Publishing Subscription

What do publishers do when only 16% of consumers are willing to pay?

During the pre-internet days, news publishers had a captive audience. While some of them like The New York Times and The Washington Post still do, most others are facing fast dwindling numbers.

In the U.S., weekday print circulation has shrunk from a high of nearly 60 million in 1994 to 35 million for combined print and digital circulation in March 2018. Advertising revenue has cratered, falling from $65 billion in 2000, to less than $19 billion in 2016. Newsroom employment fell nearly 40% between 1994 and 2014, and the trend continues.

One of the major reasons for this decline has been the availability of free online news content. According to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2018, only 16 percent of Americans are willing to pay for any online news. To get the digital consumer to pay, publishers are having to consider multiple business models and content formats.

Changing content consumption habits

It’s not just that people consume content online. Their consumption habits have also somewhat changed and it no longer fits with the traditional publishing model where news was served at regular intervals.

Earlier consumers would typically have fixed times for reading newspapers and magazines, like say before leaving for work in the morning, during the commute, and after coming back home. Now they do it throughout the day, reading a bit on the mobile, scrolling through Twitter and Facebook feeds every now and then, following an interesting link on the laptop while working, then maybe listening to a podcast, or watching videos on the way back home.

85% of American adults consume news on their phones. They are used to finding the content they desire, in the form they want and when they want it. To get them to pay for content in such a way that it allows the publisher to continue to survive and thrive requires a nuanced approach.

Subscriptions: How many is too many?

Just throwing up paywalls across content is likely not going to work in the long run. The average time spent by a consumer on a website is less than 2 minutes. Imagine a user hitting a paywall in such a scenario.

Some of them might be persuaded to pay for a subscription, but how many subscriptions are they going to pay for? It constitutes a fixed monthly cost and if anyone subscribes to all the sites that s/he frequents, the monthly cost could run into 100s of dollars.

One might pay for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal or The Washington Post and probably not for all of them together. Most consumers are less likely to pay for any news publication beyond that, including local newspapers, magazines, and digital-only content providers.

The Times, the Journal and the Post have subscriber bases running into millions, but most metro dailies are finding it tough to move deeper into five figures. The Los Angeles Times and The Boston Globe are the only two non-national papers having over a 100,000 paying digital subscribers.

“Deep understanding” of consumer requirements  

It’s a challenging situation, to say the least, but there are a few approaches publishers are experimenting with. Only there is no one-size-fits-all strategy. A thoughtful and customized approach is required depending upon a publisher’s understanding of its users.

Our research shows that consumers want relationships with brands they can trust. And people are more open to the idea of paying for convenience and unique value that extends to content that’s curated and personalized.

Kim Stehle, Vice President/CMO, Consumer Reports

The advantages offered by digital is that user-behaviors can be tracked easily. Publishers can see what is attracting users to their site; it’s not only the pieces of content that get the highest clicks, but those where users are spending more time, and paying repeat visits.

Page views may drive advertising revenue, but engagement helps you better measure digital subscription success so that you can make the right decisions about what kind of content to invest in and what kind of promotions and marketing to pursue. Their behavioral data tells you how much value they’re getting out of your product. For instance, a user who views five articles per month is far more likely to become a subscriber than if they are reading only one a month. And that reader is up to 15 times more likely to pay for content if he or she is also subscribing to your e-newsletter.

Matt Skibinski, Reader Revenue Specialist, Lenfest Institute

Clicks reveal what interests them and how much time they spend with a piece of content tells the publishers whether its working or not. How users are consuming the content (audio/ video/ text/ mobile/ laptops) indicates how they want to be served. Publishers can use this data to inform further content production and use business models that are centered around consumers’ requirements.

Providing users with convenient options

Since the digital audience is used to making choices, it’s a good idea to give them multiple options. While subscriptions are a favored model, they do not really constitute a choice for the consumer. True choice is offering content in ways that reflect users’ consumption behavior.

Options offered to consumers along with the usual subscriptions may include the ability to pay for a single article or a handful of them, or the ability to access premium content for a whole day, a week or a month against a single payment. There are users who do not intend to become paid subscribers but may be willing to pay occasionally for something specific that interests them.

For example, to increase its subscriber base, the Financial Times has launched a major new campaign, called “Don’t decide until you subscribe.” NYT, in collaboration with reading subscription service Scribd, is experimenting with subscription bundles to deliver enhanced value to consumers.

Trip Adler, CEO of Scribd, said, “This collaboration between Scribd and The Times is one of the early deals in this new emerging mega-trend that is going to re-shape the way people access content.”

Flexible options like these help to convert occasional browsers, who normally are least likely to become paid subscribers, but may become regular contributors if given the proper incentives. But that likelihood will decrease if they keep hitting a paywall, or are asked to pay more than they are willing to. There are other solutions available to publishers as well, like the metered paywall and the membership model which publishers like the NYT and the Guardian have used successfully.

It is perhaps time for publishers to focus less on how to further improve the content they produce and focus more on fixing their business model. To be less concerned about reach, and focus more on the Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) they generate.

Greg Piechota, Harvard Business School and Oxford University Researcher

Those who have been successful with paid content models have all approached it in very different ways. There is no single “magic bullet” solution. The common factor is developing a deep understanding of consumers—their needs, what they value and what they are going to pay for. Understanding and convenience; that’s key.


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