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Beyond news: How publishers are building subscriptions around non-news products

December 5, 2019 | By Chris M. Sutcliffe—Independent Media Reporter @chrismsutcliffe

A welcome consequence of the abortive chase for scale is that publishers, no longer slaves to the Big Number, are diversifying their revenues. News events, podcasts, even forays into long-form video content – everything is back on the menu. At the same time, many media companies are also recognizing that they have the expertise in selling subscriptions to launch new paid-for products and services, rather than catering to anonymous audiences on platforms.

The collision of those two factors has inevitably led to a reappraisal of publishers’ ongoing activities around which they could conceivably launch a new subscription service. The New York Times’ success with its dedicated Crosswords app is well documented, for instance, with fully 400,000 people subscribing to the service as of February this year. Beyond that, some publishers are seeking to capitalize on their existing reputations when launching new subscription products. Forbes, for instance, recently announced the acquisition of stock prediction tool Quantalytics AI Labs, which Digiday reports could well be spun out into its own subscription tool using Forbes’ expertise.

The ARPU (average revenue per user) of those non-news subscriptions is often lower than the core proposition. However, they have advantages that the core news membership proposition often doesn’t. At the NYT, for example, they’re growing faster: “News product subscriptions totaled approximately 2,713,000 at the end of 2018, a 21.6% increase compared with 2017. Other product subscriptions, which include subscriptions to our Crossword product and Cooking product, totaled approximately 647,000 at the end of 2018, a 56.7% increase compared with 2017.”

Here, then, is how news publishers are looking past current affairs for subscription revenue. Some seek to monetizing loneliness, others want to owning gambling, but all are building upon their reputations to diversify their revenues.

Lifestyle and aspiration

Cooking apps – both paid-for and ad supported – are big business. The NYT prices a subscription to its Cooking portal and app at $1.25 per week, while in the UK Immediate Media acquired the BBC Good Food magazine and ad-supported app in part because of how valuable recipe content performs for its ad business.

Hearst’s All Out Studio

Equally lucrative, the health and lifestyle vertical is prompting some traditional publishers to launch new subscription services. Hearst, for instance, launched a new video on demand platform and mobile app dedicated to workout videos in July. All Out Studio features content centered around its brands like Men’s Health, Runners’ World, and Cosmopolitan, and is priced at $15 a month. Meanwhile Stylist is moving from the current affairs space into evergreen fitness subscriptions with Stylist Strong, which is based around real life events in London.

Meanwhile, off the back of its existing lifestyle content – and a savvy bet that people can’t get enough parenting content – the NYT launched its Parenting vertical earlier this year. At launch, The Times Open Team explained that it was important that the standalone product strike a balance between being identifiably part of the NYT brand and having its own identity: “While establishing how to structure content and topics in the product, we also invested in developing the site’s visual language. We knew that we needed to build on The Times’s brand equity while making our product feel distinct and premium, much like Cooking and Crosswords.”

The Guardian’s standalone Soulmates dating app similarly offers in-app purchases, and builds upon the longstanding digital service provided by the website through the branding.

The Guardian’s Soulmates app

VICE’s ‘Astro Guide’ astrology app (which offers in-app purchases) is almost completely standalone in terms of branding. Nevertheless, it feels like a Vice product in terms of the language used and audience at whom it is pitched. As the team noted in the Astro Guide launch announcement, “We were all proud of the site’s daily and monthly horoscopes and their growing readership, and we wanted to figure out what could come next. We ignored practicality for a moment – obviously, it was Pisces season – and dreamed up something entirely new.”

Meanwhile, as with the Quantalytics example mentioned above, health and science publisher Stat News is explicitly launching new products outside its core Stat Plus subscription model. One of those, Expert Advantage, offers the subscriber the chance to listen in to conference calls with leading researchers. Another hearkens back to the age-old technique of selling reports, this time with a digital slant.

Not one of those products is based around the core news and current affairs proposition of its parent publisher. That said, they each have something in common: They rely upon the audience knowing and feeling affinity with the brand, even if they would not necessarily pay to access their news content. They are, then, effectively a bet that news publishers can still take advantage of the fact that people are more likely to pay for entertainment or lifestyle subscriptions than they are for news.

Beyond beyond news

In addition to working as additive revenue, it’s been noted that standalone products can act as connective tissue between user and a news subscription. The NYT’s crossword and cooking subscriptions, for instance, are priced at half the amount of a news subscription. That’s welcome in its own right, but in terms of creating brand loyalty and habit, it’s incredibly valuable.

Similarly, efforts like The Telegraph’s Fantasy Football and Fantasy Rugby services, and their respective apps, potentially generate ad revenue. The real benefit, however, is that they encourage users to log-in, which works in service of The Telegraph’s stated aim of having 10 million registered users by 2023.

They can also be bundled as part of a wider subscription package. The fact that they also exist separately serves as inducement to pay for the more expensive news package, as the NYT notes in its 2018 annual report about its Cooking and Crossword subscriptions.

The sheer variety of non-news products demonstrates that there is plenty of opportunity for news publishers to diversify their range of paid-for products. That isn’t to say that every newspaper should suddenly launch a standalone cooking vertical, however.

For one thing, there are far too many recipes out there already. Competing with free and an already crowded market is something news publishers should be particularly wary of. Instead, as the NYT did with its Parenting vertical and Vice did with its Astrology app, the best new product launches will build upon successful brands and their understanding of what their customers are most interested in. Yet to succeed, they will also standalone, apart from the company’s core value proposition, and offer their own distinct value for consumers.

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