Digital Publishing
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“People pay for habits”: How publishers are innovating with content to entice and retain subscribers

Publishers focused on generating reader revenue are innovating in the ways they produce and package their content. These strategies are helping them acquire as well as retain subscribers. The FIPP Innovation in Media 2019-2020 World Report takes us through strategies certain publishers are using to generate consistent growth.

Seizing on readers’ “constant thirst for self-improvement”

The New York Times dedicated 2018 to helping its readers live better lives. The publisher created a series of guides for improving various aspects of one’s life. It released a new one every month, calling the operation, “A Year of Living Better.” The guides are written by experts and topics range from talking about money to doing laundry to making the world a better place.

According to the Times’ Reader Experience Product Director, Sara Bremen Rabstenek, the publisher was seizing on its readers’ “constant thirst for self-improvement.”

She told Neiman Lab, “This is all about how we can provide subscribers with the type of content that makes them feel like they’re getting insight they’re not getting anywhere else.”

But there was a catch—these guides were only available for paid subscribers.

Source: Neiman Lab

We are really keen on making a subscription seem more and more valuable to readers, both to people who are already subscribing, and people who are not subscribers who we want to give more reasons to subscribe.

Ben Cotton, Executive Director of Customer Experience and Retention at The New York Times

“The best way to increase engagement”

Instead of surprising and delighting readers on a one-time basis, the publisher was keen on “promising more to come over the course of the year or multiple years,” said Cotton.

He added, “It’s valuable to be able to say to subscribers: ‘This is something we’re going to be working on over the course of the whole year. You should really stick around.’” The strategy would also contribute to forming readers’ habit which is essential for retaining subscribers.

We know people pay for habits. So we want to focus on habits. Habits are the best way to increase engagement.

Gadi Lahav, Head of Product for the Financial Times

How successful this project has been was not shared, but the Times had a great 2018 growing to over 4 million digital subscribers. Cotton said that the publisher’s other subscription products like Crossword and Cooking were quite successful. They bought in combined revenue of 4.8M in the first quarter.

He added, “We’ve gotten people who don’t want to subscribe to the Times otherwise but do use one of those products to become a Times’ customer, and we’ve gotten a lot of people to subscribe for more money by bundling all those things together in one package or special offer. We’ve also seen success in trying to get current subscribers to use those products in a way we think can drive retention.”

I’m a big fan of media outlets pursuing subscription models that focus on a particular niche and making something that people passionate about that niche will think is worth paying for.

Ben Cotton, Executive Director of Customer Experience and Retention at The New York Times

Niches are what Condé Nast’s Golf Digest is working with to entice subscribers. Last year the publisher launched Golf Digest All Access, a service that offers over 200 instructional videos, live and interactive coaching clinics and a print subscription to Golf Digest.

The bundle is available for $9.99 a month or $99 annually. FIPP reports that the videos were being sold individually for $10 with the price set to rise to $24.99.

The publisher launched All Access as it found from data that instructional content attracted the most engaged readers. Further, Golf Digest GM, Chris Reynolds said that they kept All Access subscription lower compared to the price of individual videos in order to encourage people to subscribe. Details about revenue were not shared.

Identifying unmet needs

Both publishers work with data to identify the unmet needs of its readers. According to the FIPP report, “the Times looks at different measurements—market opportunity, the potential to build a subscription business and unmet needs in the market and whether the Times has an advantage in meeting that need.”

The publisher’s New Products and Ventures team then conducts focus groups and one-on-one interviews to identify customer needs that can lead to a prototype for testing.

Cotton said, “By investing in the subscribers we have and making the subscription experience better and better, we’ll be able to help all parts of the subscription business.

“We’ll both improve retention on the subscribers we have—which is our primary goal—and we’ll create more opportunities for the rest of the company to attract new subscribers because they’ll see more and more things they can only get if they decide to become a subscriber.”

Referring to the subscriber-only Year of Living Better guides, he adds, “For people who are interested in journalism and service journalism like that—we know there are a lot—we think that’s something that might hook more people to pay for the Times.

“But above all, we think that that’s the kind of thing our subscribers really like and by reinforcing that they’re getting things that nobody else is getting, we think we’ll be able to convince them to keep paying and to boost our subscription business over time.”

Click here to download FIPP Innovation in Media 2019-2020 World Report

Download WNIP’s comprehensive report—50 Ways to Make Media Pay—an essential read for publishers looking at the multiple revenue opportunities available, whether it’s to reach new audiences or double down on existing super-users. The report is free and can be downloaded here.