Credit: Photo by Ben Sweet on Unsplash

Reader revenue has been a big talking point this year. While the coronavirus pandemic caused ad revenue to plummet, audiences seemed more willing to take up news subscriptions and memberships to keep themselves informed.

Rather than just putting up a paywall and hoping that readers will get their credit cards out, a successful subscription strategy requires fine-tuning and personalisation.

At The European Media Subscriptions Town Hall hosted by INMA last week, two news organisations shared what strategies and metrics they are using to craft their subscription programmes.

Delivering on an editorial mission

Denník N is a young Slovakian news website; it turns six in January and has been profitable for the last two years, said online product manager Radoslav Augustín. During this period, it has amassed 60,000 subscribers, paying anywhere between €5 and €9 for its tiered subscription.

To continue to grow the subscription, Denník N had to better understand what was the main reason readers were paying. Because the news organisation is known for its reporting on societal topics and investigative journalism, it had a hunch this was because of its editorial mission.

"Our theory was that people wanted to support us, it wasn’t necessarily they wanted to visit us ten times a day," he said.

That hypothesis was confirmed by a reader survey showing that 70 per cent of subscribers pay to support the news organisation, so it had to ensure it was delivering on its mission.

The survey then zeroed in on which articles and topics best converted readers. Journalistic topics were mapped on a chart against their relative conversions. Red indicated to 'reduce coverage', blue meant 'no tweaks needed', and green highlighted topics to be prioritised and upped.

Denník N's editorial map of topics versus conversions, at INMA

"We saw that we had to write more about the healthcare system in Slovakia or fascinating international topics like North Korea, and of course, we saw we had to write more about scandals," he explains. The analytics dashboard shows editorial staff how many subscribers their articles have directly converted. The publisher is now working on tracking retention in this way.

Denník N had another headache this year. Many annual memberships were coming to an end in the spring coinciding with the harsh economic realities of covid-19. Realising its members may not be able to afford another subscription, it gave them the choice to take advantage of another discount (which they offered the previous year too as a Euro-election promotion). According to Augustín, between 5 and 30 per cent of people stuck with the original, full price.

Its mission now, as an organisation based in the capital, is to continue its growth by venturing, literally, into regional areas and appeal to audiences there. Denník N asked their readers where to move their editorial offices.

"We are always thinking about how to spread the concept of quality paid-for journalism all over the country. However, the other big towns have competing media. So we were thinking about smaller towns that are usually overlooked and neglected by larger media and they have interesting problems," he explains.

The editorial staff spent 10 days in Rožnava, where they went onto publishing 30 stories and thanks to an exclusive offer (getting a €76 annual subscription for a mere €1), it gained 700 subscribers. The publisher plans to continue the regional project post-pandemic.

Strategising around reader behaviour

The situation is, of course, very different for The Independent in the UK. The legacy newspaper was the first to go digital-only back in 2016, and only started its freemium subscription offering two years ago.

With 100m unique users per month, Jo Holdaway, chief data officer, said the news organisation has been successful at driving traffic and ad impressions, but the biggest challenge has been balancing the needs of an advertising model with the reader revenue strategy.

"The question was: is the number of ads on the site and the proportion of the free to paid content optimal for growing our engaged reader base and the number of users hitting our paywall?" she says.

Ads and reader revenue can co-exist, she explained, so long as there is no "one-size-fits-all approach". In other words, The Independent needed to identify who its readers were, what content will sufficiently engage them and how to increase the likelihood to subscribe.

With a business model hinging on converting readers of free articles to paying subscribers, keeping track of that engagement is vital. The Independent uses a specific metric for this: APV (active, premium, volume).

APV is a score between 0 and 100 and is based on three reader behaviours in a 30-day window: active days (number of active days on the site), premium (proportion of premium and non-premium reads or attempts to read) and volume (number of stories read).

This is tracked daily, though the team aims to move to a real-time score. It mainly uses Adobe Insights for tracking anonymous data and non-subscribers.

"It's a measurement of habit-forming behaviour and that is key to creating ongoing engagement for us," explains Holdaway.

A high APV score correlates with subscription conversions. It segments readers into three categories based on scores between 0-0.5 (fly-by readers), 0.5-9.9 (fans) and 10-100+ (superfans).

This metric showed that 10 per cent of readers account for 83 per cent of conversions. The strategy is to engage with fly-by readers and turn them into fans where the bulk of conversions happens. Turning them into super fans is much harder, but if that is achieved, the conversion is almost guaranteed.

The Independent's segmentation strategy at INMA

"Instead of pushing a subscription to a fly-by who haven’t been sufficiently nurtured and engaged with our content, we focus on getting them signed up to a newsletter instead," Holdaway explains.

Over time, newsletters increase exposure to premium content, drive up the APV score and, as a result, the propensity to subscribe. Once the AVP score increases, so does the engagement.

Moving forward, the publisher aims to make the process simpler. It plans to automate the data management platform that prompts email, ads, paid social and push notifications.

Like Denník N, it still needs to figure out the best metric for tracking retention, as the AVP tracks non-subscriber behaviour on the website but it is not of much use for tracking existing subscribers. Something closer to Financial Times' RFV score (recency, frequency, volume), Holdaway concluded would be a better model to follow.

Join us at our next digital journalism conference Newsrewired from 1 December 2020 for four days of industry expert panel discussions and workshops. Visit for event agenda and tickets.

Free daily newsletter

If you like our news and feature articles, you can sign up to receive our free daily (Mon-Fri) email newsletter (mobile friendly).