Driving Digital Subscription Growth
Newspaper companies are finding models to sustain the so-called ‘Trump Bump’
Earlier in the year, there was considerable talk about the so-called “Trump Bump” — the idea that the unpredictable events of the past year have driven growth in news audience. Now, many newspaper companies’ second-quarter results confirm that this bump may signal the successful acceleration of efforts to grow—and sustain—digital subscription revenue.
Growth has continued throughout the year, with several individual newspapers—both national publications and large regional dailies—breaking the six-figure digital subscription mark, according to published accounts.
Among the numbers cited by publicly-held newspaper companies in their second-quarter results:
– Gannett Co.: Reported 59.5 percent year-over-year growth in digital-only subscriber volumes, now totaling nearly 290,000.
– McClatchy: Grew digital-only subscribers to 91,000, up 13.8 percent from 1Q 2016.
– New York Times Co.: Added 93,000 net digital-only subscriptions, a 69 percent increase in growth compared to 2Q 2016. Digital-only Times subscriptions now exceed 2.33 million.
– tronc, Inc.: Reported 220,000 digital-only subscribers in 2Q 2017, up 89 percent year-over-year. The company attributes its 2 percent increase in circulation revenue in part to digital-only subscribers.
– The Washington Post: Disclosed in late September that it had more than 1 million paying digital-only subscribers.
“Recent success appears to be a mix of increasingly compelling news content and a growing acceptance among consumers to pay for news content, along with the well-publicized post-election growth in demand for trusted, credible news brands,” says John Murray, News Media Alliance’s vice president for audience development. “We also believe that increased expertise at marketing digital subscriptions has contributed to this success. This, along with content that engages readers, are areas where newspaper publishers can have a direct impact in continuing the recent momentum.”
Matt Lindsay President of Mather Economics, agrees. “The product offerings have evolved,” he says. “More publishers are moving away from intrusive advertising models and investing in the user experience, particularly on mobile devices, in a bid to improve engagement, and indirectly, conversion rates.”
Newspaper publishers also are deploying increasingly sophisticated strategies to target potential digital subscribers. Along with running conversion campaigns on their sites promoting the importance of local news (“It’s worth knowing what’s going on,” “Support quality journalism” and “Knowledge is eye-opening” are among the slogans now found in newspaper campaigns), more publishers are beginning to divide their digital audiences into segments and target subscription offers based on their interests.
To help document the essential elements for success with digital subscription revenue, the Alliance recently conducted a webinar describing efforts by two publishers to grow—and sustain—paid digital subscriptions. The Alliance will publish a paper detailing these strategies in more detail later this fall. Two of the key strategies include:
– Identifying—and segmenting—audience. Publishers are finding ways to identify different types of readers, such as sports enthusiasts, snowbirds, or local news junkies, and target offers and premium products to them based on those specific interests.
First, it’s important to realize that digital-only users don’t always look like the current subscriber base. “Our current subscription base is mostly print subscribers, which is a very different audience from digital,” says Kelli Dakake, senior manager of digital subscription sales for Cox Media Group. “Targeting lookalikes doesn’t work as well when switching from one medium to another.”
Existing analytics solutions are generally “designed to track advertising audiences and not reading audiences,” says Lindsay. While more sophisticated tools are entering the market, publishers can begin with simple data-collection objectives, such as encouraging online users to subscribe to newsletters and enabling features if they register, “to get in the mindset of collecting data about their audience and making them known,” Lindsay says.
– Minimizing churn. As on the print side, reducing the number of stops is crucial to sustaining digital revenue. While the physical delivery problems that can exacerbate print non-renewals are less of an issue online, shifting from a low introductory offer to higher price points can contribute to digital churn. Some publishers are experimenting with different pricing points to address this issue. Numerous publishers also have introduced loyalty programs that offer premium subscribers access to exclusive content or other offerings to foster engagement over time. The goal, says Dakake, is to “surprise and delight our loyal subscribers to keep them happy and make sure they’re getting what they pay for and what they want.”