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The Google News Initiative (GNI) created a roadmap to growing digital reader revenue, distilled from its worldwide sustainability projects. As of June 2020, this has involved more than 6,250 partners across 118 countries, totalling a $189m investment.

Speaking at the INMA Subscription Summit this week, Ben Monnie, director, global partnerships at the GNI, listed seven steps to creating a successful subscription model.

Size up your market opportunity

The question to start with is: are there enough people willing to pay for this to support your digital subscription business? When looking into this, remember that any change may affect print versions and other revenue streams.

Use metrics to put a number on the revenue opportunity: total monthly active users (how many people use your website regularly), monthly active user growth rate, average revenue per user, conversion rate (how many people become paying subscribers) and churn rate (how many cancel their subscription during a certain period).

For this, you can use the Google Opportunity Sizing tool which works a bit like a mortgage calculator: once you input your data you get a rough forecast on potential revenue and subscribers.

Develop reader- and product-centric culture

Use surveys, focus groups and one-to-one interviews to learn more about your audiences' wants and needs.

Ultimately, you must create products people will actually be willing to pay for. If nobody wants to buy them, you are wasting your time. Try to find out what your audience values, their core behaviours, and what they engage with.

For companies with Google Analytics accounts, the News Consumer Insights allows you to understand traffic to your own site better. It shows where they are coming from, how long they interact with your website, page views and so on. It categorises visitors into casual readers, loyal readers and brand lovers.

"The great opportunities here are tying customer surveys to these segments, or you can potentially tie in your Google Analytic data to determine willingness to pay, their interest in content, their response to offers, and other such things you’ve introduced," explains Monnie.

He added that your loyal readers will be crucial for your success, so work out what percentage of those subscription conversions will be enough to prop up the new business.

Deliver on reader demands

Now that you understand the wants and needs of your audience, match those to your news product. Think of what value you can add (value added benefits), marketing strategies and user experience.

Use the worksheet below (found in the full playbook) to go through a few questions and tailor your strategies to the responses that emerged from your audience.

"This tool just challenges you to be very structured. This is useful for developing a set of experiments, recommendations and plans that can allow you to hopefully maximise the revenue opportunity."

Alternatively, you can also use this template inspired by the Membership Puzzle Project (you need to fill in the blanks):

Our [products/services] helps [user segment] who want [job to be done] by [verb e.g reducing, avoiding] [a user pain] and by [verb. e.g. increasing, enabling] [a user gain]

Use editorial mission to drive membership

According to Monnie, the New York Times was fixated on numbers when the paywall was first implemented; free articles, paywall hits, price point. It is easy to lose sight of what reader revenue actually supports and as we have seen throughout covid-19, messaging around memberships is key to growth.

One example from a news publisher GNI has worked with comes from El Litoral in Argentina: "We build El Litoral together. We are a benchmark for quality and truth, a diversity of voices, and credible, accessible information. Be part of the millions who trust our content," the publisher states.

BuzzFeed News is also skilled in messaging around specific news events. At the moment, the paywall message says: "Help Us Find The Truth. Become a BuzzFeed News member and fund our FOIA fight." This relates to its investigation on the Trump administration and takes you to the full sign up form with more information.

"Something the industry has broadly realised is that there is an emotional attachment to subscriptions that ties deeply to the unique and differentiated approach of journalism, which is holding power to account," says Monnie.

He added that these kinds of messages appeal directly to loyal readers, emphasising that their support will fund value-driven journalism.

Make the user experience swift

User experience matters and directly contributes to a willingness to pay for news.

You want to do all you can to make payments frictionless, improve engagement with readers across the web, and have a fluid communication channel with the reader. That often means improving load times.

Pages bogged down by ads are a long-standing issue on local news websites especially. But website layout and assets also play a part. The point is, users will not pay for a bad experience.

You can use PageSpeed Insights from Google to test the vital signs of your website. It will give you an indication of how the page is performing and offer technical diagnostics and recommendations.

"Culture eats strategy for breakfast"

The strength of a subscription strategy depends hugely on those executing it, said Monnie. This means having shared goals across the organisation, observed both bottom-up and top-down.

You can set a reader revenue goal with the 'North Star method' and use the work you have done earlier to identify how much is needed to become sustainable and grow over time.

Split that goal up into specific target metrics, then start making decisions: identify if experiments are necessary, list required investments and assess technology needs.

Google provides a Goal Setting tool to help you with this part.

Benchmark, test and optimise

Digital subscriptions will produce a mountain of data, so much so it can be hard to make sense of it all.

As you roll out your subscription gameplan, you need to select metrics that are relevant to your growth. This will show you what is working and what is not.

A useful tool to help is The User Funnel Diagnostics which can isolate the important data on engagement, conversion and retention metrics. It weighs that against industry benchmarks (provided by FTI Consulting, FT Strategies, Mather Economics, and News Revenue Hub). At a glance, it shows where you need to make tweaks as you go using the green, orange and red light system.

"That should also help to inspire experiments that you can run, with the goal being 'can you run an experiment on one of these metrics or on value proposition or price?'" says Monnie.

"[If you do this] once a week, it's certainly something which is a good zone. Many organisations like NYT or The Wall Street Journal are able to do multiple experiments at any given time. For smaller organisations, once a month, doing it well is something I would suggest they start with."

The full reader revenue playbook contains more templates, case examples and practical steps.

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