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How NYT grew revenue, by switching strategy from Social to Search

The New York Times now gets 35% of new subscriptions from SEO and just 12% from social media

According to VP of newsroom strategy at the Athletic, Claudio Cabrera, SEO has not always been the most important part of The New York Times’ efforts to attract audiences and grow revenue. Speaking on a Spanish language webinar for INMA members, the former NYT strategist said that when he joined the paper, 35% of subscriptions came from social media.

Context

  • Cabrera started at the New York Times a month after Donald Trump became President and he said, at that time, SEO was not important for the NYT. However, an SEO strategy was introduced at that time and in the six years since, the publisher has significantly increased the number of subscribers acquired through SEO.
  • He told the webinar that SEO initiatives had helped The NYT increase subscriptions by 33% in six years. Targeted SEO efforts have also shifted subscriber acquisition trends for the publisher, the world leader in reader revenue with over 9 million paying subscribers. SEO now accounts for 35% of memberships, where social media delivers just 12% of new subscriptions.
  • Cabrera explained that SEO was also the tool that best allowed the publisher to differentiate its online and print offerings and engage content creators into acquisition efforts. He said:

SEO was a means for reporters and editors to understand that they were different products.

Google first

  • Cabrera said that to illustrate to reporters how important SEO was in bringing in new audiences, they explained that between 10% and 12% of new subscribers came from Google searches. This highlighted to journalists the importance of strong search performance in readers discovering their journalism.
  • He believes training for reporters is crucial, especially where they have have come from a print background. Shifting to online might mean that they have to learn how to be more flexible and provide a wider spectrum of news by ‘thinking more digital’.
  • He points out, however, that writing SEO-oriented content doesn’t mean writing just for the algorithm. For him, it is important that content is always written with subscribers in mind, saying:

Not all of The Times’ subscribers think of us first, they first think of Google.

The Athletic

SEO training is equally important in Cabrera’s new role at The Athletic, the subscription-funded sports site acquired by the NYT for $550 million in January 2022.

For most of its six-year publishing history, the company has had to maintain a very flexible newsroom, capable of shifting resources to whatever content area was required to keep the six-year-old site growing.

The Athletic is also different from the NYT in that three quarters of its 1 million plus subscriber base has come from Twitter. Cabrera puts this down to the high-profile reporters working for the service. He said their Twitter follower counts are so large and every time they post fresh content:

They want to keep reading, so they buy subscriptions once they see the paywall.

To engage a wider audience beyond Twitter’s super fans, the Athletic’s SEO team has introduced ‘explainers’, a short content format that can be used to tell stories in an abridged, easily accessible manner.

This piece was originally published in Spiny Trends and is re-published with permission. Spiny Trends is a division of Spiny.ai, a content analytics and revenue generation platform for digital publishers. For weekly updates and analysis on the industry news you need as a media and publishing business, subscribe to Spiny’s Trends weekly email roundup here.