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10 Digital Publishing Strategies to Grow Subscription Revenue

Lessons from The Financial Times, The Economist, Rolling Stone and Other Leading Digital Publishers

With advertising revenue on a precipitous decline, media companies are looking to their subscribers to revitalize the topline.

As the media industry has moved online over the past two decades, the internet advertising model quickly became the mainstay for generating revenue. But year-over-year, the internet advertising market is shrinking; just over the last year we saw a drop from $125B in 2019 to $121B in 2020. And not only are advertisers spending less, consumers are figuring out how to avoid ads altogether: 80 million people will use ad blockers this year, costing advertising companies $10B in revenue. With the evolution of the online world, every media company is considering ways to make up for dwindling advertising revenues (which has only been exacerbated by the global pandemic) with recurring revenue strategies. Savvy media companies are returning to their roots: subscriptions. Because, while advertising numbers are unpredictable, the consumer appetite for digital content continues to grow. In 2020, digital newspaper circulation revenue grew 10% year-over-year, and in the United States 43% of consumers say they are willing to spend more on their current media subscriptions.

Subscription revenue brings more business stability, which in turn enables more investment in content and user experience.

Diversifying advertising revenue with subscription revenue isn’t as straightforward as you might think, but there are some proven strategies which publishers like The Telegraph, The Seattle Times, and Schibsted are successfully employing to successfully transition to — or optimize — a media digital subscription model to reap the rewards of recurring revenue.

1. Create Compelling Plans and Bundles to Grow Acquisition

By tailoring plans and bundles and measuring their success, digital publishers can determine the best ones to grow acquisition. The key is continuous iteration to find the plans that best meet your readers needs to communicate value. Star example: Rolling Stone offers a digital access monthly subscription for just $7.99 per month.

2. Offer Promotions and Trials to Convert Free to Paid Subscribers

Promotions and trial periods allow you to gain interest immediately and then fade discounts over time. Star example: The Times of London utilizes this strategy, offering a free trial component for both of their subscription plans. Take their “Digital” offer, which provides one month free trial and then 10 Euro per month thereafter.

3. Introduce New Titles To Diversify Revenue

In addition to subscriber acquisition, publishing companies look for ways to diversify and grow revenues. These companies have branched out from traditional content into other product lines, including events, memberships, and even household items. Star example: The Economist hosts over 80 events annually across 30 countries that bring in revenue from sponsorships and registrations

4. Provide Subscriber with Self-Service Options to Allow Them to Manage Their Subscriptions in the Way They Choose

Throughout the subscriber lifecycle, changes are not only inevitable but also highly desired. Giving subscribers the freedom to manage their subscription can reduce churn. Subscribers may want to upgrade, downgrade, renew, or cancel; many publishing companies allow their subscribers to do this through a self-service channel. Providing the ability for subscribers to suspend and resume subscriptions (instead of going straight to “cancel”) can also be a meaningful strategy for mitigating churn over time. Star example: The Telegraph allows subscribers to manage downgrades and cancellation within their online account. And The Guardian allows subscribers who need a break to pause their print subscription for up to five weeks or six issues depending on subscription type.

5. Offer Subscription Gifting To Expand Their Readership

Subscriptions are the gift that keeps on giving and they give news and publishers an opportunity to capture new readership. Star example: The Seattle Times has capitalized on this strategy and successfully built out their subscriber-based revenue model by offering various bundled packages and the ability to transfer ownership for gifting purposes.

6. Grow Subscriber Base with Corporate Memberships

Corporate memberships present the opportunity for a new revenue stream for news and publishers. For businesses, many publications offer plans to suit the needs of large teams. Star example: The Financial Times offers three B2B plans, including one for “Enterprise” that provides admin tools and single sign on.

7. Ensure Compliance and Expand Into International Payments

Payments and payment processing are critical to publishing companies serving a large number of subscribers, oftentimes globally, while also managing various payment methods. The most important component of this is offering your subscribers secure payment method capture, while also supporting seamless integration with payment gateway providers specific to each region. Star example: For their house of brands, Schibsted offers a diverse set of payment options to help reduce friction again geographies — one of many strategies that helped this global media company based in Norway to double their income from digital subscriptions in less than 2 years time.

8. Grace Periods for Nonpayment

To extend your payment period to prevent subscriber churn, publishing companies can offer grace periods for subscribers, allowing you to continue services for a specified amount of time. After the designated period is up, subscriptions will be canceled or suspended until a payment is made. Star example: Subscribers of the Raleigh News & Observer will have subscriptions be extended for a limited time (grace period) after the expiration date.

9. Prevent Revenue Leakage with Personalized Payment Retry

Being able to collect on credit card payments and recover missed payments can drastically reduce churn. Star example: By having automated collections processes, the Yellow Pages prevents revenue leakage from happening.

10. Make More Informed Customer Service and Marketing Decisions with Subscription Analytics

As you measure the success of your offers, subscriber behavior, and how your content is resonating with your audience, you also need to measure the performance of your subscription business. The ability to measure the health of your subscription business with key subscription metrics like Net Retention Rate, Monthly Recurring Revenue, Subscriber Churn, and more allows you to make more informed customer service and marketing decisions. Star example: Penske Media Corporation (PMC) uses their subscription management system to see customer data in real time, straight out of the box, including subscription term, billing period, credit card, churn reports, etc.

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