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The “single most effective way” to increase subscriptions, according to Google

Recent research by the Medill School of Journalism has found that the frequency with which readers consume local news is the single biggest predictor of retaining them as subscribers. Further, frequency trumps the number of stories read, or time spent on them. The researchers recommend news organizations focus on building regular reading habits in their readers.

As the industry moves to a business model more focused on digital subscriptions, local news organizations need to create a value proposition for readers that leads them to become frequent, daily consumers of their news and information.

Tim Franklin, Senior Associate Dean, Medill School of Journalism

So how can publishers build reading habits in their audience? Insights from a recent report from Reuters, “What do News Readers Really Want to Read about? How Relevance Works for News Audiences” sheds some light.

Kim Schrøder, Professor of Communication at Roskilde University, Denmark who authored the report writes, “Personal relevance is an indispensable gate-keeper of engagement with a news story. Relevance is tied to sociability. It often originates in the belief that family and friends might take an interest in the story. This is often coupled with shareability – a wish to share and tag a friend on social media.”

“Single most effective way”

He adds, “People frequently click on stories that are amusing, trivial, or weird, with no obvious civic focus. But they maintain a clear sense of what is trivial and what matters. On the whole, people want to stay informed about what goes on around them, at the local, national, and international levels.”

The professor suggests journalists “prioritize news stories with civic value, they should trust their instincts rather than relying on the unreliable seismograph offered by ‘Most Read’ lists.”

“I actually think this is a healthier business model for local news organizations than the current reliance on what is a declining share of advertising revenue,” says Franklin. He recommends publishers shift their focus from viral, clickbait-type stories and headlines, towards “building a long-term relationship with a core cohort of paying subscribers.”

According to Tom Rosenstiel, Executive Director of the American Press Institute, “The traffic to most sites is coming from a core group. So the key is to expand that core group – not to get people who come twice a month to come four times a month.”

Both Rosenstiel and Ed Malthouse, Research Director of Medill’s Spiegel Research Center, suggest that email newsletters offer an effective way to get more readers into a daily habit.

We’ve seen data from Google that shows that email newsletters are the single most effective way to get people to decide to subscribe.

Tom Rosenstiel, Executive Director of the American Press Institute

“Vast unrealized potential”

A generic newsletter that just contains the latest links won’t work though. With so much information out there, newsletters need to stand out with a personal and engaging tone. Otherwise, readers who are already overwhelmed with updates would not care to look at them.

Personalization is the key to success for newsletters. While customization, where readers can choose what newsletters they want to receive is common, personalization, according to the Medill study, is “an idea with vast unrealized potential.”

Which brings us to the findings of the Reuters study. When combined, the findings of both studies indicate that offering a personalized experience to readers—by sharing with them stories that have personal relevance for them—could foster loyalty and encourage readers to subscribe and subscribers to stay.

The New York Times, for example, uses a combination of human curation and machine learning to send readers a personalized newsletter, “Your Weekly Edition” that features stories they “might have missed.” The publisher uses an automated system that selects articles for individual readers, based on their reading history, and what other readers have found interesting.

With traffic from social media being unreliable, newsletters offer publishers a better opportunity to build a long-term relationship with readers. Moreover, readers chose to receive newsletters, which indicates they are already interested. That’s like a major hurdle out of the way. If the publisher is then able to hook readers through content that matters to them, then over time they are more likely to become paid subscribers.

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