The decline of digital advertising revenue has had the news industry talking about job cuts and revenue losses for a long time now.
However, The Times and The Sunday Times announced recently that it had hit a landmark 300,000 digital-only subscribers for the last year. That number represents a 19 per cent growth, meaning an additional 50,000 readers who are willing to pay for access content behind a hard paywall.
At a monthly subscription of £26 a month for full access, managing director, The Times, Chris Duncan is the first to recognise how much this asks of the reader.
"You need to have a strong editorial appreciation of what content is going to drive subscription, and understand what is going to build a custom and premium customer experience in order to live up to the promise of what is by far in the UK market the most expensive general news subscription," he said.
But readers are not asked to pay £26 a month immediately. The 300,000 digital subscribers does include all paying members, including student subscription offers of £26 a year (50p a week), and introductory deals of £8 for 8 weeks (£1 a week).
Around 70 per cent of readers who take up the introductory offer continue their membership from trial to full-price. So what convinces readers to roll into a full price subscription which is six times the price?
The marketing efforts during this period are centred around keeping tabs on four factors in order of highest importance: frequency of use, number of articles read, interactions with the product and the last time the product is used.
"We model that engagement out, which has a direct correlation to retention rates, so we think ‘How do we drive each of these? Can we increase options to read, or signpost tomorrow's edition, or embed habit?'" he explained.
When the comment feature was introduced this year on the smartphone app, Duncan claimed that an article published on Saturday attracts thousands of comments by midnight on Friday, showing that people are not just reading the articles, but also engaging with the comment section.
The Times is also using artificial technology as a way to serve personalised news to its audiences, and that too has helped to minimise subscription cancellations (churn).
But giving readers the chance to 'try before you buy' should be considered standard practice today, Duncan explained.
"We are benchmarked in the marketplace against Netflix, Spotify, and Amazon Prime just as much as The Telegraph or The Guardian. There’s a default expectation with a premium digital product that there is a trial." he said.
He added that recruiting new customers is a long process, often starting with social media or sampled content. A trial subscription, he explains, is usually a signal that they are familiar enough with The Times and visited the website a few times before.
Recognising the need to loosen the paywall, the publisher introduced a 'registered-access programme' two years ago which has since seen five million users sign up for a weekly newsletter to access two free, hand-picked articles.
"You have to understand customers in the main who pay nothing for news, it's a big deal to add a paid news subscription so we like to ease them in," he said.
Duncan said that he is targeting "double digit" growth in terms of volume and revenue of subscriptions for the next year ahead. One way he might be able to achieve this is through the added exposure of licensing content to Facebook Watch, Apple News+ and Google News.
He is optimistic about this potential, but warned the terms of that deal would have to be combed through, as most of digital advertising revenue is taken up by "intermediaries".
"There has to be recognition that platforms are bearing none of the cost of production and none of the liability for content creation, publishers cannot afford to continue in that relationship without being able to monetise.
"I’ve got good relationships with all the platforms and they are now part of the news ecosystem, so it's just a case of growing revenue together," he concluded.
Want to learn how to grow your audience? Find out how at Newsrewired on 27 November at Reuters, London. Head to newsrewired.com for the full agenda and tickets
Free daily newsletter
- Whether readers or brands pay for your content, data is central to the strategy
- Subscription conversions: Balancing audience frustration and engagement
- What support do independent news services need to stay afloat?
- How should the media cover COP26 and climate change long-term?
- Subscription strategy lessons from The Atlantic, Bloomberg and Business Insider