How News Publishers Can Gain Paid Subscribers as Ad Spends Shrink

Mike Herrick SVP of Technology

This article was originally published on Publishing Executive.


As people stay at home around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic, online traffic has surged. People are clicking through mobile and web news alerts at 43% higher rates than they were prior to the crisis, according to my company’s notifications platform, which is used by USA Today, the BBC, and The Wall Street Journal, among many other media outlets.

At the same time, advertisers do not want to either appear alongside news that too often is of a negative nature or use up budget when consumers may be unwilling to spend during an economic downturn. There’s also a general business uncertainty during COVID-19. As a result of these factors, the advertising business is plummeting globally.

What should publishers do to save their brands? They should focus on innovation around paid subscription offerings. They should focus on talent and topics. And they should focus on what sets their publication apart.

Experiment with Different Paid Tiers

For the foreseeable future, consumers are either going to slam the brakes on spending or simply spend less. Therefore, publishers should think of viewers’ needs and offer them as many options as makes sense for the team and technology to handle. Media outlets should go beyond the “Complimentary First 10 Articles” freemium model and test out different ideas.

Through A/B testing and multivariate experimentation, publishers should see if different levels of avid patronage can produce different kinds of paid subscribers. A podcast listener or daily reader may be willing to pay $12 a month for everything your publication offers, but your once-a-week reader may only be willing to pay $2 a month. (Such a subscriber would obviously get much less content than the $12-per-month devotee.) Publishers should find out by experimenting with promotional copy and landing page features. While it takes effort and investment, it makes business sense to extract more value out of the most avid crowd while also getting subscription fees from casual viewers.

Indeed, publishers can segment their viewers/listeners by how often they consume content and also which kinds of content they consume. That combination of data can inform publications how much their front page, podcast, tailored newsletter, and direct-access perks are worth to customers — and not to mention the business.

Lean into Talent

I’m a news junkie and know my type. With that in mind, publishers should consider expanding the direct relationships their writers and/or video talent have with their public.

I don’t know exactly how many Wall Street Journal politics junkies would pay more to have a weekly direct exchange with White House columnist Kimberley Strassel, but I am guessing it’s significant. NBC’s Richard Engel prolifically reports on Middle Eastern and U.S. global politics and, more recently, COVID. What if he were available in a chatroom for an hour each weekend? The Washington Post, owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, seems like it’s doing fine. But what if Post op-ed scribe George Will rounded out his Sunday mornings by directly interacting online with subscribers about the week in news? Heck, when things get back to normal, he could even talk about one of his favorite topics outside of politics — baseball.

The Wall Street Journal and NYT already have direct-relationships-with-talent programs in place, but they are very limited. It’s time to expand them for the 1:1 Journalism Era, where publishers — with the personal brands of reporters to leverage — can position their public-facing media in a way marketers in other sectors cannot. It’s not going to replace millions of advertising dollars, but it can save jobs in the newsroom while expanding journalists’ personal brands as they look to write books in the future. It’s a win for all sides.

Tinker with Topics

Another area worth exploring is subscriptions based on topics. Dailies have dabbled with sports-only subscriptions after The Athletic showed the concept works, but what if someone was willing to pay $5 to The National Review or New Yorker just for their respective opinion pieces? It’s probably worth experimenting.

After all, in the tech space, The Information and Stratechery have proven people are willing to pay for content that belongs in one, narrow bucket. Perhaps the same model can be expanded beyond sports and tech to opinion, fashion, culture, etc. (like in the magazine world).

Market ‘Quality’

If access-minded consumers are going to pay more for subscriptions or membership fees, publishers should not only promise quality — they should guarantee it. They should use a Quality Guaranteed symbol, which viewers can then click to read the publication’s mission statement or even watch a short explainer video from the publisher or editor-in-chief.

Media outlets should make quality their chief value proposition — their differentiator — and then deliver on it to paid subscribers. Americans right now would gladly pay for COVID and election coverage that’s of unusually high quality — i.e., accurate, fair, and thoughtful.

Give Them Reasons to Invest

Let’s face it: Outside the unlikely development of the U.S. government bailing out the media business, it’s going to be a tough 2020 for publishers. At the same time, focusing on paid subscriptions, talent, and quality can help save publications in the months ahead.

Most Americans want to financially support publications, especially ones that are local and national institutions. It’s up to publishers to innovate and give them reasons to subscribe during these trying times.

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