How Today’s News Publishers Can Use Data, Best Practices, and Test-and-Learn Tactics To Build Better Pay-Meters

August 13, 2019

A Shorenstein Center and Lenfest Institute White Paper

By Nicco Mele, Matthew Skibinski, and Matthew Spector

Our research suggests a shift from advertising-based models to digital subscriptions enables news organizations to deliver more reader-relevant content, validate operational models that offer more stable business performance, and free up resources to plan for longer-term investments in content and news quality.

What you need to know from the report:

1. It’s time to get more sophisticated. It is the “end of the beginning” of the digital subscription era. Across the publications studied, news publishers, especially newspapers, have adopted basic digital subscription models this decade. This moment shows standards of performance and best practice are coalescing around structures for newsrooms and the operational teams that support them, suggesting
a longer-term prospect for stabilization of the news marketplace.

2. Industry benchmarks are critical to more sophisticated tactics (see the Shorenstein Center’s email benchmark tool). Among the organizations surveyed, digital publishers are well on their way to evolving a standard for success in subscriptions – shared metrics, many of which are reviewed in this paper, are vital to understand these standards. Measures of market penetration, audience engagement, meter or paywall stops, conversion rates, and retention rates can be used to paint a more comprehensive picture of the health of a publication’s digital subscription business, and can help to determine key areas of focus for a particular publisher’s organization.

3. Intelligent access rules enable publishers to fine-tune and improve their standing. There are no “hard and fast” rules for paywalls. Instead, “intelligent access” evaluates data continuously to create different access control rules for different behaviors. Among publishers studied, targeted intelligent access control rules allow a news organization to optimize its stop rate, or increase the percentage of all users who are stopped monthly by a payment ask. There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution.

4. You must have a sharp focus on your consumers if you hope to increase conversion rates. Once users encounter a payment message, publishers can serve targeted marketing messages based on the user’s history on the site, and offer simplified purchase processes to increase conversion. Across the news organizations studied, we found that subscribers who also receive a publisher’s email news product are 5-10 times more likely to subscribe. Those who follow the publisher’s brand on social media are 4-6 times more likely to subscribe.

5. Pricing variation, churn analysis, and engagement testing are key tools for publishers to keep subscribers engaged. Our research reinforced that by experimenting with price, understanding sources of churn, and targeting subscribers to improve their engagement, publishers can improve their retention rate.

6. Engagement matters, and publishers must continue to innovate to earn attention. Our research found a relatively strong association between subscriber engagement and retention. This suggests that, relative to a publisher’s geography, an engaged reader is a valuable reader. Across the publishers studied, news organizations that performed ahead of their peers tended to deliver distinctive, high-quality journalism – suggesting innovation in quality journalism itself, rather than merely producing a high volume of content, should be a long-term area of focus for publishers.

*To read underlying data, click here. 

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