Audience Engagement Reader Revenue
3 mins read

“Ladder of engagement”: Researchers identify the best newsroom strategies for gaining new subscribers

Subscriptions, donations and memberships are crucial for many newsrooms’ business models. But often it’s difficult to identify which exact strategies, or their combination, work best for gaining new subscribers.

A new study funded by the American Press Institute and conducted by the Center for Media Engagement (CME) focuses on what tactics newsrooms should implement (and avoid) when looking to obtain new subscribers.

“What works and what doesn’t”

The two-part study, titled News Subscriptions: What Works and What Doesn’t, tackled this issue by experimentally testing different messages about subscribing to news.

Researchers conducted in-depth interviews with staff from news organizations with strong reputations for securing donations or subscriptions, and then conducted experiments in collaboration with a number of local newspapers and news magazines in the U.S.

The newsrooms tested various strategies via Facebook Sponsored Posts and either email or an advertisement in their newsletter, totaling 23 tests reaching 492,965 Facebook or email accounts.

The team evaluated the influence of four factors on whether people click to learn more about subscribing to news:

(1) the image accompanying a subscription offer,
(2) the message describing the offer,
(3) whether the offer is for a free newsletter or paid print/digital access, and
(4) whether the subscription appeal appeared on Facebook or in an email.

What makes readers click?

While some strategies were more successful than others, the results indicate:

  • On Facebook, logos reduce click-through on subscription appeals relative to other images, such as journalists doing their work.
  • When soliciting subscriptions via email, messages emphasizing what you’d lose without news frequently result in lower click-through rates compared to other strategies, such as telling people what they’d gain from a subscription or just giving them details about the subscription.
  • Ads for free newsletter subscriptions garner more clicks than do ads for paid print/digital access.
Conclusion: Using a logo is not as effective as using a journalist or top story image.

“Ladder of engagement”

The researchers found that the most successful means for signing up new members is direct email paired with multiple channels (e.g., integration of social media, Facebook ads, and direct mail).

This highlights the primacy of a “ladder of engagement” (e.g., Facebook “likes” and newsletter sign-ups followed by news subscriptions) compared to using just a paid Facebook subscription strategy.

When we compared how much it cost to share the subscription message over Facebook to the number of subscriptions returned, there was little evidence that Facebook ads on their own attract enough subscribers to justify the price tag.

Center for Media Engagement Team
Conclusion: e-mail offers return a higher click-through rate than Facebook ads do.

Other signup strategies garnered less success or generated mixed results. For example, some news organizations found social media to be the least successful way to attract new members—because audiences are distracted by other information—while others, including several in the experiments, made extensive use of social media.

Key takeaways

After analyzing the data on several possible strategies, these are the top 3 recommendations of the CME research team:

  • Use journalists doing their work or an image of a top story when soliciting subscribers via Facebook, as opposed to your logo.
  • Use messages telling people what they gain from subscribing to the news in addition to the details of the offer when contacting people via e-mail.
  • Most importantly, test your strategies extensively. Some yield better returns than others, and knowing what appeals to your audience can be especially helpful.

The full report is available for download here.