According to the last Reuters Digital News Report, fewer than one in ten pays for online news in the UK – the lowest of the markets surveyed.
It is difficult to get audiences to pay when there is so much free content available on the internet. Now, news outlets around the world are fighting an uphill battle to make online news a sellable product.
Three speakers at our latest Newsrewired conference spoke about how their companies are convincing readers to pay for their news. The bottom line is that people will fork out for something they see genuine value in, but to get them to try your product in the first place, you need to consider a variety of approaches - not all of which will work at the outset.
The Globe and Mail is heralded as one of Canada's most acclaimed national newspapers, reaching more than 6 million print and digital readers weekly. They won the 2020 Award for Technical Innovation in the Service of Digital Journalism for developing a machine learning product called Sophi.io.
Sonali Verma, senior product manager for analytics at The Globe and Mail, is part of the Sophi team underpinning its dynamic paygate. Simply put, it uses machine learning to know when to ask readers to pay for a subscription to the website depending on their news habits and preferences. The point is that two readers will get two different experiences.
For example, someone who reads a lot of business and investment news, which tends to convert a lot of readers, will get asked to pay every time. Someone else who mainly reads car reviews might never get asked to pay because they are unlikely to, and this content generates plenty of ad revenue anyway. Somewhere in between, a general news reader might get asked to pay after one article, but if that is not successful, Sophi learns to let them keep reading and ask for an email address later on.
"Each reader gets a different experience personalised to them and in real-time," says Verma. "If Sophi gets them wrong, it learns from that."
Sophi has increased metrics across the board, from registrations (130 per cent), loyalty (53 per cent), subscription conversion (51 per cent), and visitor engagement (22 per cent). That last one is surprising for the team, because it was not an initial goal. Because Sophi knows when to give up on those unlikely to pay, Verma reasons that this has created a better user experience, and in turn, returning readers and higher engagement.
Sophi can also identify readers who did not take up flash sales and regretted it after the fact. It looks at their reader habits and is able to reintroduce the offer, and can gain subscribers that way too.
Like any good AI-powered tool, humans can overrule Sophi on any decision. For example, Sophi will weigh up subscriber and advertising revenue on a given article, and put it behind a hard paygate if it has significant subscriber revenue potential. If that happens to be a big public interest story, editors can reverse the decision.
What do you think a "young readers group leader" does? That is the unusual job title of Petter Winther at Norwegian newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN), which specialises in business news. Put simply, Winther's job is to attract more younger readers through projects and data analysis.
After compiling findings from interviews and surveys from their audience, DN developed a stock market game called Fantasyfond with Norkon Computing Systems.
It launched in 2020 and is aimed at young audiences. The idea is to teach them about how the stock market operates.
"It's a game where you can try investing in the stock market and learn from it," says Winther. Players select shares from the Oslo Stock Exchange, and they compete against friends, experts and stranger to get the highest return on their investments.
After ten weeks, the person at the top of the leaderboard receives a prize of 100,000 Norwegian Krone (about £8,700) in the form of an investment into an index fund. Winther realised that he would need to bring in sponsors to make the whole project sustainable and pay for prizes. But that did not happen until the current third season, when investment company Kron saw the success of the game. They now sponsor that top prize.
Fantasyfond attracted 20,000 players in season one, doubling its target of 10,000 players. Season two then attracted 25,000 players. That is remarkable given that Norway only has a population of about 5 million.
What this means for DN is they are garnering valuable sales leads. The number of logged in users they have due to Fantasyfond overshadows the "coronabump" that they and many news publishers experienced last year.
"The boost from the coronavirus pandemic was nothing compared to the last three seasons of Fantasyfond," adds Winther. Registered DN users rose by an estimated 28,000 since Fantasyfond started.
That is valuable data ahead of a plannned webinar in the next few weeks on how to analyse stocks. That is a subscriber-exclusive webinar and Fantasyfond will be central to marketing it out.
The online business news website Quartz was co-founded by Zach Seward in 2012. It moved to a membership scheme in 2018 like The Globe and Mail, with both metered and hard paygates across the site.
Newsletters are a focal point of their member acquisition strategy: three quarters of its readers convert to paying members because of newsletters.
"Most of our members are converting from first-being free email, loyal readers – usually of the Daily Brief in the morning," says Seward.
"The preponderance of our new members start that way. Our job is to convince them to become paying members."
The Daily Brief is free, and lands in inboxes Monday through to Saturday. They have also spent lots of time trying to understand what readers will pay for, and more recently moved four newsletters behind its membership to entice more sign ups, including its "beloved" Weekend Brief.
"We want to make sure they are getting the best possible version of that in the inbox itself," says Seward. Creating habits, maximising the experience and pegging it to a wider subscription with more value seems to be the key here.
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