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8 Ways to Sell Online News Subscriptions

Readers have been clamoring for quality journalism for years. What’s different now is that they’re finally willing to pay for it. The percentage of Americans paying for online news has surged from 9% to 16% in just the past year, according to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report. Donations to news organizations have tripled in that same time, as well. Surveys show that people who read news are educated and affluent, making them more than able to absorb the cost of online news subscriptions.

Thanks to a decline in online advertising rates and an increase in the number of ad blockers—which more than 86 million Americans used last year—traditional advertising is giving way to a new monetization strategy: online news subscriptions.

Virtually every major U.S. newspaper is now selling digital subscriptions, and smaller hyperlocal publishers are increasingly jumping on board, too. Even behemoths like Google are taking a stab at the strategy. The company is charging $9.99 per month for YouTube Red, a subscription service that removes ads from videos and gives viewers exclusive access to original shows.

If you’re thinking about adopting this monetization strategy for your own publication, here’s what you should know.

1. Use analytics to gauge reader interest.

Using analytics, you can find out what types of content your readers are interested in seeing—and which content they’re skipping over altogether. With the right tools, you should even be able to filter those results based on which readers are already subscribers and which readers are just clicking onto your site for the first time. Once you have a better idea of the topics that readers in each of these groups is most interested in, you’ll be better positioned to start commissioning the types of content that will fuel subscription rates.

2. Learn what separates subscribers from non-subscribers.

Develop segments within your analytics platform to differentiate visitors who’ve subscribed to your website from those who have not, and then parse the data to uncover non-subscribers with “similar traits” to those who’ve subscribed. Those are the people most likely to subscribe in the future, and those are the people you should be targeting with personalized and relevant subscription promotions via email or pop-up ad.

3. Leverage archived content.

Take advantage of the trove of content your publication has already published when selling online news subscriptions. Restricting access to archives and making that content available only to paying subscribers is a deft strategy for increasing sales of online news subscriptions.

4. Set a realistic price.

Smaller hyperlocal publishers usually cannot justify the same monthly costs as larger publishers, like the Washington Post or the New York Times. Take a close look at what competitors in your market are charging for subscriptions and then adjust your pricing based on how your own offerings stack up. One way to justify a higher price tag in a smaller market is by increasing the benefits. For example, giving subscribers access not just to current articles and archives, but also exclusive videos and podcasts that non-paying site visitors cannot access.

5. Give readers a big return on investment.

What are readers getting in exchange for their subscriptions? If it’s just full access to articles or information that non-paying readers can find elsewhere on the web for free, then it might not be enough. Some ideas for what publishers can offer:
• Full access to website archives
• Early previews to free content, like podcasts and videos
• Access to exclusive articles and other digital content
• VIP local events for readers
• Free downloads of high-resolution images and videos
• Ad-free access to articles
• Swag bags with tchotchkes like keychains and t-shirts from local businesses

6. Provide à la carte options.

Most subscribers are loyalists, but à la carte products give publishers a way to generate revenue from one-time visitors, as well. In addition to traditional monthly subscriptions, give readers a way to pay for one-day website access or the ability to purchase articles on an individual basis. Make it a goal to convert these customers into monthly subscribers in the future through personalized promotions.

7. Choose the right platform.

Budget and feature specifications play a large role in determining which subscription sales platforms will work best for a given publisher. Some popular options include Chargebee, Zuora, Stripe, Chargify, and Recurly. Publishers who’ve built their sites on WordPress can also take advantage of WooCommerce’s free WordPress plugin to sell digital and physical goods, along with monthly subscriptions.

8. Keep advertising as a secondary source of revenue.

Major publishers like the New York Times have explored ad-free digital subscription models, but that doesn’t mean those companies are shunning ad dollars altogether. Advertising is still a vital revenue source, particularly for smaller publishers who might consider serving ads alongside the articles seen by non-paying readers or within email newsletters.