In the quest to make journalism pay in the digital age, there have been various attempts to create sustainable, future-proof business models for news.

There has notably been a rise of memberships and subscriptions models as a means to improve newsrooms' cash flow.

And so the attention at Digital Media Strategies (2 April 2019) turned to how two of the biggest news organisations in the UK, the Guardian and The Economist, have achieved financial breakthroughs with a similar set of audience-focused approaches, despite having different business models.

Neither is fool-proof. Memberships make financial forecasting difficult, at the benefit of allowing readers to come to the publisher on their own terms. Paywalls, on the other hand, offer more financial assurance, but at the risk of turning the reader off by presenting barriers to content.

That said, both methods seem to implore a sense of audience engagement stemming from an attachment to a news organisation's philosophy, distinctiveness or a set of values.

Speaking at the event, Anna Bateson, chief customer officer, the Guardian, said that in 2016, the organisation embarked on a three-year plan to turn their fortunes around amidst the decline of print and advertising revenue, combined with the emerging dominance of Facebook and Google.

Recognising the need to develop another revenue stream around their readership which would not impinge on their open-journalism philosophy, it launched a membership scheme based on urging the reader to support independent journalism.

"It came from this insight that readers have a special relationship with us, we just didn’t know what to do with it," explained Bateson.

"Part of our philosophy at the Guardian is that it should be open and freely available. It matters that our journalism is read as broadly as possible but it shouldn’t just be available to those who can afford it."

So the key question is how to convert trust and distinctiveness into money. Bateson noted how the unfolding events of the Panama papers investigations, the EU referendum and Donald Trump being elected to presidency provided crucial traffic and a sense of urgency for journalism.

"People began to understand the value of news over and above something which is commoditised and you could get for free. This created an incredibly powerful, changing environment, which allowed us to adapt accordingly."

It was only when the editorial and marketing efforts joined forces into one native membership pledge embedded into articles that the momentum started to follow. Since doing so, the Guardian has reported they are on track to break even having hit the 1m membership mark last year.

Taken together, engaging with their audiences and listening to their wants and needs has proved pivotal, be that stepping up editorial focus on investigations, increasing payment options for international audiences, or simply just saying thank you when milestones are hit.

Looking to The Economist, totally different for putting content behind paywalls, it is still guided nevertheless by audience engagement.

Marina Haydn, managing director and EVP, global circulation at The Economist, said that audience engagement is not just key for finding new readers and converting them into subscribers but also keeping hold of them. It all starts with capturing a certain type of reader.

"First it’s about investing in marketing to create a dialogue with readers both in the digital and real world. Second, it’s about having the right infrastructure in place to be doing an effective prospect capture mechanism through registration, newsletter and paywall," she added.

"But what it’s really about most is engagement as the core part of a retention strategy that is primarily aligned to our digital products."

Readers must first register to access five articles a month. After that, they have a choice of differently tiered subscription options, including daily digital news apps.

It seems to work. Subscription and reader revenue account for more than 60 per cent of The Economist group profits; in 2010, it was less than 50 per cent. Over the past five years, contributions have doubled too. Add to that a social presence which has climbed to 50m followers across all major platforms. What has clicked?

“It was a combination of growing revenue through price, investing heavily in reaching new readers and growing volume at the same time," Haydn said.

"It’s really about having dialogue as we go along, it’s about asking actual questions and posting content which is triggering emotional responses, leading people to discover content that they might not otherwise."

Part of that audience engagement also means listening out for what does not work and creating new experiences in response.

It is also thinking about where untapped audiences might be, by creating a presence on Snapchat and Instagram to reach younger users or street campaigns to reach people who would otherwise slip through the cracks.

Both strategies aim to create hype and redirect curious minds to the site in a bid that they will be hooked enough to try out an introductory offer. This has proved the most effective strategy at retaining subscribers.

"We want to clearly indicate that the product is a paid service, we give the reader a limited amount of time to enjoy our content access. During that time, we are really serving them with multiple touchpoints to ensure they do reach that limit quickly, and then to subscribe," she explained.

"Within that period, we have to go through those checkpoints. Have they activated those subscriptions in the first place? Have they installed the app? Are they logged in? Have they used content on our platform? Have they signed up for our newsletter? Do they follow us on social media? Have they been consuming any content off-platform?

"Once you have all those boxes ticked, you can be pretty confident that you are going to have a subscriber after the trial period."

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