“An audience-first strategy is proving to be the bedrock for both growth and retention of subscribers,” according to a new report from WAN-IFRA. The report, Reader Revenue, is based on the case studies presented at WAN-IFRA’s Digital Media Europe 2021. It shares how publishers around the world are approaching their audience-first strategies from different angles and being successful.
“Essentially, deploying any aspect of a reader revenue strategy is indeed a trial-and-error affair, as it should be…” the authors note. “It’s quickly apparent that a testing mindset is ingrained in those who thrive.”
The report shares cases studies on:
- Acquisition and retention through optimization
- The data science behind propensity to churn
- Driving growth through group-wide bundle subscriptions
- The membership model in action
- Audience-centric workflows to drive growth
- Lessons learned in audio
“Essentially worked on the back of its optimization team”
It starts off with El Confidencial’s optimization strategy. The Spanish digital news outlet launched its paid content model in May 2020, in the early months of the pandemic. It reached 30,000 active subscribers as of September 2021. The publisher saw an additional 60% growth in 2021 alone. “This has essentially worked on the back of its optimization team,” the authors state.
“It is a team of people with very different skills,” explains Jose A. Navas, Product Owner, El Confidencial. “We have UX people, product management people, data analysts, a developer, one person from the newsroom, and one person from customer support.”
This multi-skill aspect is one of the reasons that it is very valuable as you are adding interesting and different points of view. For example, having a journalist allows you to experiment with editorial content that will be very difficult otherwise.Reader Revenue: Key takeaways from DME21
The team analyzes data to find different aspects of a publisher’s website or native apps that could be optimized. Next, they explore ideas and hypotheses to fix the problem. The hypotheses form the basis of experiments undertaken to test the ideas.
One of the experiments involved understanding the best way to tag premium content. The publisher initially used the tag ‘EC Exclusivo’ with a lock icon next to it. After experimenting with a star instead of a lock, as well as with no icon at all, they found that the last option got them 7% more subscribers than the others.
Model predicts 89% of true churners
Getting subscribers is just the beginning, ensuring that they stay is the next important goal. Publishers like NZZ and Mediahuis use data to predict when a subscriber is likely to churn and deploy effective interventions to retain them.
NZZ analyzes historical data to predict who would most likely churn in a certain time window. The publisher then uses tactics to improve chances of retention. These include giving subscribers specific information or articles, or a discount on their subscription.
“Imagine you have cohorts of users and if you are in a certain cohort, we will apply an intervention, like a series of emails which for now lasts about four weeks,” explains Edward Ho, Senior Data Scientist, NZZ. “Then weeks later we see if this indeed helped to reduce churn, and if a certain intervention is consistent, this would become the ‘champion’ to measure against for the next intervention and on and on.”
The publisher’s earlier retention strategy was focused on targeting subscribers who had a low engagement score. That identified only 33% of true churners. The “who is likely to churn” model though, finds 89% of true churners.
120,000 subscribers in 8 months
Bundled subscriptions are proving effective in growing as well as increasing subscribers’ engagement. Norwegian publisher Amedia, which reaches around 2M readers daily and has 660,000 paying subscribers, launched a multi-subscription offering, +Alt, in May 2020. It gave subscribers access to content from its complete portfolio of websites (73) and apps (146). The publisher aimed to get 50,000 paying users onto +Alt. However, in just eight months it had 120,000 subscribers.
+Alt was launched to make it easy for subscribers to access all its content. The publisher produces a horde of daily news content across its different regional outlets. Earlier, the consumption of this content was limited to the regions it was produced. Additionally, subscribers who wanted to access content from different regions had to go through multiple logins creating friction. +Alt also allows subscribers to opt for a family package that can be shared with up to five members.
“Users are willing to pay an extra fee for this experience. We can upsell existing customers and bring in new ones as our product offering is now much richer. Our users are no longer bound by geographical restraints. They can follow the news from wherever they are as part of their +Alt subscription.”Ole Werring, Chief Product Officer, Amedia Utvikling AS
“They pay us to support our journalism”
Many publishers have adopted the membership model as an alternative to a purely digital subscription model. These include Zetland in Denmark and El Diario in Spain. El Diario’s membership program is built on the premise that journalism is a public service.
El Diario currently has more than 61,000 members. It offers 10 free monthly articles a month after which users have to sign up for either its monthly (€8) or annual (€80) membership plan. Apart from getting access to all content, members get ad-free browsing, newsletters, community-building experiences, meetings, and discounts and promotions.
The publisher also has plans for users who cannot pay the full subscription or anything at all. Students or the unemployed can choose to pay what they can afford, they can also sign up for free by filling up a form where they give the reason for their inability to pay. The publisher generated €9.7M in revenue in 2020.
“Our members don’t pay us to read the news; they pay us to support our journalism to build a better and more democratic society,” says Esther Alonso, Marketing and Membership Programme Director, El Diario. “We are proud of being transparent with readers and share an emotional relationship with them, rather than a transactional one.”
“Broadened our view about our audience”
Audience-centric products are important for the success of an audience-first strategy. Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger (KStA), a daily print and web publication from German publisher Dumont, launched a paid content product called KStA PLUS in 2019. They used insights gained from WAN-IFRA’s Table Stakes Europe program (October 2020) to double the number of digital subscribers between September 2020 and August 2021.
“During the Table Stakes project, we’ve really broadened our view about our audience,” says Sophie Rohringer, Audience & Analytics Manager, DuMont. “Over the last 12 months, we adopted the mini-publishing concept. We built editorial teams for specific audiences. We addressed them with different products.”
We started to look at our readers not only as one big group of readers, anonymous readers, but to really segment them and listen to their needs, their interests and to provide them with the content they need in their daily lives.Sophie Rohringer, Audience & Analytics Manager, DuMont
The publisher uses data to analyze how its content is performing in terms of traffic, conversion, and retention. The process also informs it about coverage that’s not working and should be stopped.
“Working with data and dashboards has become essential in this regard,” the authors note. “They now have detailed feedback sessions with each editorial team about once a week to go through their data and dashboards and explain what the data means and ways to improve.”
KStA has identified three topic-based audiences – Teachers and Parents, Living & Housing, and Foodies. They have launched newsletters around each of these topics and are seeing satisfactory subscriber numbers and open rates.
“We sometimes forget the ones that are already with us”
Spanish publisher Diario de Navarra (DN) is also using segmentation to grow subscriptions, as well as drive loyalty and retention. “We have to think about ‘What do we do to acquire? What do we do to engage? What do we do to convert?,’” says Estefanía Nicolás, Digital Strategy, Marketing & Sales Director, DN. “And most importantly, ‘What do we do to keep those converted with us?’ Sometimes we forget all the effort that we have to put there.”
We put lots of effort into acquiring and engagement, but we sometimes forget the ones that are already with us should be kept with us and we have to keep on listening to them.Estefanía Nicolás, Digital Strategy, Marketing & Sales Director, DN
The publisher has segmented its audience into families and professionals. In the case of the family segment, it focuses on those that have children between the ages of six and 16 who are enrolled in compulsory education. This has allowed DN to narrow its focus to 9,000 households in its region. For the professionals segment, the publisher focuses on the 18,000 people in the region who have middle and upper-level management jobs.
DN has 21 newsletters driven by objectives like improving audience engagement and/or driving traffic. The publisher has seen major growth in its areas of focus as well as subscription growth of nearly 60%.
“Audio content is increasingly playing a key role”
The report ends with a section on publishers’ experiments with audio. “Audio content is increasingly playing a key role in news publishers’ reader revenue strategies,” the authors write. The section presents case studies from The Irish Times which is working on AI-driven audio articles and Google’s project with The Guardian and The Royal Institute of Blind People called Auditorial to create content for vision-impaired readers.
The Irish Times’ project ‘Listen,’ launched in 2019, brought together all its podcasts and audio articles in one place. Initially, the publisher got the authors to narrate their articles. However, that consumed a lot of resources leading it to experiment with artificial intelligence. It partnered with a startup Speechkit, to produce AI narrated articles. Currently, the publisher produces 15-20 AI-read audio articles per day. They are available to everyone, even users who hit the paywall. “The lockdown kind of slowed things down,” says Paddy Logue, Digital Editor, Irish Times. “But it is certainly an area that we hope to develop.”
The Auditorial project is exploring different forms of storytelling that would suit vision-impaired readers. “The site uses a number of accessibility features and tools to let the reader decide how to tell the 15-minute-plus story,” the authors explain. “Ultimately, the user can experience the same story in more than 100 different ways.”
The project has considerable scope considering that there are approximately 2.5B people around the world who are blind or have some form of visual impairment.
The audiences (for audio) are more loyal, they are young. Moving into audio opens up a whole range of possibilities and new platforms like in-car and in-home devices. Therefore, it is the future.Paddy Logue, Digital Editor, Irish Times
The full report is available at WAN-IFRA:
Reader Revenue: Key takeaways from DME21