Digital Publishing
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“Read in every country on earth”: NY Times charts its course to 10 million subscribers with a dynamic paywall plan

The New York Times Co. is on a tear.

The Manhattan-based news publisher announced earlier this month that its digital-subscription sales grew strongly in the third quarter, and digital advertising rebounded.

Nearly two-thirds of the quarter’s $417 million in revenue came from subscriptions, and with more than 200,000 new digital subscribers, the Times ended the quarter with over 4 million subscriptions—more than 3 million of those digital-only.

With an expected $200 million-plus or so from this year’s digital advertising, the Times is expected to pass $600 million in digital revenue this year.

The NY Times President and Chief Executive Mark Thompson told investors during a conference call that NYT journalism is now read in every country on earth.

According to our own data, we now have at least one online reader from every member country of the United Nations, including Tuvalu and Antarctica.

The Times juggernaut has no plans of slowing down, though.

The company has set its sights on getting to 10 million subscribers, led by digital.

To achieve this unprecedented growth, the publisher has been trying out some innovative subscriber building strategies, including content bundling.

“We’re executing on our subscription-first strategy,” said Thompson.

And it’s working.

According to assessments by statistics portal website Statista (as on July 2018), the New York Times is the global leader in the number of digital news subscriptions, and has pulled well ahead of its nearest competitors.

The latest initiative in this regard is NYT’s experiment with introducing dynamic paywalls, “flexible” paywalls that allow publishers to tailor digital subscription offers to different subsets of their audience, depending on their interests, online behavior, and price sensitivity.

Combined with elements of introductory pricing, registration/login, and bundling, this will help the company to move into the next phase of its subscription business.

The experiments are all designed to improve retention and reduce churn.

Hannah Yang, SVP of Consumer Revenue at the Times, clarified that the goal of these more sophisticated experiments, into how different meter counts impact conversion, is also to increase signups and subscribers’ lifetime value.

“We get subscribers from all different parts of the engagement funnel,” she said. “We’re sort of in the early stages of figuring out what is the right price for which group and what is the right article limit for the right group.”

Flexible paywalls: Conversion boosters

Other publishers like The Wall Street Journal and Hearst Newspapers have also been experimenting with flexible paywalls and discounts to price-sensitive segments.

Karl Wells, GM of Membership for the Journal, told Digiday that a dynamic paywall lets the Journal flex the experience depending on where people are in the purchasing funnel, using signals to determine how likely they are to subscribe. He said this flexible paywall has led to significant improvement in the conversion rate.

“In almost a decade of paywalls, the nuance that can be brought to digital subscriptions is far greater than most people have used,” said Ken Doctor, Media Analyst and Times watcher.

The idea is, you’re not dealing with one size fits all. You have ways to test their propensity to subscribe based on price, what kind of content they read, how much. 

“Lowering the paywall and requiring registration can be a way to crack down on people who skirt the paywall limit by switching devices or browsers and getting them to pay up,” says Lucia Moses, Senior Editor at Digiday, while also cautioning, “Publishers that clamp down too much to grow subscribers can risk sacrificing the awareness and habit building that’s needed to nurture the next wave of subscribers.”

What’s next?

While dynamic paywalls and discounts can definitely boost conversions, the test of time is in the level of subscriber retention, and audience loyalty.

“The crucial challenge is how to maximize subs at the right paywall level without sacrificing your future audience development,” said Tony Haile, founder of Scroll, a startup whose mission is to enable frictionless access to great journalism.

The  New York Times is leading the field in growing digital subscriptions, and the publishing world is waiting to see, and learn from, the company’s new experiments in subscription boosting and audience retention.

WNIP’s Media Moments 2018 report explores paywalls and the future of reader revenue, as well as other key publishing stories from the year. Download it here.