The Facebook Local News Subscriptions Accelerator Program’s combination of committed local news publishers, expert coaches, and financial support made a tangible and ongoing impact on the sustainability of the participating publishers. 

A year after leaders from 14 metro newspapers first gathered in New York City to kick off the Subscriptions Accelerator, we’ve digested and analyzed the results of this program, the first of what has become a global effort dedicated to driving financial sustainability in local news. 

The results are extremely encouraging. 

They demonstrate that despite all the challenges facing the local news ecosystem, many of them detailed in a piece from The Wall Street Journal, growth and improvement are possible even within the Accelerator’s relatively short nine-month duration. 

Publishers focused on a wide range of projects, from growing their email lists to building better digital testing to upgrading their digital marketing. 

What did we learn in the last year?

Publishers drove meaningful change in their business. Projects funded through the Accelerator, which was administered by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, resulted in tens of thousands of new digital subscriptions and hundreds of thousands of new email newsletter subscribers. 

Using the Institute’s research on lifetime value of a digital subscriber, we calculate that publishers generated about $5 million in lifetime value from their growth in paid subscriptions and newsletters from their work in the Accelerator. (The Lenfest Institute also reported on best practices emerging from the Accelerator and also contributed research and analysis.)

We focused on those two metrics because they are at the very core of the digital sustainability challenge for local news organizations: can publishers build an ongoing relationship with readers and eventually convert them into paying subscribers? 

Because Accelerator publishers were willing to share their real business results over the last three years, we can offer some insight for other publishers pursuing digital subscription strategies. 

  • Leading publishers aren’t seeing subscription fatigue. The majority of publishers in the program saw larger digital subscriber gains during their year in the program than in the year prior even after strong showings the prior year. 
  • Set your sights high for email growth: Half of Accelerator publishers saw gains of more than 50,000 net new email subscribers during the Accelerator period — and several publishers saw gains of 100,000 or more.
  • Expect to convert five- to 10 percent of your email subscribers to paid: Most Accelerator publishers saw that range of free newsletter readers converting to paid subscribers.
  • Your future paid subscribers already know you: Materially improving that conversion rate of free to paid would unlock another upswing in publisher digital subscription growth. As such, building deep user loyalty through email and on-site communication is a key focus for publishers going forward.
  • Retention really matters: Getting new subscribers is important — but so is keeping the ones you already have. While results from the Retention Accelerator will be coming early next year, we can already see substantial differences in the growth trajectory of publishers with strong retention programs versus those without.

 

Lessons from Accelerator Publishers

Beyond those high-level takeaways, there are many lessons we can learn from the experience of individual publishers. 

Consider the case of Syracuse.com, an Advance Local news organization and participant in the Accelerator. The team grew its newsletter list by more than 275%, or 30,000 new readers, utilizing the coaching and financial support of the Accelerator as part of their larger strategy to grow their digital consumer revenue business in preparation for launching a metered pay model. 

The digital subscription business is now in place — and email is currently the second highest source of new subscription starts, behind meter stops (when readers meet their monthly article limit.)

Syrcause.com is continuing to enhance its digital subscription efforts, rolling out a number of email tactics as part of a company-wide playbook created during the Accelerator.

And what about new subscribers? Most of the participating teams had meaningful results in the number of new digital subscribers attributed directly to their Accelerator initiatives. Take the case of the San Francisco Chronicle, for example. Its “ultra sale” in the winter of 2018 was the team’s best digital subscription initiative to date, generating more than 5,000 digital subscribers. That initiative was funded in large part from the Accelerator grant and utilized many strategies discussed in program sessions — but it’s the quality of the work done by the Chronicle team (more of which you can see here) that truly made the difference. 

Which brings us to another big takeaway:

 

Publishers developed new capabilities that will keep paying dividends.

Across the first Accelerator cohort, we saw impressive gains in bringing data, strategy, and organizational process together to make a lasting change in a news organization’s digital subscription business. 

The Philadelphia Inquirer, for example, established a cross-functional agile team from marketing, circulation, and data/analytics, to more nimbly build and iterate on its digital subscription efforts. The team made changes throughout the process to ensure it was hitting deadlines and meeting goals. 

The Seattle Times built new organizational capacity as well, developing skills and strategies that will drive value for years. The Seattle team managed to dive deep on each of these areas: 

  • Understanding audience characteristics that indicate which readers are most likely to subscribe, including their platform preferences, key referral channels, etc. 
  • Scoring readers on propensity to subscribe and modifying their experience based on that score.
  • Improving and expanding A/B testing capabilities.
  • Experimenting with social media as a driver of subscription starts. 

To better test characteristics that will increase propensity to subscribe, the Times introduced three personalized subscription message configurations, including meter notifications, landing pages, and offers based on audience segments. They continuously A/B tested their experiments, which lead to quicker results.

The three personalized configurations improved conversion rates by 10% and increased email marketing as a start channel by 15%. Likewise, unique, registered non-subscribing users have grown by 75% through better-targeted newsletter signup modules.

Part of the Accelerator grant went to fund a deep analysis of pricing elasticity among seattletimes.com users. This effort is helping inform coverage plans, times of year, and consumption patterns that lend themselves to greater pricing elasticity now and in their future subscription growth strategic planning.  

Work like this lays the foundation on which to build long-term sustainability.

 

Accelerating takes time. 

A great digital subscription business isn’t built in nine months even with great coaching and financial support. System improvements and infrastructure investments take careful planning and extensive resources.

“We used the Accelerator to spark a very ambitious marketing automation project that is just now going live,” said Jim Bernard, senior vice president of digital for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. “Our efforts have paid off in infrastructure that is already making us more efficient and helping us close acquisition gaps we identified in the sessions. It’s been a major project and taken nine months, but we are expecting substantial returns on that investment.”

Major projects come with all the typical challenges associated with big initiatives. Some publishers had their progress slowed by technological integration. Some pivoted their strategies, finding a better course after initial testing. 

Testing and learning isn’t a skill publishers gained overnight, however. Several publishers worked hard to balance trying new initiatives while maintaining momentum on existing ones.

“We do foster a culture of experimentation,” said Curtis Huber, senior director of audience revenue at The Seattle Times. “However, at the end of the day, that has to be weighed against all of our priorities.  A learning for us was identifying quick, low-effort experiments that could provide a bit of data to work from to justify larger investments of time and resources.”

And excellence in one business area doesn’t guarantee results in another: While the Syracuse.com team saw enormous dividends in acquiring newsletter readers, it hasn’t been as successful as it hoped in converting them to paying subscribers. The team is focused on continuous improvement around conversion: product and content enhancements and testing more with sales channels. 

And what did we learn as conveners? We struggled with how to quantify the development of industry talent or the fact that teams now work together more seamlessly. In addition, we need to develop more rigorous ways to measure publisher business success from the Accelerator programs. We’ll work to put that structure in place going forward.

One thing that did work in this area: The Lenfest Institute and the Facebook Journalism Project co-authored regular reports on lessons and best practices that emerged from the Accelerator program, but we’ll continue to share more structured learnings. 

If we’re going to get to a sustainable future for local news, we’ve learned, it means we’re going to have to go together. 

 

About the Facebook Local News Accelerator

The first session for the Local News Accelerator was hosted in March 2018 in New York, where the group covered topics such as how to better approach email marketing and how publishers can optimize their own websites to drive subscriptions. Subsequent sessions in Austin and Menlo Park, California, highlighted areas such as leveraging the newsroom to drive subscriptions and how to perfect mobile checkout flows.

Beyond the workshops, each participating publisher worked with dedicated coaches Tim Griggs, Yasmin Namini, and Matt Skibinski, who helped them implement lessons they learned from the sessions and navigate any unforeseen challenges.

Each publication also received a $200,000 grant from Facebook, administered by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, to execute new strategies for acquiring digital subscribers. Each of the participating publications were at different stages of development — some were just introducing digital subscriptions, while others were considered industry leaders.

The Facebook Journalism Project: Local News Subscriptions Accelerator program is designed to help news publishers build their digital subscription businesses. Funded by The Facebook Journalism Project, the 3-month program includes hands-on workshops led by news industry veteran Tim Griggs, a grantmaking program organized by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, and regular reports on best practices authored by both The Lenfest Institute and the Facebook Journalism Project. The Subscriptions Accelerator is part of the broader Accelerator Program. Other iterations have focused on audience development and membership.

*Photo by Florian Plag