Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
8 mins read

The Reader of 2020 vs the Reader of 2021: PPA Deep Dive

How have your subscribers changed over the last year? We spoke with a range of marketing and subscriptions directors to find out how their subscriber bases have changed over the last year and the ways in which they made the most of the year that “shook the subscriptions world.”

The BMJ

“The BMJ is both a scholarly journal and a medical magazine, combining research and other academic content with medical and science journalism. As the pandemic unfolded, our readers were desperate for reliable information about this new viral disease, about which literally nothing was known. The BMJ decided early on that money should be no barrier to pandemic-related information and launched an online landing page where all its COVID-related content could be hosted free of charge. This made it possible for our users around the world, especially hard-pressed clinicians, to keep on top of the emerging evidence about COVID-19.

“On Tuesday 15 December, The BMJ together with the Health Service Journal called on the government to reverse its decision to allow household mixing over the five day Christmas period, and to review the tier system in order to bring numbers down in advance of a likely third wave. The editorial was greeted as a “game-changing intervention” within moments of its publication. It led the BBC’s news coverage from 10am right through to breakfast the following day, with Fiona interviewed on many television and radio programmes from BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and others. Media attention reached as far as CNN’s US broadcasts. Boris Johnson initially described her call to scrap social mixing over Christmas as “inhumane”. But, just 4 days later, on Saturday 19 December, the government u-turned. The editorial was cited during Prime Minister’s Questions and elsewhere by Keir Starmer and others and led to concerted pressure on the government to change its plans. Without this change of heart by the government, the already enormous death toll from covid 19 would almost certainly have been even greater.

“Multimedia innovations in 2020 included new podcasts focusing on a general practitioner audience (‘Deep Breath In”), and a weekly COVID-19 podcast focussed on public health policy and clinical practice. Doors have opened for The BMJ that remained closed to others: the only exclusive interview to be given by UK CMO Chris Whitty, plus a rare exclusive interview with America’s chief infectious disease scientist Dr Anthony Fauci, and a cabinet-level leak of the ‘Moonshot’ project which revealed that the UK government was planning to spend £100 billion on a COVID-19 testing programme.

“In 2020, The BMJ managed a five fold increase in the number of journalistic articles published along with a doubling of academic submissions requiring peer review. Across the journal, usage on bmj.com increased from 29.3 million visits in 2019 to 43.4 million visits in 2020. To have delivered this extraordinary increase in content, as well as greatly increased user engagement, is testament to a very strong team with great leadership.”

Motor Sport Magazine

How do you convince an older print-focussed audience that your content online is just as valuable as the content found inside the pages of a physical magazine? As Samantha Nasser, Subscriptions Marketing Manager of Motor Sport Magazine points out in their journey over the last year, it was important to hold onto the print-focussed base which was more precarious than normal as postal delays in some countries were up to 6 weeks. The repositioning of these print subscribers by putting them in front of free digital editions marked the start of Motor Sport’s new marketing approach. “In positioning it as an addition, and and not a replacement, we were able to mitigate the age-old push-back of ‘surely online content is cheaper as you don’t have to post it to me?”

“It is without a shadow of a doubt that we can say that 2020 is the year that “shook the subscriptions world”. With Motor Sport Magazine having a much more senior demographic, the gauntlet was laid down for how we would convince a naturally print-focussed audience to adapt to online reading when, in some countries, postal delays could be in the region 6 weeks plus, if the copies got there at all.

“Our approach was gentle – we opened-up free access to all print-only subscribers so that they could view the digital equivalent online, as well as access many features in the app and website that they would never have come across before due to their reading preference. In positioning it as an addition, and not a replacement, we were able to mitigate the age-old push-back of “surely online content is cheaper as you don’t have to post it to me?”. This helped expedite our long-term ambition of treating content the same, in terms of pricing structure, for articles consumed either in print or digitally. What you are paying for is the journalistic quality, and not the actual physical product you receive. In presenting digital like this, customers soon began to realise that the website did not just give them the replica of the magazine, but it also unlocked all of Motor Sport Magazine’s content – spanning all the way to when it began in 1924.

“In using free digital editions to sample the magazine with new audiences, we were also tapping into consumers who would enter the Motor Sport Magazine world the other way around – experiencing digital before print. Both tactics were fulfilling our goal to making Motor Sport a product that you consumed via multiple channels, feeding the consumer’s appetite across the board.

“Our approach led to success, and not only did we see a 14% increase in subscriptions year on year, driven by a turbo-charged 70% growth in acquisitions, but our digital subscriptions alone increased 25% across all digital platforms.

“We’re very proud of Motor Sport Magazine’s success and are already strengthening our engagement plan to ensure we retain these hard-earnt subscribers for the long-term. Early indications show a relatively low churn-rate, and long may this continue. It just goes to show that even with challenging market conditions, you can hit upon flecks of gold, and Motor Sport mined this gold to help sustain its valuable position in the motor sport world.”

The Grocer, William Reed Business Media

It has been a year full of Brexit and pandemic shaped obstacles for the grocery industry, but even before these onslaughts William Reed Business Media had been planning to change their paid content strategy. They entered 2020 with a “clear united team mission of converting occasional digital visitors to loyal consumers of content.” Tracy Larner, Head of Paid Content Marketing explains how they got on:

“For 2020 to 2021 the onslaught of COVID has coincided with planned change at WRBM in terms of our paid content strategy for the grocery trade. We’ve had a clear united team mission of converting occasional digital visitors to loyal consumers of our content, introduced metering and developed user journeys. As a result, traffic to thegrocer.co.uk has increased significantly during the year. Our readers are hungry for Brexit or COVID-related information because the grocery industry is so entrenched in our society and the change and effect on the market has been so significant.

“In turn, our registered user base has increased significantly. We have worked to put processes in place to convert these users to paid and this is really paying off for us; taking users on a journey to sample our content before committing.

“The Grocer has a significant and loyal print customer base and our customers have been keen to register their alternative addresses with us to continue to receive print as well as benefit from the perfect partner, their thegrocer.co.uk access. Digital only subscriptions have also increase massively over the year.

“Our user base demographics have not changed significantly over the past year, although we are making greater use of systems to identify and track users to inform decision making and strategy.”

Future plc

Future’s acquisition of TI Media brought over 30 consumer brands into the publishers’ fold, giving them a presence in a number of verticals, namely wine, golf, TV listings, women’s lifestyle and gardening. Future now owns more than 220 brands globally, many of which are suited the indoor lifestyles we have lived over the last year. Angela O’Farrell, CCO & Sharon Todd, Future’s Magazines & Members Marketing Director tell us how they have optimised the customer journey:

“Future’s brands and content continue to delight our audiences and help connect them with their passions. We recently celebrated great ABC results across our portfolio, with subscription and digital growth driving an excellent set of numbers and demonstrating that — even in the midst of a pandemic — our customers still seek out our brands. These figures are a direct reflection of the dramatic shift in wider consumer behaviour and shopping patterns over the last 12 months which Future was well placed to lean into.

“As pandemic restrictions reduced opportunities for outdoor activities, audiences have increasingly turned to titles that help them make the most of their indoor spaces; be that through home improvement, cooking and decorating, or simply relaxing with engaging lifestyle content. In recognition of the shift towards staying local, we identified key sources of demand and closely tracked central points of purchase, such as local supermarkets, grocery and convenience stores, so that our brands were never out of reach of our audiences. This increased demand for our trusted and valued content has also been reflected in the higher volumes of readers committing to a subscription.” said Angela O’Farrell.

Sharon Todd added: “Promotional activity in our newsstand copies, on our brand sites and through our social channels has driven far greater traffic to our subs ecommerce site magazinesdirect.com. Over the last year we’ve really focused on optimising the site, particularly the offline-to-online customer journeys, and the conversion rate improvements we’ve seen, coupled with the higher audience volumes from our marketing activity, has delivered significant YOY results.”

New Statesman

Latest figures show that the New Statesman has more subscribers now than at any point in the last 40 years. Now attracting around 2 million unique users a month, what has been their main focus over the last year, which has meant they are “reaching more engaged readers than ever before.” Robert Jay, CMO at New Statesman Media Group tells us more:

“New Statesman has reported its highest-paid circulation for 40 years, with subscription revenue up 77% over a three-year period. With the title set to launch a new website in the coming months, registered users on the current site rose by 83% to more than 200,000 from January 2020 to February 2021. It reached the highest level of audience growth since the introduction of a paywall in early 2018, and is now attracting around 2 million unique users a month.

“Martin Ashplant, Chief Product Officer at New Statesman Media Group, has described the focus as being ‘firmly on engagement and communities’, while New Statesman Editor-in-Chief, Jason Cowley said that ‘in this time of multifaceted crisis, our response has been to accelerate investment and focus on great storytelling.’

“In recent months, Philip Collins, John Gray, Chris Deerin, Rachel Cunliffe and Louise Perry have joined the team and we are planning to hire even more outstanding writers. We are reaching more engaged readers than ever before.

“New Statesman has also successfully managed to reduce controlled free and bulk copies by 49%, with actively purchased copies now accounting for 86% of its circulation.

“As The British Society of Magazine Editors Awards 2020 recently said after awarding Cowley with Editor of the Year: ‘In increasingly tribal times, Jason Cowley continues to champion independence of thought and diversity of opinion, challenging his audience and producing a magazine that’s imaginative, unpredictable and always interesting.'”

Jess Browne-Swinburne
PPA Staff Writer

Republished here with kind permission of the Professional Publishers Association (PPA).