In February of this year, The New York Times reported having reached an astonishing milestone: across print and digital, The Times had reached over 7 million subscribers, adding 2.3 million digital subscriptions in 2020 alone. To put that figure into context, as of 2020, only The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal had more subscribers in total than the 2.3 million The New York Times added in one year. This huge increase also meant that for the first time in its history, the paper generated more revenue from digital subscriptions than it did from print.

Extraordinary as these figures may be, they are indicative of a wider trend across the news publishing industry. The pandemic has produced steady and, so far, resilient growth in digital subscriptions, where readers’ appetites for trustworthy journalism has been met by offers of reduced subscription fees and deals. The Press Gazette notes that 24 anglophone news websites around the world now count over 100,000 paid digital subscribers, while the largest news groups in the US and UK have added a combined total of 1 million digital subscribers since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In February we published our 2021 Trends Report, the fascinating results of our survey of publishers from 40 countries over 6 continents that sought to understand how 2020 had been for them, and what they planned for 2021. Our findings indicate that nearly 50% of respondents said that growing digital subscriptions would be one of their main priorities, and it’s easy to see why: paid subscribers potentially offer sustained and sustainable revenue unbeholden to fluctuations in ad prices or protean social media algorithms. It’s for this reason that some publishers are targeting subscription numbers over advertising revenue, reasoning that with the right content and access, subscribers can be monetised to a greater degree at a later date after being converted into ‘loyal customers’.

How do publishers stimulate demand for digital subscriptions?

In pre-digital days, a newspaper was easily integrated into a daily routine; today, the picture is more complex. The availability of news at our fingertips whenever and wherever, as well as the way we access news has caused an inversion of traditional reading habits. Where once readers would choose a news publisher to read news articles, today’s online readers can click on the news articles that interest them without regard for the publisher. Reconceiving brand loyalty for the digital age is therefore one of the most pressing issues for publishers of all sizes, whether the desired financial outcome is subscriptions or ad revenue. 

But we’re putting the cart before the horse. In growing digital subscriptions, loyalty is a function of engagement, not vice versa. How then do publishers quantify engagement? With which metrics? In 2019, the Spiegel Research Centre at Northwestern University produced a report in collaboration with the Medill Local News Initiative which analysed reader behaviours relating to subscription retention. Interestingly, the report concluded that the metric with the strongest correlation to subscriber retention was not pageviews or the time spent on a page, but rather the frequency (the number of days out of a month that readers returned) with which they visited a news site. 

In a sense, this finding shows the recreation of traditional readership habits in digital formats; a leisurely perusal of the paper over breakfast has evolved into quickly checking the news on one’s smartphone whilst gulping down a morning coffee. But this shift to subscription models of revenue generation has involved a sea change in publishers’ thinking, described in the Spiegel Research Centre report by Tom Rosenstiel, Executive Director of the American Press Institute, as a complete reconceptualisation of service: ‘“My customer is the consumer, and that’s where I get my revenue,” as opposed to “my customer is the advertiser and I’m leveraging my readers to these advertisers.” It’s a big shift, a huge kind of shift in mission.’

The importance of habit in driving digital subscriptions

With the focus placed squarely on readers rather than advertisers, fostering customer loyalty and engagement becomes the key to increasing digital subscriptions and revenue generation. 

The Wall Street Journal closed out 2020 with around 2.5 million digital subscribers, making it the third largest publisher in the world in terms of subscribership. To drive this growth, the paper set up an inter-departmental initiative called ‘The Habit Project’, tasked with understanding consumer behaviours that contribute towards increased levels of subscription and promoting strategies to foster this behaviour across the organisation. Of the dozens of factors that the project identified, 3 had an especially significant impact on subscriptions: loyalty, cadence and play

Understandably, The Journal is tight-lipped about these metrics’ finer details and how they are measured, but loyalty can be understood along similar lines to the findings of the Spiegel Centre research – return visits to a publisher’s website over the course of a month. Importantly, however, not all return visits are measured the same. For The Journal, loyalty involves return visits to specific content types, authors or sections, for example. Cadence is loyalty’s flipside. Readers responded positively to regular and predictable content cycles, and by publishing new content at consistent intervals readers can expect content at certain times, helping to build that content into the rhythm of daily life. Regular and predictable content cycles produce regular readers. The Journal also found that games or activities helped to boost retention, giving readers new means of engaging with content. 

Again, what stands out from this research is how closely these ideal patterns of production and consumption in the digital age mirror those of its predecessor – content produced and read at set times incorporating crosswords and other puzzles seems to appeal to the general public. It may be that as reader behaviour changed with the profusion of digital news sources, overexposure to those sources led to a resurgence in demand for a more measured flow of information.

Driving digital news subscriptions with social media

Despite this calmer rhythm, social media remains one of the most important means by which publishers can establish themselves in a reader’s mind, offering avenues for habit formation which is the ultimate goal in creating and retaining paid subscribers, and doing so at scale.

The Telegraph’s ‘10-1-23’ strategy of achieving 10 million registered readers and 1 million paid subscribers by 2023 is part of its sustained push to fully develop digital subscriptions as a revenue stream and maintain profitability independent of advertising income. Last year, we talked to Elise Johnson, The Telegraph’s Head of Social Media, who has achieved substantial increases in subscriptions with a strong focus on social media strategy. For Johnson, social media’s most important function is to allow The Telegraph to foster strong ties with prospective subscribers, recognising that the journey to subscription is often long and multifaceted. ‘“If we’re always just asking audiences to click through to our website, that doesn’t actually ingratiate us to them. So, instead, we present articles to them and tell a whole story on social […] An engaged audience translates into subscriptions.”’

Generating high levels of engagement on social media – producing the right content and getting it in front of as many people as possible at the best time – is an incredible challenge, requiring complex and time-consuming data collection and analysis. The Telegraph’s solution has been to incorporate artificial intelligence into its arsenal, using Echobox both to optimise the viral potential of the content it posts and save the social media team valuable time to create new content and experiment with its strategy. Overcoming these challenges is especially important with regard to Facebook, which remains the dominant source of social media referral traffic for publishers. By conducting A/B tests on the content it shares on Facebook, The Telegraph is able to see how different images or share message lengths, emojis and tagging affect click-throughs to its website and adjust its content accordingly.

Habit, then, is crucial in building a healthy subscription-based business model. Publishers have been able to develop strategies specifically targeted at digital subscription growth by maximising the efficacy of existing content channels and giving readers a coherent experience which can become ingrained into daily life. In the final part of our post, we’ll turn our attention to paywalls, and how publishers are experimenting with new formats to further increase readers’ exposure to new content.      


You might also be interested in: