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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

The rise of tribal subscription marketing

February 13, 2020 | By Chris M. Sutcliffe – Independent Media Reporter @chrismsutcliffe

“Democracy dies in darkness.” It’s an amazing rallying cry, a banner that supporters of The Washington Post flock to. As a tool for signing up potential subscribers, it has the benefit of setting out a core belief that many people share. It conditions the people who support (or profess to) democracy to consider The Washington Post an ally, by appealing to their emotions.

Creating that sense of belonging to a club is a key component of most subscription and membership marketing. You see it across most of the general news titles, from the offers made to “our readers” to the appeals to shared values. It’s even more obvious in the transition to membership rhetoric being offered by news titles, which have made that sense of belonging the central tenet of their marketing messages.

However, as digital subscriptions become the default primary revenue stream for many newspapers, the marketing messages they use to create that sense of kinship is changing. Driven by competition and an electric political climate, some publications are inverting that message. For many, the strongest sales pitch they can make to subscribers is not by setting out the values they stand for – it’s the values and people they stand against.

The changing nature of newspaper subscription

We’re entering the second stage of digital subscriptions. Many publications are altering their membership and subscription marketing messages as more people become habituated to paying for news online. The Guardian, for instance, made a considered decision to move from a message of survival to one of sustainability when it hit one million paying supporters.

Where once it was the sole preserve of the specialist B2B and information provider, now the viability of consumer-focused subscriptions is well established. As a hangover from those early days of B2B success, however, some newspapers still make the exclusivity of their articles and analysis the central focus of their subscription marketing.

John Barnes is the managing director of Sloop Media and a veteran of B2B publishing. He explains: “There’s been a swing back to quality journalism, which doesn’t happen by accident. It has to be funded everybody in the media is benefiting from that.”

Support quality

The Times & Sunday Times in the UK, for example, was an early entrant into the subscription space. The paper has always made the case that readers can only be assured of news quality by paying to support its journalists.

Even for publications without the prestigious history of The Times, the message that information must be directly funded through subscriptions is widespread. The Information, a tech-focused publisher that charges $399 annually for access, justifies its high price that way. Founder Jessica Lessin told the New York Times: “I’ve said this from the beginning, and I continue to say this, but you can’t give away what you expect the reader to find valuable.”

However, due to their positioning and the nature of their content, many news publications have found it difficult to justify using the exclusivity of their content as the selling point for a subscription. After all, in the age of information overload you’d be hard pressed to find a generalist newspaper that isn’t covering the same beats as many free-to-access online outlets. Consequently, they have made their political affiliation or stance the core of their proposition – for better and worse.

In the UK, for instance, The Daily Telegraph recently ran an advertisement for its subscription options that used its close ties to the UK government as the primary message. The current prime minister is a former Telegraph columnist.

Enemy of my enemy

Therefore, many newspapers have decided to lean into tribalism, making it clear that the best reason to support them is that they provide a bastion for a particular way of thinking. You see this most clearly in the messaging of the single subject newspapers, like the UK’s pro-EU The New European and Scotland’s pro-Independence The National. However, it’s equally true at many of the larger titles as well. Nobody’s abandoning the ideal of objectivity, but they’re making a particular slant central to their identity.

Barnes explains that “The big newspapers – the Guardian, The Washington Post – you know, the media organizations that have almost been singled out by Donald Trump… I think they definitely are playing that card of ‘who’s going to hold him to account unless we’re here?’”

The “Trump Bump” has been a boon for left-leaning papers, with the NYT in particular being singled out as the paper of choice for the swathes of the public who oppose him. (Though arguably, the publication has parlayed that into some smart investments in future subscription growth).

In a sense, what those publishers are doing is just an extension of what they’ve always done in print. After all, a particular political niche is practically a prerequisite in an incredibly competitive landscape. What’s changing is how explicitly some titles are making opposition to their competitors and politicians their sole marketing message.

In the UK, the 10-month-old Byline Times is a newspaper defined by opposition. It has made criticism of most other UK titles the way it appeals to disenfranchised readers.

What the others won’t say

Its executive editor Stephen Colegrave told me: “That’s a very strong part of our positioning. We launched originally with the positioning, which is on our masthead, of publishing what the other papers don’t say. So, we’ve had quite a strong position in terms of getting subscribers by actually welcoming people back to newspapers and acknowledging, like most of our audience, that we stopped reading newspapers a long time ago because we didn’t trust them.”

In particular, he singles out the fact that a handful of billionaires own the vast majority of UK newspapers as being of concern to a large enough proportion of the public to be worth launching a newspaper that explicitly is not billionaire owned. The recent outcry over the mere suggestion that a member of the Murdoch family might be about to take the role of Director-General at the BBC would seem to back up that assertion.

Adversarial positioning

That move towards more adversarial positioning isn’t just cathartic for the journalists at a title. There’s a commercial consideration too. As the latest Digital News Report from Reuters demonstrated, people are more likely to trust and (therefore pay to support) the titles with which they share political leanings. Freed from the need to chase scale, but now yoked to the need to create community to aid conversions, publications are fostering tribes.

Consequently, even as Byline Times moves into paid-for marketing, Colegrave believes it would be folly to change tack on its adversarial messaging. “We have to maintain the same positioning. It’s very, very important for us because that’s what Byline is, while also maintaining the newspaper as a central part of that message. So, it’s more about how we communicate that positioning to people who don’t know anything about us.”

It remains to be seen what will happen to that marketing message if the incredibly polarized political landscape cools down. Until then, however, the fact that newspapers are prioritizing converting smaller numbers of like-minded supporters over appealing to vast audiences across the political spectrum means that adversarial marketing is here to stay. If creating a community is key, then it’s as easy to do that through defining what you are against as what you stand for.

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