Audience Engagement Digital Publishing Top Stories
5 mins read

“We must be ruthlessly focused on our readership”: How publishers are growing subscribers with audience-focused strategies

Spanish publisher ARA has seen its unique users increase by 38%, and page views grow by 42% over last year. It has also seen notable subscription growth since the start of COVID-19 lockdown – the publisher added 3,200 new subscribers, said its Chief Revenue and Innovation Officer Georgina Ferri Tordera, at WAN-IFRA’s World Media Leaders eSummit this year.

Ferri Tordera called the growth “amazing,” and added that 63% of the publisher’s revenue came directly from its readers and subscribers. She said, “That’s really important for us, and this crisis hasn’t impacted us as badly as other media in Spain because we have a business model based on subscriptions.”

80% readers looking at only 26% of the content

“For ARA, a crucial element in their success in recent months has been a tighter focus on the content they are creating,” says Brian Veseling, Senior Editor, WAN-IFRA.

The publisher had found at the beginning of this year that 80% of its readers were looking at only 26% of its content. It has started working more with data, with the Table Stakes Europe Project, to understand its audiences better. 

For example, a deeper investigation of user data revealed that the Opinion section had been among the best performing sections in terms of users, visits and pageviews. It was then placed behind the registration wall. “Now we want to bring data to our newsrooms to produce more for the targeted audiences,” said Ferri Tordera. 

We want to find out where the gap is between the expectations of our subscribers and our production. And then we are going to renew all of our digital channels.

Georgina Ferri Tordera, Chief Revenue and Innovation Officer, ARA

“Know more about our readers”

Such an audience focused strategy is also used by another Spanish publisher – Henneo. According to Veseling, Henneo has spent much of this year focussing on its audiences and developing more targeted content. 

The publisher has a strong print business and is working with the Table Stakes project to find the right reader revenue model. The surge in traffic due to COVID-19 has provided Henneo with a fertile opportunity to do so.

The publisher analysed the content that its most loyal users were reading and shared the findings with the newsroom which created a targeted content plan. It led to the implementation of digital registration and launch of several newsletters. 

Henneo did not have any newsletters at the beginning of the year; now it has nine across a variety of topics. “With a newsletter we can register users on different topics so that we can know more about our readers,” said Henneo’s Media Engagement & User Revenue Manager, Marta Algora Luño.

A free metered registration model was also implemented in February. Initially, it allowed users to read up to 39 articles without registering after which they were asked to register. This has been tightened in the subsequent months and currently readers are asked to register after reading 20 articles. 

The publisher plans to reduce this further in future as it moves towards launching a subscription model. This strategy has been used by many publishers worldwide, including The New York Times. The newspaper reduced its 10 free articles limit to 5, in 2017, to encourage more users to subscribe.

The challenge is to move people through a funnel, from first-time visitors, to regular readers, to newsletter or podcast subscribers and ultimately asking them to become donors or paying customers.

Chris Waiting, CEO of The Conversation

“Read more than a quarter of a billion times”

The Conversation is different from Ara and Henneo in that it is a network of not-for-profit media outlets publishing news stories written by academics and researchers. It has not been affected by the post-COVID decline in advertising revenues as it is largely funded by universities and research institutions. Reader donations make a lesser, but growing part of its revenues. 

Its CEO, Chris Waiting, expects that many of the institutions that fund them will be cutting back because of the pandemic. Thus, the publisher is looking for ways to diversify its revenues. 

The Conversation, like many other publishers, has seen a surge in traffic during the pandemic. Waiting says they had 9.7M unique visitors from the UK between March and May. This was a 185% increase compared to the same period in the previous year. “Globally, including republication, The Conversation’s stories were read more than a quarter of a billion times during lockdown,” writes Waiting in a piece for

The publisher is focusing on converting new readers into repeat visitors and eventually, paying supporters. It asks first-time readers to subscribe to the daily newsletter which would help them get familiar with the content (also give the publisher insights into their reading habits) and build a relationship.

The daily newsletter currently has 72,000 subscribers, a third of whom open it every day. It acts as a funnel for first-time readers. “By appearing in their inbox each day, we can give them a curated selection of perspectives on the news, something topical, and something that will capture their imagination,” Waiting said in a Media Voices podcast. “But it’s also presenting them with things that they won’t see anywhere else, the really distinctive stories we have.”

The idea has been successful, says Waiting, as the number of new subscriptions trebled. Later, when the publisher asked subscribers for support, “donations increased dramatically as we were able to target our most loyal readers directly through our newsletter.”

“The public is hungrier than ever for high-quality journalism”

“Once people come across your content the key is to make it easy, accessible and engaging in the hope they will come back,” writes Waiting. “Free tiers, offers and incentives will draw people in and with the average time Britons hold a subscription standing at 19 months, you have got a long time to prove your worth. You just have to keep them engaged.”

“Whether you are behind a paywall or free, you will always be competing for attention across so many platforms,” he adds. “There is always a danger people will seek a substitute and discover they can live without you permanently, but is that not true for any brand? 

“Publishers are not exempt from the critical need for high quality, impactful and engaging content, nor can they escape the inevitability of a changing, modernising world.”

We must be ruthlessly focused on our readership, building engagement and loyalty. Traffic in recent months tells us that the public is hungrier than ever for high-quality journalism. The challenge is to convert this interest into sustainable business models.

Chris Waiting, CEO, The Conversation