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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Widening the funnel: Where are news sites finding new subscribers?

November 12, 2020 | By Chris M. Sutcliffe – Independent Media Reporter @chrismsutcliffe

Nobody ever said subscription success was easy. Yet over the last few years, the press in the U.S. and U.K. have had some things stack up in their favor. Political heat triggered a slew of signups as did frenzied interest in trustworthy information around Covid-19. And audiences, particularly younger ones, have generally become more willing to pay for subscriptions. 

It would be premature to suggest that any of those trends is nearing its zenith. However, publishers are always trying to attract the next great swath of subscribers.

Unfortunately, competition for those audiences is only going to become fiercer. The majority of financial reports from news brands — large and small — over the past year have made plain that advertising revenue is in decline. The New York Times’ latest report, for instance, states:

“Digital readers were the only growth business for The Times. Every other unit fell. As online subscription revenue rose 34 percent, to $155.3 million, print subscriptions decreased 3.8 percent to $145.7 million. And advertising sales, once the lifeblood of the newspaper business, dropped 30 percent, to $79.3 million.”

The proportion of people paying for a digital news subscription is up across the board. Notably, younger audiences are far more likely to pay than those over 55. Those are both excellent indicators of the future health of subscriptions. It’s less clear, however, that there will be enough subscription revenue to go around, especially in the short term. Many vital papers will – grim as it sounds – probably not last to reap the benefits of these positive trends.

So, where are the successful publishers seeking out new audiences?

A common tongue

For the most part, media companies have — due to a lack of resource and local knowledge — tended to focus on their core geographical markets. Many have bureaus or access to wires within other countries to draw from. But few have made them a focus of revenue growth.

Where it has occurred, it’s typically been media brands in countries that share a common language. The Guardian overreached itself with its launch of Guardian U.S., but is forging ahead in Australia. Earlier this year The Economist redoubled its efforts to become a name brand in the states.

Magazines have made the leap too: The Week Junior’s launch in the U.S. was predicated in part on the shared language. The title’s chief executive Kerin O’Connor said that: “The first week actually has been fantastic, we’ve sold 1,000 subscriptions. I mean, I think that’s incredible for a product that no one’s ever seen in America. I know it’s a big country, but that is a hell of a starting statement in terms of the enthusiasm that we’re feeling for this product.”

Breaking language barriers

On other occasions, foreign expansion makes sense when there is significant lexical similarity between countries. El Pais, the second-largest Spanish-language newsbrand, has a limited presence outside of Spain, with English-language inserts in titles including The International Herald Tribune. Despite that, in 2013 it launched a Brazilian Portguese site in an attempt to grow its audience outside its home nation, an effort that has led to El Pais brand becoming the second-most used news site in Latin America last year.

The practice of launching in countries without a shared language is more common among well-resourced English titles. In 2016 it was widely reported that Forbes, among others, were eyeing France as a target for expansion. Given Forbes’ model of providing a platform for writers, it’s unsurprising that expansion using its existing platform is continuing.

Others might well follow suit, as titles increasingly try to leverage their brands to launch in new territories. In September, the London-based newspaper The Independent (no stranger to capitalizing on its brand) announced plans to launch Independent en Español, a new website created to serve the Hispanic audience in the U.S. and other Spanish-speaking markets.

In doing so it seeks to take advantage of an extremely lucrative new audience, as the InPublishing write-up makes clear: “According to recent data from the Selig Center for Economic Growth, Hispanic consumers have a buying power of $1.5 trillion – larger than the GDP of Australia, and a 212% increase in a decade.”

Under pressure

While The Independent’s focus is on brand partnerships and advertising, other subscription-based publications are making similar moves. As the pressure on advertising revenue becomes more acute, I would be shocked if more publications did not take the plunge and launch subscription products in other countries.

The early movers in that space, with significant brand recognition, will be the key beneficiaries. The titles that have the benefit of being primarily published in the English language could even eschew translations, as The Washington Post did when it launched the still extant Today’s WorldView in 2017 to grow its international subscriptions.

A wider funnel

Of course, publishers should not neglect any opportunity to build their domestic subscription bases. The proportion of people willing to pay for digital news specifically tends to hover around the low double digits in many countries. As a result, news publishers are widening the top of their marketing funnel in an attempt to bring as many people into the fold as they can.

That’s especially true when it comes to attracting young audiences. The vast majority of digital subscription titles offer student subscription prices. They do so with the tacit understanding that they are taking a hit on present revenue while investing in future subscribers. Student subscriptions are nothing new, but the breadth of titles aimed specifically at professionals, like The Financial Times, offering them widens all the time.

Creative product offerings

Nor is it always quite so mundane as a discount. The New York Times uses its flagship The Daily podcast as a free introduction to its content. Four million daily listeners to the podcast alone offers a huge audience for marketing messages, particularly used in partnership with adjunct products like newsletters. I’ve written before about the value of other subscription products as additive value to the total package, with Crosswords and Cooking both adding significantly to The Times’ total subscriber base.

The same is also true of other titles. Publications like The Guardian use non-news products to introduce people who might not pay to support news alone to the subscription mentality:

“There were notable increases in the number of people subscribing to the premium version of The Guardian’s mobile phone and tablet app, plus people subscribing to the Daily edition and the new Guardian Puzzles app. About half of the regular contributors are from outside the UK, aided by growing numbers of readers in Australia, the US and across Europe.”

One thing that all these products have in common? They skew younger than traditional news and information. Younger people are more habituated to pay and could provide greater lifetime value than older audiences. Small wonder, then, that media outlets are trying to appeal to as many of those people as possible. Between new products and new territories, newspapers are looking ahead to mitigate any potential slowdown of subscription revenue growth.

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