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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Thinking inside the box: A look at news, niche, and inspired subscription strategies

June 13, 2019 | By Chris M. Sutcliffe – Independent Media Reporter @chrismsutcliffe

For the foreseeable future, publishers are pinning their hopes on digital subscription, on reigniting the direct relationship they initially lost in the initial pile into digital publishing. A recent study from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that 69% of US and European publishers employ some form of paywall around their content, with the vast majority following a metered or freemium model.

Regardless of which model of subscription or membership each outlet has deployed, they each have similar challenges when it comes to the acquisition and retention of users. In that sense they are very similar to other subscription-based products in the entertainment space, from the OTT video services to the innumerable video games subscription services that have been launched in the last year.

The challenges are especially acute for news publishers, however, since news has become a commodity. The news market is flooded with free alternatives and news is not the subscription product most consumers opt for.

Boxed goods

However, just as the challenges are similar, there are success stories around other subscription products that news publications should consider emulating in their own approach to consumers.

One of those increasingly lucrative consumer subscription products is that of the subscription box. These generally take the form of a batch of products curated and delivered directly to you monthly, sometimes in partnership with a publisher. The range of products offered spans from apparel to hot sauces to sustainably sourced fruit and vegetables. And consumers are responding: Royal Mail predicts the market will be worth £1bn by 2022, and that over a quarter of the UK population has already signed up for a subscription box.

Katie Vanneck-Smith is the founder of Tortoise, a “slow journalism” publisher with a focus on membership. She told me that publishers can take valuable lessons away from the rise of products like subscription boxes, and that publishers have “only just started to catch up with the consumer behaviours in the industry”. So what can news publishers learn from the growth of those products, particularly around engaging and retaining subscribers?

Curation as a service

The value of a subscription box lies in the fact that its contents have been specially selected for the consumer base. Subscribers trust that the brand behind the box has the expertise required to choose only the best goods to serve up. And this is doubly true when the box contains luxury products rather than staple goods. Boxes like Loot Crate and Stitch Fix trade off the fact that they have the connections and knowledge to deliver products that are relevant to the receiver. Crucially, they both play up the fact that human editors are the ones ultimately doing the curation, rather than just an algorithm.

In that sense, those subscription offerings are very similar to products from high-end publishers. This includes The Times & Sunday Times, which make the curation of stories relevant to their audiences a core tenet of products like The Brief. Both leverage the fact that, in a sea of products, there is value in having an expert pick out only the best ones on your behalf.

Churn is a fact of life, so cater for it

It typically costs around five times more to acquire a new subscriber than to retain an existing one. That’s why so many publishers are avidly focused on the development of their own internal engagement scores, to determine when people are likely to jump ship and hopefully to intercede. The Times in particular has invested a huge amount of money in reducing churn along every part of the process, but it is effectively a universal concern among subscription-based products.

However, while the quality of the provided service is ultimately the best guarantor of user retention, sometimes factors outside of a publisher’s control will inevitably cause people to consider dropping off. In that case, as with subscription boxes, publishers need to offer solutions that cater to their audience’s changing situation. Ecommerce platform Cratejoy found that customers typically gave financial reasons as the cause for cancelling a subscription box, and advises that subscription boxes offer a “downgrade” option.

Increasingly, publishers are doing the same. They offer flexible options or discounts to the subscribers who contact them to cancel. Some publishers are also considering a wider rollout of a pause option for subscribers. This has the dual benefit of keeping them within the logged-in ecosystem for marketing purposes while also negating the high cost of reacquiring a lapsed subscriber.

Have a mission

Subscription packages like ODDBOX make a social mission part of their sales strategy: much of its messaging is based around the notion that food wastage is a significant issue, and that subscribing is the right thing to do to combat a problem. Similarly, the Guardian found that the rhetoric it employed around its membership scheme had a significant impact, and that choosing to support open access to journalism for everyone was frequently cited as one of the most important reasons people chose to donate.

Notably, when the Guardian reached its milestone of a million paying users, it chose to change the messaging from one of survival to one of sustainability. Consequently, it saw its best week ever in terms of donations. This ran counter to internal misgivings that fewer people would choose to support it no longer appeared in peril.   

The fourth subscription

At the World News Media Congress in Glasgow, co-editor of the Innovation in News Media World Report Juan Senor suggested that a consumer is likely to pay for four subscription services. The first two would likely be entertainment services, the third a general news subscription, and the fourth to a niche site they have a personal interest in.

While people typically feel affinity to newsbrands, the trend towards personalization of content means that publishers can typically serve up content tailored specifically to them. Effectively, they are increasingly hybrids of the third and fourth subscriptions. For example, The Telegraph recognized that its rugby content was of particular interest to its audience. So, it recently made all its content around the sport a key part of its subscription proposition, one of only three types of article to sit exclusively behind the paywall.

When it comes to marketing that specific content, publishers could do much worse than to emulate the techniques employed by subscription boxes, which are by their nature niche. The products themselves – news and goods – are very different in nature, but the lessons around messaging and retention are universal.

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