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How healthy is your digital news subscription business?

Optimizing revenue strategy is essential for every publisher. Can new benchmarking deliver digital success?

Darren England/via REUTERS
By Giles Crosse | Jan 20, 2020
Previously in these pages, Reuters reported on Google News Initiative’s (GNI) new Subscriptions Lab, which seeks to develop a sustainable news industry by fostering a better understanding of digital revenues.

Now, some months after launch, the Lab’s initial reports are in. ‘Critical publisher benchmarks for digital subscription success’ highlights ten key subscriptions indicators, across six strategic pillars that are critical levers to growth and sustained success.

For each KPI, the paper defines what it is, where it exists within the subscriptions funnel, and why it is important.

The data offers rich pickings for digital publishers undergoing business transformation and to aid those in flux, the Lab has released a Digital Subscriptions Playbook. This paper seeks to accelerate publishers’ digital subscription transformations by answering five key questions, including ‘What is the revenue opportunity?’ and ‘How do I start making progress.’

Essential metrics for growth

There are crucial signals within both reports for digital publishers to take note of. The Playbook makes no bones about the importance of subscription based growth, saying ‘Digital subscriptions should be the single most important priority for every local news publisher today.’

FTI (GNI Lab partner) has found while digital subscriptions contribute just 3% of total revenue, the two-year compound annual growth rate (“CAGR”) of digital subscription revenue has exceeded 60%. All other revenue categories were relatively flat or had significant declines

 

– Digital Subscriptions Playbook

The Playbook also notes inconsistencies across the industry, observing that, ‘While most daily local publishers have developed a digital subscription product, significant gaps exist in organizational commitment to digital subscriptions, leading to sharply inconsistent levels of success.’

“Successful business transformation through a reader-first revenue model requires full organizational commitment to change,” comments Jed Williams, Chief Strategy Officer, Local Media Association, GNI partner.

“This encompasses people (the right skills, mission-based teams, cross-functional collaboration), technology, and process. A structured, disciplined process for organizational change is especially important.” 

 

— Jed Williams

Connecting metrics and KPIs to important steps along the customer journey is key. Similar to the conversion funnel, the customer journey should follow a linear progression from total audience to existing subscribers, with measurable outcomes that facilitate the goal of moving the maximum number of users down the funnel.

Other useful insights cover how publishers offer value to audiences; elements like customer experience, page speed, ad experience, calls to action and confirmation emails should all be operating flawlessly in order to enhance movement down the funnel.

KPIs and benchmarking

The Lab’s benchmarking report on traffic advises that visit frequency is the most critical factor in measuring subscriber stickiness. Best practices to enhance this metric include newsletters with content links, browser notifications, mobile push alerts, and search/social distribution.

On conversion, hybrid models which intersect premium and metered content often work best. “Growing our base of digital subscribers is a top priority for the organization,” said Anna Marie Menezes, The Toronto Star’s VP of customer revenue and lifecycle management.

“We are very encouraged by the success so far with our hybrid model at driving a significant meter stop rate and new digital subscribers. Apart from getting people to subscribe faster (which our data shows), it has also given the newsrooms greater possibilities to understand what kind of journalism converts and resonates with our existing subscribers.”

 

— Ann Marie Menezes

Other key insights show page speed is among the top metrics to evaluate the strength of user experience, as noted by Shailesh Prakash, chief information officer at The Washington Post, another Lab partner. Faster page speed reduces bounce rates, increases article recirculation, promotes deeper site visits, and improves ad viewability.

A word on data

“Data must inform and guide decisions,” comments Williams. “Contrary to what many believe, many local publishers are not data-starved; rather, they are insight-starved.

“They must focus on accessing, organizing and acting upon the metrics that have the highest impact on their digital subscriptions business, ensuring that everyone in the organization knows these metrics, and how each specific role can affect them. KPIs should extend across the entire customer journey, from discovery to engagement, conversion to loyalty and retention.”

On culture

“A culture of rapid experimentation and iteration is a must,” Williams concludes. “The local media companies best prepared to achieve significant digital subscriptions growth are those with a test-and-learn culture that allows them to try new things – thoughtfully and without fear of failure and then adjust quickly based on key learnings.

“The notion of test-and-iterate is well-established in growth industries, particularly technology, and is a mindset that media must also adopt.”

To give your news organisation the inside scoop, and for more insights about the future of news publishing, download the Reuters Institute Trends and Predictions report.