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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

7 tips for your subscription bundling strategy

May 4, 2023 | By Damian Radcliffe, Carolyn S. Chambers Professor in Journalism – University of Oregon @damianradcliffe

In an increasingly crowded and competitive landscape, media companies are constantly seeking new strategies to increase revenue and customer loyalty. Bundling can play an integral part in achieving these goals. By combining multiple products or services into a compelling package, bundling can unlock new subscribers and revenue streams, as well as help reduce churn.

According to Meredith Kopit Levien, Chief Executive Officer of The New York Times Company, bundle subscribers pay more over time and are less likely to cancel. As a result, bundling can support strategies for customer acquisition and retention.  Subsequently, it’s currently an area of growing strategic focus for many media companies.

Here are seven features that can strengthen your bundling strategy:

1. Make it financially compelling

You may not realize it, but you’re probably already bundling. Many publishers offer products, such as combined print/digital subscriptions, at a discounted price. These are often attractive to audiences due to minimal price differentiation, and dual access can improve their experience of your product(s). 

For publishers, this also opens opportunities to sell advertising across both mediums. This can be especially valuable given the importance of print advertising, and the premium it can demand compared to digital. 

The Seattle Times demonstrates this principle by offering a Digital +Sunday Delivery subscription for the same price ($4.99 a month) as their digital-only package. Bundling in the Sunday print edition, complete with home delivery at no extra cost, is potentially very persuasive for readers.

Screenshot via The Seattle Times, 1st May 2023. 

2. Show consumers what they are missing

Alongside appealing pricing, a further tactic media companies can deploy involves highlighting the benefits each subscription tier – or bundle – offers you. 

Screenshot via The New York Times, 1st May 2023

In doing this, publishers typically point to subscriber-only content such as articles, newsletters, podcasts and events, or access to their archives. In many cases, this content is not available outside the requisite subscription bundle. And that’s a benefit that publishers are keen to emphasize. 

Interestingly, the New York Times also utilizes a different approach, by stressing what you don’t have access to. This is most explicit for those accessing their news-only package (see below). The FOMO here is potentially very real, making an upgrade to “All Access” seem like good value. 

It’s hard to say exactly what role this tactic plays in their continued subscriber growth. However, the company added one million new subscribers in 2022. Commenting on this, CEO Meredith Kopit Levien observes that “with each passing quarter, we saw more proof that there is strong demand for a bundle of our news and lifestyle products, hitting records on both total bundle volume and the share of new subscribers choosing the bundle.”

3. Prioritize building your stack 

The cost of living crisis means that many people have less money in their pockets. To offset this, households are looking carefully at their expenditure and cutting back where they can. CNBC reports that Americans are more likely to cut back on groceries and gas than subscriptions. But this headline overlooks how low down the subscription food chain non-streaming content is. 

Image via Twitter 1st May 2023. 

Given publishers’ emphasis on reader revenue and subscriptions, this belt-tightening brings with it a certain vulnerability. To offset this, it is incumbent on media players to ensure that their offering is one consumers feel they cannot afford to cancel. 

To help them do this, Greg Piechota, Researcher-in-Residence at INMA, suggests three ways media companies can add value to their bundle: build, buy or borrow. 

Using The New York Times as a case study, he charts how the Gray Lady built Games and Cooking; bought The Athletic in 2022 (it costs $7.99 a month to subscribe to independently) and borrowed products in the form of a 2017 link-up with Spotify whereby new All Access subscribers also got Spotify Premium for a year. Bundling in Spotify for free (mirroring a similar initiative by The Times of London in 2014) arguably made their core subscription offerings more attractive to younger audiences. That means it may attract a new demographic of paying subscribers.

4. Flaunt your assets 

Alongside the approaches outlined by Piechota, we should also add peacocking. Media companies with deep portfolios can prominently display this to potential suitors (i.e. subscribers) by creating bundles that tap into the sheer breadth of content at their disposal.

We have already seen this in the form of the Disney Bundle, which includes Disney+, Hulu, and ESPN+. These three content-rich services are considerably cheaper when purchased collectively. The “trio” bundle also comes with ad and ad-free versions too, another model that more publishers can emulate. (NB: ESPN+ comes with ads regardless of the package.)

In Europe, Scandinavian media giant Schibsted has also put this notion into practice. They launched “Full Tilgang” in Fall 2022, a bundle of their Norwegian titles including national, regional and finance news, alongside magazines and their podcast platform PodMe. 

For national subscribers, this regional and local content is a potentially useful value-add that they might not otherwise have consumed. It’s a model other companies might look to replicate.  twipe reports that Schibsted is rolling out a similar model in Sweden.

Screenshot via VG.no 1st May 2023. 

5. Partner for growth 

Of course, not every outlet has the deep pockets – or the smorgasbord of content – enjoyed by The New York Times, Disney or Schibsted. Nevertheless, many outlets can deepen their bundles via partnerships. 

These can come in a myriad of different forms. Digiday has outlined how partnerships with non-publisher brands – such as financial and educational institutions – are being employed by The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. Business Insider has also followed suit. In 2020 they offered holders of certain American Express cards a free 12-month subscription. 

Tie-ins with other business and tech providers can also be seen. Major League Baseball has a long-standing partnership with T-Mobile, providing free subscriptions to MLB.TV (worth $149.99 a year) to T-Mobile subscribers. And in 2014, The Sun, a British tabloid, struck a deal with the UK mobile operator O2 to offer 02’s 4G customers content from soccer’s Premier League that gives them a glimpse of The Sun’s content which, in turn, might encourage some users to become subscribers. 

It’s common for publishers to offer bundles with other titles in their stable. The Wall Street Journal offers a package featuring its Dow Jones stablemates Barron’s and MarketWatch. More interesting perhaps are partnerships with other content providers. 

Screenshot via WSJ 1st May 2023. 

In the past, I’ve seen smaller outlets – like my local NPR affiliate KLCC –offer a free subscription to larger publications (like NYT and WaPo) as part of their membership model. For smaller players, this association may bring some extra cachet, or provide an additional incentive to nudge people over the line by taking out a membership or donating. 

Even bigger players can successfully adopt this approach. The Weather Channel is a seldom talked about subscription behemoth, with over 1 million subscribers. It recently partnered with several organizations to offer bundles providing “companion subscriptions.” This trend may only become more prominent.

Screenshot via the Weather Channel 1st May 2023. 

Looking ahead – where bundling might go from here?

And what of that future? Given the need for media companies to attract new audiences, as well as retain subscribers and maximize income from them, bundling will remain integral to reader revenue strategies.  Here are two further ideas worth considering. 

1. Explore different pricing models

In 2019, the advent of dynamic paywalls prompted Piano CEO Trevor Kaufman to ask, “Has AI brought an end to the metered paywall?”. New York Media and Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ, Switzerland) are some of the outlets that have used this model, harnessing variables – such as your location, device type and browsing history – to determine when users hit the paywall. 

Taking this to the next level, The Atlantic recently started using this technology to shape the price of their bundles. Dynamic pricing can be used when signing people up and for retention. For the latter, prices for renewal are determined based on the probability of a subscriber’s subscription lapsing. 

“It is a concept worth exploring,” suggests Subscription Insider, although they stress the “biggest risk is how consumers will feel if or when they find out about it.” How will consumers feel if they get different prices to sign-up (or stay), each time they click on the site? 

Screenshot via The Atlantic 1st May 2023. 

2. Let consumers customize their bundle 

At present, audiences are at the mercy of bundles offered to them by publishers. But what if it were possible to build your own bundle?

Let’s say I just want the newsletters and audio provided by The Economist? Or I want to bundle The New York Times’ Cooking and Games subscriptions, getting them for less than two individual subscriptions? 

Similarly, if I have a $25 a year standalone subscription to Politics with Charles P. Pierce on Esquire, what If I could cherry-pick additional elements to bolt onto my politics subscription? 

Screenshot via Esquire 1st May 2023. 

I cannot do that at present, and this type of choose-your-own-adventure model might be technically tricky. However, personalization could enable me to subscribe to content by topic, writer, location, beat, or sports team that matters to me. 

Of course, it may risk cannibalizing the take-up of other more expensive bundles. However, it might also hold strong consumer appeal, especially those for whom existing packaged offers are not compelling enough.

Moving forward, bundling is here to stay, supporting subscription strategies by playing a role in consumer attraction and retention. 

Fundamental to this is making your bundle attractive and distinctive from your competitors. Subsequently, adding value to the bundle may well shape acquisition strategies, be that for talent (and the newsletters and podcasts they may front) as well as other properties. 

At the same time, consumers need to be attracted by price and value proposition, this includes access to content and services they may not currently consume, but might if it’s bundled in. 

The use of free trials, as well as partnerships with other media companies and brands, can be a way to get a customer’s foot in the door. Meanwhile, dynamic pricing and opportunities for personalization could become key tools to keep them there. 

By bundling multiple products or services together, publishers and media companies can offer greater value to customers and increase subscriptions. There’s no hard and fast way to do this, but these seven steps demonstrate how all publishers can potentially use bundling to drive revenues and improve customer loyalty.

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