying into the same concept across the organization is a powerful way to hone in on a unified objective.

Philippe Colombet, Chief Digital Officer, Bayard Presse

It can also help build a segmented view of readers based on their level of engagement. That would allow editorial, marketing and product departments to focus on segments that are likely to fuel growth.

“Unlock significant growth in our subscription levels”

The FT’s North Star metric is RFV (Recency, Frequency, Volume). It’s based on its readers’ engagement with content. During the Subscriptions Lab, The Independent (UK) developed APV, a proprietary engagement metric, inspired by RFV. It combines active days, consumption of premium content, and volume, as an indicator of a propensity to subscribe. 

The data team found a strong correlation between subscription and APV score and identified a target threshold. The formula is now being refined and correlations tested with the other stages of the customer lifecycle. There will be further learnings as the metric is fully embedded in day-to-day analysis in areas such as recommendation strategy, retention activity, and customer on-boarding programs.

APV is giving us the power to test a wide range of initiatives and measure their impact in a consistent way. It could unlock significant growth in our subscription levels, such is its power.

Ross Wilmot, The Independent, UK

La Croix has built a new engagement metric for content and integrated it in the newsroom so that journalists can focus on increasing engagement of their articles. The engagement score also influences the on-site and off-site distribution strategy by helping to prioritize articles with high impact on engagement and subscriptions. In future, the publisher plans to use it in win-back campaigns for lapsed subscribers.

We want to create an engagement metric that is a foundation stone in the newsroom and the wider business to help change the culture to one of “reader-first”, and improve conversion and revenues.

Philippe Colombet, La Croix

The full report can be downloaded from FT Strategies:
Towards your North Star