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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

How a one dollar offer drives The Boston Globe’s subscription success story

March 17, 2022 | By Meena Thiruvengadam – Independent Media Reporter @Meena_Thiru

It took The Boston Globe seven years to reach the first 100,000 subscribers. It only took a year to add the next 100,000. They’ve found that the key to accelerating growth is an introductory subscription offer so low, they’re practically giving the news away. 

Head to bostonglobe.com and non-subscribers are given the option to read all the content they want for a bargain $1 for the first six months. While the Globe’s generous offer comes with an expiration date, a surprising number of subscribers decide that it’s worth paying more to stick around. 

“We’re at the point where 90% of growth and revenue comes from subscriptions,” Tom Brown, vice president of consumer revenue for Boston Globe Media, said of the company’s digital operations. 

How The Globe got here 

With subscription growth slowing, The Boston Globe decided to try an experiment in 2018. The Globe, which has long believed its product was worth $1 a day, began charging that rate in 2015. It also decided it would try to accelerate subscriber growth with a bargain introductory offer. 

In the first few days after making the one dollar introductory offer, Brown said they got thousands of new subscriptions “which was far higher than the 150 or so subscriptions that came in on a normal day.”

Beyond that, though, a higher number of those one dollar introductory offers converted into full-rate subscriptions. The Globe’s 2018 experiment alone led to a tenfold increase in subscriber conversions. “You’re stepping more people to the full rate every week than you ever would have with another other strategy,” Brown said.

“We felt good right away that we had not mortgaged our future in any way to do this test.” In fact, more than 80% of subscribers kept their subscriptions in the first month after prices reset. That fell over time but remained above 60% by the time a subscriber hit their three-month anniversary. And more than 30% of people continue to subscribe to bostonglobe.com after two years. 

Attracting young audiences

There’s one almost surefire way to get a new customer to try a product — a discount so good it can’t be refused. That is especially true with younger audiences, which are accustomed to getting news from places like Instagram and TikTok. 

“New and younger audiences were willing to give us a shot because it’s almost like a free trial,” Brown said. However, while a free trial might seem an obvious choice, research has found that charging any amount increases the odds audiences will convert from trial to subscriber at the end of the introductory period. 

The paper also tried offering a four-week subscription for 99 cents but ultimately found the details of the offer didn’t make a meaningful difference in conversion rates. Audiences are required to enter a credit card to pay their $1 balance and are told their subscription will eventually renew at the weekly rate of $6.93.

Full funnel options

Brown notes that many younger subscribers didn’t grow up with a newspaper subscription so they were unaware of the breadth of the local paper’s offerings. “We’re a general interest news site that has so much and I’m not sure how much everyone knows all that we have,” he said.  

Most visitors to bostonglobe.com get at least one free article. This classic move is designed to keep the top of the customer acquisition funnel open and signaling to Google and other platforms that audiences are engaging with the site. 

Because an estimated 80% of Boston Globe readers don’t hit a paywall right away, readership – and ad views – don’t suffer because of a strategy aimed at driving long-term revenue growth, according to Brown.

Long-term customer value 

It is wise to invest in the lifetime value of a customer. While an offer like this may take cash out of your pocket today, it offers the promise of exponential returns if audiences are happy with their experience. 

“We’re making lots of decisions that we know may hurt or may not pay off this year, but will pay off over the long term,” Brown said. “The more subscribers you can acquire now, the better off you’ll be in the future.” 

Nowadays, Brown and his team focus on making revenue-maximizing decisions without getting hung up on the small sacrifices it might take to get there. “This strategy is the right one for us,” he said. “The pandemic crystallized that in the sense that we became even more relevant to our readers as advertising became extremely volatile.” Being reader-supported makes the brand less vulnerable to the whims of advertisers. 

And while the first few months after a price reset triggers some cancellations, those who stick around tend to be loyal customers. The volume of new subscribers can also make it easier to stomach the churn. “Our model is as tight as it’s ever been, and our audiences are larger,” Brown said. 

The pandemic is just the latest thing to show subscription revenue can be much more dependable than ad revenue, Brown said. “It’s certainly not recession proof, but news is very relevant to people in times of crisis.”

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