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How publishers can engage and convert casual readers: Key insights from INMA report

The demand for trustworthy information during the pandemic drove record subscriptions growth for many publishers. 128 news publishers across the world gained an average of 58% new subscribers in a year, according to Piano data. 

“The next wave of growth”

The market is far from saturated though. 100M people worldwide are potential targets for English-language news subscriptions, according to research from The New York Times. And that might be a conservative estimate considering the “greater literacy, income, and broad adoption of the Internet as a distribution channel for news of the 21st century,” says Greg Piechota, Researcher-in-residence, International News Media Association (INMA).

“Many news organizations have successfully taken advantage of the demand for their product by picking the lowest hanging fruit,” notes Piechota, “converting their heaviest users — fans, if you will — to paying subscribers. The next wave of growth will be more challenging because it involves converting and engaging the light readers.”

These readers are casual, infrequent, and picky consumers of news. “Light Readers: Digital Subscriptions’ Next Growth Path,” a new report by INMA, authored by Piechota, provides a practical, evidence-based toolbox for converting and retaining them. It features case studies from publishers like Aftenposten in Norway, The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.  

However much we value them, though, these fans of our work can only kickstart the growth of subscriptions. They cannot sustain it. There are only so many of them out there to convert. We need to move beyond that cohort to grow subscription businesses for long-term sustainability.

Light Readers: Digital Subscriptions’ Next Growth Path

Looking at casual readers’ journey via engagement loops

Publishers need to develop new strategies to appeal to the more casual reader. The report suggests thinking of subscriber conversions as a set of engagement loops. Readers may enter them through, say, search or social. They can then be asked to register to access the content. This will open up opportunities for communication where readers can be directed towards relevant content and asked to sign up for newsletters and/or accept notifications. 

Publishers can then use emails, paid ads, etc. to continue engaging them. If they continue to engage, readers will start hitting the paywall and may eventually subscribe moving from the first loop to the second. In this phase, publishers need to focus on helping these subscribers maximize return from their subscription. This will help boost renewals, trigger upgrades and inspire them to become an advocate for the brand.

Publishers should also consider creating subscription products aimed at casual readers. A higher proportion than ever of new subscribers signed up for The New York Times’ lifestyle products such as Games or Cooking in 2021 than for its core news product. 46% of the paper’s new subscribers in the second quarter were non-news-related. This trend will likely accelerate with the launch of a subscription for the Wirecutter, the Times’ product-reviews website, according to Piechota.

“Your marketing must be as broad as possible”

Studies on various consumer groups and their casual buying behavior show that many are not loyal to one brand. They tend to buy products that:

  • They are aware of
  • Are easily available at an affordable price
  • Are simply “there” when the need arises

Based on the above information, the report suggests publishers ensure that they market and distribute their products to all consumers. “Your marketing must be as broad as possible because the reach matters to your brand awareness,” explains Piechota. “The higher your market penetration, the higher proportion of loyal readers you will enjoy.” 

He refers to The New York Times’ Truth campaign, which promotes how journalism can help people better navigate life as an example of marketing that connects with the masses. Maintaining presence on search engines, aggregators, social media networks and messengers helps extend reach. The Wall Street Journal reaches out to casual readers via Apple News by distributing articles on politics, culture, or lifestyle on the aggregator.

Effective marketing will grab people’s attention. Next, publishers need to make it easy to convert that into a purchase. They should also reduce purchase friction by making it easy to buy a subscription at an affordable price (offer trials) and a variety of payment methods. 

“Vital element of a long-term subscriptions strategy”

“Creating habits in your readers is critical to maintaining them as subscribers and reducing churn,” notes Piechota. “This is a vital element of a long-term subscriptions strategy.”

“Nearly half of new subscribers churn after the trial period. Low engagement likely is the root cause.”

Karl Oskar Teien, Product Director, Aftenposten in Norway

Research suggests that publishers have about 100 days to engage new subscribers. Publishers must utilize this period to build engagement making them less likely to churn. This means doing something to engage new subscribers daily so that the product becomes a part of their daily routine. They can consider pushing more evergreen,  explainer, and news analysis content to casual readers. In fact, publishers should consider adapting their products to the needs of casual readers without undermining their value to heavy users. 

There is evidence that light reader-centric changes are more likely to help with heavy readers as well. “Topics attractive to light-reading subscribers of The Wall Street Journal succeed with heavy readers, too,” Louise Story, Former Chief Product and Technology Officer, WSJ, told INMA. “It doesn’t work the other way.”

“It seems clear that it’s better to concentrate on boosting the engagement of lighter readers rather than maximizing the engagement of those who are already heavily invested in your product,” adds Piechota.

“Investing time and money to move someone from 50 visits per month to 60 is unlikely to make much of a difference to your business,” he explains. “However, moving someone from twice a month to five times a month — or perhaps 10 — is much more likely to move the needle on subscriptions.”

The full report is available at INMA:
Light Readers: Digital Subscriptions’ Next Growth Path