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Why Skift is putting reader revenue in the pilot’s seat

July 7, 2020 | By Esther Kezia Thorpe – Independent Media Reporter @EstherKeziaT

Travel industry intelligence site Skift has become the latest publisher to put membership at the forefront of their business. CEO and founder Rafat Ali announced the launch of Skift Pro on Twitter, saying that “Skift is now officially a Subscription-First business information company.”

Skift joins a growing number of publishers turning to reader revenue as a way to diversify revenue streams and mitigate the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on other aspects of the business like events and advertising.

We spoke to Skift co-founder and Chief Product Officer Jason Clampet about the details of the launch, how it sits alongside its other products, and why this is such an important shift for the niche travel publisher.

Laying the foundations 

Skift Pro has been in the works for over a year. The publisher already has two existing subscription products: Skift Research, which does deep-dive reports, data and analysis on travel industry trends, and Skift Airline Weekly, a subscription product dedicated to aviation news and analysis. The two products were faring well. However, Skift had een eyeing examples from other B2B companies like Digiday and Business of Fashion, which made subscription models a more central part of their strategy to build business resilience.

The first task the team had to tackle before adding another subscription product into the mix was to bring everything into one payment platform. “We built our own database to store users and details about the payment process so that everything was seamlessly tied together,” Clampet explained. This meant that subscribers to multiple products would be able to manage their subscriptions in one place.

In the last week of February 2020, Clampet held a big team meeting where he walked everyone through Skift Pro. In particular, he told the team how excited they were to be launching it on March 16th. But March 11th would be Skift’s last day in the office.

“We decided not to launch Skift Pro at that point,” said Clampet, aware of the potential scale of lockdown disruption to the travel industry. “Instead, we did a Guardian-style contribution model. We said, “Hey, we’d love direct reader support. You can make a one time gift or a recurring gift.””

Spurred by the success of the contribution model, Skift then introduced a ‘Pay what you want’ model to their new online events and webinars, using the payment system they had built to support subscriptions the previous year. As the initial shockwaves of the pandemic settled, Skift Pro’s launch moved to the top of the agenda.

Membership benefits

Despite the initial delay, Skift’s decision to launch a membership product marks an important shift in the publisher’s relationship with its readers. Rather than simply adding another revenue stream into the mix, Skift Pro will help build business resilience and audience engagement, as well as strengthening their editorial work.

“It’s become a centerpiece of how we think about our readers and customers,” said Clampet. “Hopefully it’ll be a much more significant part of our revenue, but it’ll also allow us to tie things together better.”

Clampet believes that Skift Pro members will be more deeply engaged with the brand, from attending events to reading its analysis and reporting. In turn hopes that he and the team will be able to learn more about them. “It’s a way for us to have a better insight into who our users are, and then serve them better,” he explained.

This plays a key part in the presentation of Skift Pro as a membership product rather than a straightforward subscription. Skift Pro goes beyond just access to stories online. It includes additional content and events, as well as a custom newsletter which will start up in August, for $365 a year, or $1 a day. 

“We want it to be more than just a newsletter in your mailbox every day. It’s about being actively engaged with other things beyond just reading,” Clampet said.

Launching in a pandemic

Following the delay, deciding when was a good time to finally launch Skift Pro was a subject of much internal discussion. Skift’s other major revenue streams are from its content studio, which works with travel brands to develop bespoke content for them, and its events. Both have suffered as a result of coronavirus, making reader revenue a more urgent consideration. But the travel industry as a whole is also under immense pressure, with many furloughed or laid off.

“It’s hard to know what is a good time right now for anything,” Clampet explained. “The reality of business is that direct from consumer revenue is vital to just about any media business.”

“We also know that the people who are still at companies in Europe and Asia, which is waking up again. They need actual information to do their jobs better and make smarter decisions. We’re still here providing that, so in that sense, it is a good time [to launch].”

A new route

Skift Pro may be live, but the team aren’t resting on their laurels. Clampet’s main goal for the membership is that people are really happy about their decision after signing up, and that is going to require some changes to the product as time goes on.

“The launch is just the very first phase for us. We need to be constantly evolving the product experience,” he emphasised. “What it is right now is going to be very different from what it is a year from now, and hopefully we’ll have made a lot of smart decisions.”

This is a very important lesson that other publishers with subscription or membership products can learn from. For Skift, the launch is not the end of the road. It’s the starting point of a product which will change and grow as they focus on the reader response, and how they can best serve those needs.

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