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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

How Vox Media and The Atlantic are building reader revenue

July 16, 2020 | By Evan DeSimone – Independent Journalist @Media_Evan

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted every sector of the global economy, and digital publishing is no exception. The virus and the resulting lockdowns have depressed ad spend  and changed consumer behavior. It has also forced publishers to rethink foundational aspects of a business model that was already under pressure. For many publishers, the pandemic has increased these pressures and accelerated trends that were already on the horizon. In particular, it has hastened the need to shift to a greater reliance on subscription revenue.

In recent years, publishers have worked to diversify their revenue streams. However, the pandemic has challenged this revenue remix as advertising rates have fallen precipitously and live events remain off the table for the foreseeable future. At the same time, media companies have seen spikes in traffic as consumers seek out information about the virus or new content to pass the time in lockdown.

We spoke to two leading digital publishers that have been successfully navigating this period of change. We discussed how the pandemic has impacted their subscription programs, their strategies for converting new readers into paying subscribers, and how they plan to maximize retention.

Two reader revenue models

Corinne Osnos manages Audience Strategy at Vox Media. The digital publisher operates a portfolio of properties across multiple verticals and has not historically relied on reader revenue. Vox Media maintains a diversified revenue model across its portfolio that includes advertising, branded content, and commerce across print, digital, audio, and video content.

Last year, however, Vox acquired New York Media, which is heavily grounded in reader revenue from subscriptions. New York Magazine and its related digital properties – like Vulture, The Cut, and Intelligencer – use a metered paywall through which they allow readers to sample a limited amount of content before prompting them to subscribe. In April, Vox Media rolled out a reader contribution model on Vox.com to better leverage reader revenue for the network.

Emilie Harkin is Executive Director of Customer Growth at The Atlantic, a news, politics, and culture media brand. Launched as a print magazine in 1857, The Atlantic has extensive experience with reader revenue having relied primarily on subscriptions along with live events to support itself for over 160 years. In September of 2019, it rolled out a pay model for its digital property for the first time. Like New York Magazine, The Atlantic uses a metered paywall that gives readers a chance to try before they buy.

How they’re gaining

Both publications have seen significant traffic and subscriber growth since the start of the pandemic. According to Harkin, The Atlantic has seen subscriptions rise steadily since March, with growth outpacing pre-pandemic projections. She attributes this additional growth to the decision the magazine made in March to exempt its coronavirus content from the metered paywall. They provided readers with unlimited access to The Atlantic’s in-depth reporting on the virus.

“We felt really strongly that ungating our Coronavirus coverage was a public good,” Harkin said of the move. For now, The Atlantic plans to keep essential COVID coverage ungated indefinitely, replacing its paywall meter with hyperlinks that direct readers to a hub that aggregates all the magazine’s coronavirus coverage. Despite the decision to steer this new audience toward more free content, Harkin still credits The Atlantic’s pandemic journalism with driving growth across the magazine. 

People “wanted to see what The Atlantic had published about the Coronavirus. But we also saw that people did move from the Covid coverage to other areas of the site.”

New York Magazine is also seeing substantial subscriber growth in the time of Coronavirus. When asked to compare subscriber gains during the pandemic to pre-pandemic projections for 2020, Osnos points to April, during which the magazine saw its single largest month of subscriber growth on record. They added roughly three times as many subscribers as compared with the same period in 2019.

Vox Media is also leaning into member-only virtual events and community building to drive growth during the pandemic. “This week, we announced the launch of “Inside New York.” The new subscriber-only event series gives our readers an unfiltered behind-the-scenes look at our magazine. “We also launched Pivot Schooled, a first-of-its-kind virtual event series bringing New York’s award-winning Pivot podcast to life,” said Osnos.

“As we scale for a larger audience, we’ve remarketed our Vulture membership program to foster a digital community. We’re utilizing the program to deepen brand appreciation and grow paid subscriptions.”

How they are maintaining

While growth remains steady, both publishers are taking steps to ensure that they retain these new audiences post-pandemic. The unusual circumstances driving the growth mean that it’s difficult to predict what will happen when life starts returning to normal. Osnos and Harkin aren’t leaving anything to chance. Both are rolling out new email marketing and reader communication strategies to cement their connection with readers. 

“We’ve been working on deepening our subscribers’ relationship to our brands through onboarding and engagement campaigns. But we’ve not seen churn definitively tied to economic or editorial reasons thus far,” said Osnos. “Our largest successes for mitigating churn are often the direct results of improvements to our billing and renewal communication series. We find that transparency with matters of account and expanding our subscriber benefits with events, supplemental content, and other benefits have provided the greatest results when retaining subscribers.”

According to Harkin, The Atlantic will also emphasize communication and reader connection. “We really value the relationship with our readers. We’re constantly evolving and developing our retention plans through email welcome series and onsite experiences as well as how we talk to people throughout their life with email marketing and on social media.”

A new normal

It is unclear how long Covid-19 will be with us and which of the changes to daily life and reader habits will persist once the virus is contained. What is clear is that, in the near-term, publishers’ reliance on reader revenue will be greater than at any other time in the digital era. The work publishers do to grow subscriptions today, and to retain those subscribers as the situation evolves, will determine how well-positioned they are to survive and thrive.

As for Osnos and Harkin, both expressed the belief that the success of their efforts ultimately rests not in the hands of marketing or revenue teams, but with the quality journalism of their respective publications. As Harkin puts it, “What people ultimately subscribe to is your journalism. So, as long as the quality of your journalism is there, and the quality of your marketing reader relationships match the quality the journalism that you’re producing, you’ll have a pretty winning combination.”

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