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Premium Features

Offer More Premium Features in 2019

What sort of premium features would entice you to pay for an online publication?

It’s a question digital publishers are grappling with, and one that they must find an answer to in 2019 if they wish to survive—and thrive—in the competitive media landscape.

The business model for digital journalism is changing, with more and more publications adopting a paid model. According to the American Press Institute, 78% of newspapers with circulations of at least 50,000 have “some form of paid model,” the most common of which is a metered model. With the metered model, readers can access a certain number of articles for free (usually five or 10 per month), after which they must subscribe for full access.

Even publications that are not for-profit are trying out this model. A number of non-profit news publishers have started membership programs, where readers join for access to content. Funding from memberships makes up the bulk of these publishers’ budgets, as they do not have programmatic advertising or display advertising revenue to fall back on.

Non-profit and for-profit publishers must make sure their membership and subscription programs are on point if they expect to drive enough volume to succeed. Research has found that the most engaged 5% to 10% of a publisher’s audience will convert into paying subscribers. For these readers, being cut off from access after five or 10 articles each month is enough to spur action and drive conversions. For many others, however, there needs to be something more.

In 2019, we expect to see a greater number of digital publishers offering premium features as part of their membership and subscription programs.

What Types of Premium Features Do Readers Want?

The No. 1 thing engaged news consumers want is original content. That’s right. Readers don’t need all the bells and whistles, videos, or social media campaigns. They want premium, original reporting. This reporting should inform, educate, benefit, and entertain the readers of a publication. When those marks are all being hit, publishers can expect to see a high level of subscription or membership renewals.

Of course, all content is not created equal. While most digital news websites traffic in written content, there is a great demand among readers for video content, as well. Video on-demand is one of the most requested premium features among online news readers. Some publishers are beginning to meet this demand by launching their own branded video on-demand services or exclusive video channels that are available only to paid subscribers.

One publisher that has found particular success using premium features to encourage readers to become paying members is Slate. Slate Magazine’s Slate Plus membership costs $35 for the first year, and comes with premium features like ad-free versions of the publisher’s podcasts, extended versions of the publisher’s podcasts, access to a library of Slate Academies, early access and ticket discounts to Slate events, and access to a private Facebook group where fellow Slate fans can talk about the publication and the news of the day.

One thing you might notice is that most of Slate’s premium features are free for the publisher. For example, creating a private Facebook group for members of Slate Plus is free, and so is offering ad-free versions of the publisher’s existing podcasts. Bonus content, like extended interviews or behind-the-scenes clips from videos, provide extra value for readers without costing the publication much financially, as well.

This is a valuable lesson for publishers. Premium features don’t have to cost a fortune to be valuable to members. Most of Slate Plus’ premium features are designed to save members time or to enrich their lives in some way. For example, getting through podcasts without ads saves listeners time, and having access to a library of Slate Academies is enriching for readers.

Slate got some help determining which premium features to offer members of its Slate Plus program. The company surveyed its members to find out what they wanted and what sort of categories of content they would be most willing to support.

Publishers who take the time to survey their readers in this same way can be sure that the premium features they are offering are actually valuable, upping the chances of success with their new membership programs.

Have you thought about offering premium features to your site’s members? We’d love to hear more about which features and benefits are driving conversions for your publication.

Subscription Sign-Up Pages

How to Design the Best Subscription Sign-Up Pages

The New York Times reached a major milestone earlier this month, when the company announced it had hit 4.3 million paid subscribers. Generating that sort of enthusiasm for a digital news product doesn’t happen by accident. It’s the result of a highly crafted revenue generation strategy with subscription sign-up pages that drive reader conversions.

Subscription sign-up pages are one of the best tools that digital publishers have for encouraging readers to take the plunge and become paying subscribers. Subscription sign-up pages also provide publishers with an opportunity to influence the way readers perceive their publications and the value that they provide to the community at large.

With so much on the line, digital publishers can’t afford to mess up this up.

The Best Subscription Sign-Up Pages

The best subscription sign-up pages are designed with careful attention to language and the placement of links or buttons. They utilize clean layouts and user-friendly designs, which makes it easier for readers to learn about which subscription packages are available to purchase.

Nothing ruins a subscription sign-up page like a cumbersome registration and payment process. That’s why we recommend that publishers utilize seamless payment solutions that minimize the number of clicks it takes to sign-up for auto-payments or recurring billing.

For the best chance of converting casual readers into paying subscribers, we recommend that publishers utilize these best practices.

Best Practices When Designing Subscription Sign-Up Pages

1. Create a sense of urgency
The best subscription sign-up pages do more than just educate readers about which subscription packages are available. They actually convert readers into subscribers. How do they do that? One way is by creating a sense of urgency.

When designing subscription sign-up pages, we recommend utilizing calls-to-action that create a sense of urgency and make readers want to subscribe right away.

WSJ Subscription Sign-Up Pages

The Wall Street Journal offers a great example of what this looks like in the real world. The newspaper’s subscription page frequently includes special offers or limited-time discounts. For example, in early February, the publisher was promoting a Presidents’ Day Sale with subscriptions that started at $1 for two months. These sorts of limited-time deals create a sense of urgency that makes readers feel like they might be missing out on a deal if they don’t subscribe right away.

2. Highlight the best deals
The best subscription sign-up pages give readers more than one package to choose from. For example, The New York Times gives readers the option to choose from Basic subscriptions, All Access subscriptions, or All Access + Print subscriptions. Different readers have different needs, so it makes sense to offer multiple pricing options here.

New York Times Subscription Sign-Up Pages

What’s even more interesting, from a best practices perspective, is the way The New York Times lays out its subscription sign-up pages. The publisher uses a special header that says “Reader Favorite” to flag its most popular subscription package, the Basic Subscription.

Which specific package a publisher chooses to highlight as the best offer will vary depending on reader demographics and a number of other outside factors. It’s important to note that the best deal isn’t always the one that costs the least. Highlighting any offer, and including a brief description of why that offer is the most popular among subscribers, is a sure-fire way to succeed in increasing reader conversions.

3. Include a feature comparison
As a best practice, subscription sign-up pages should always been designed with clean layouts and clear calls-to-action. But whenever possible, they should also include comparison tables that make it easy for readers to understand the difference between similar subscription packages.

Washington Post Subscription Sign-Up Pages

The Washington Post does a great job of this on its subscription page. The title and price for each subscription package is clearly laid out, and readers can quickly see bullet points that highlight the best parts of each package. Below the comparison table are links to subscription packages that are less frequently selected by readers, like gift subscriptions, enterprise solutions, and the academic rate.

4. Use exit pop-ups
If you don’t already use exit pop-ups on your website, then you might not be familiar with what these are. Exit pop-ups are messages that “pop up” on the visitor’s screen before they navigate away from a website. So, when a visitor’s mouse scrolls over to the back tab on the browser screen, or when the visitor is about to close the tab, the exit pop-up appears on top of the original webpage with an offer enticing the visitor to stick around.

Washington Post Subscription Sign-Up Pages

The Washington Post is one of a number of newspaper publishers using exit pop-ups to improve conversions on its subscription sign-up pages. Visitors who are about to leave the website are presented with an offer to subscribe for just $1. The pop-up uses large, bold text and gets its message across in as few words as possible. The design is hard to miss, which is exactly what a publisher is going for in this scenario.

If you’d like to learn even more about how to optimize your subscription sign-up pages using the best practices for digital publishers, reach out to our team here at Web Publisher PRO.

Overcome a Drop in Subscribers

Publishing 101: How to Overcome a Drop in Subscribers

The number of people willing to pay for subscriptions to digital news publications has started to decline — here’s what publishers can do to overcome a drop in subscribers.

After years of stagnant subscription sales, it seemed as though news publishers had finally turned things around in 2017. Fresh off the U.S. presidential election, digital subscription rates were reaching all time highs.

A 2017 survey by Reuters Institute found that the number of people paying for online news jumped from 9% in 2016 to 16% in 2017. Those who paid said they were more interested in news reporting that lifestyle and entertainment content, and many publishers shifted their editorial efforts to capitalize on the shift in reader interests. By 2018, 44% of publishers listed digital subscriptions as their most important revenue stream.

Strong subscription programs have helped digital publishers decrease their reliance on digital advertising revenue. The change in strategy has largely been seen as a deft move—one that has bolstered the strength of newsrooms around the country—but new research indicates that there could be a hiccup in the plan.

A new survey, released by Reuters Institute, cautions that the number of consumers who are willing to pay for online subscriptions is small, and that “subscription barriers could end up annoying consumers further and giving people another reason to turn away from news.”

Even more worrisome for digital publishers, Reuters’ survey indicates usage of software or browser extensions to get around online paywalls is on the rise. For publishers who’ve decreased their reliance on digital advertising, a drop in subscribers could be trouble.

What’s the solution?

For starters, we’re recommending that digital publishers who’ve noticed a drop in subscribers consider changing up their subscription packages. They may want to consider introducing membership programs instead. Buzzfeed and The Daily Beast are just two examples of publishers who have launched online membership programs. Other digital outlets, including Fortune, HuffPost, and Yahoo Finance, are expected to come out with similar programs later this year.

Membership programs are different from subscriptions, in that they make readers feel like they have a greater stake in the game. Members are a part of the team, whereas subscribers are merely readers of a publication. Membership programs also tend to come with extra perks, like newsroom tours and reporter meet-and-greets. These serve as powerful incentives that encourage people to pay for the news they consume, but they don’t necessarily cost publishers a fortune to implement.

Another, perhaps less desirable option, is for publishers to return to digital advertising. Yes, display rates have dropped in recent years, but there are still plenty of opportunities for digital publishers who are interested in going this route. Native advertising and sponsored content give digital publishers a way to connect with business advertisers at a higher price point, without involving the programmatic networks.

Publishers who feel committed to their existing subscription programs can try discounts or limited-time offers as a way to overcome a drop in subscribers. That’s what The New York Times has done. The company ran an introductory offer that charged readers just $1-a-week for one-year. That offer produced strong results, in terms of bringing in new subscribers, but it’s too soon to tell whether readers who purchased subscriptions at discounted rates will continue past their initial trial periods and pay full price in the future.

Publishers can also expand their service areas to bring new readers in. This strategy works best for regional publishers and hyperlocal publishers. By expanding the geographic areas they cover, publishers are introducing themselves to new groups of readers who may be willing to pay for access to their websites.

Digital publishers also have to overcome the sense among consumers that online news is something they can get for free. That might mean creating stronger paywalls, or it might mean posting less content on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. What we know for sure is that exclusive, original reporting is always going to be a key element in a successful subscription program.

Readers cannot be expected to pay for content they can consume for free elsewhere on the web, but we’re still seeing plenty of indications that readers are willing to pay for access to premium content that’s relevant to their lives.

Has your publication noticed a drop in subscribers, and if so, which strategies have you implemented to reverse the trend?

turning readers into subscribers

Local Publishing 101: Turning Readers Into Subscribers

As more local publishers take a hard look at the broken online advertising system, subscription monetization strategies are on the rise. But turning readers into subscribers isn’t always as simple as publishers imagine.

The problem isn’t finding readers. More people are consuming their news online than ever before. According to venture capitalist Mary Meeker’s recent internet trends report, people now spend more than 5.5 hours a day with digital media. But with so much information available for free across the web, it isn’t always easy turning readers into subscribers.

The No. 1 reason why readers subscribe to digital news websites is because of a desire to access news about their local communities, followed by wanting coverage of a specific topic. More digital subscribers than print subscribers say they want to subscribe as a way to support local journalism. That altruistic edge will come into play later as we dig deeper into how top publishers are turning readers into subscribers.

For now, let’s look at which tactics seem to be working best.

Lesson 1: Add a paywall
Yes, there was a time around the year 2000 when paywalls were seen as a failure within the publishing community. The Atlantic, along with many other well-known publications, famously pulled its paywall down to focus on other monetization strategies. But paywalls today are different, and they’re now being setup in a way that makes them much more effective at turning readers into subscribers.

Today’s paywalls are porous. If a publisher has a hard paywall, nobody can see what’s behind it, and readers are more likely to turn around and leave. If a publisher has a porous paywall, readers can see the first few paragraphs of content — just enough to entice them to subscribe for more.

The number of readers who get their news online has grown exponentially in the past 18 years. If the number of loyal readers who are likely to subscribe hovers between 5% and 10%, then local publishers have to decide whether they have enough traffic volume to make a paywall work.

When they’re setup in the right way, paywalls should work as a conversion mechanism for turning readers into subscribers.

Lesson 2: Make it easy to convert
Let’s say readers hit a paywall. What does that paywall look like, and how can readers get around it? In order to increase conversions, publishers should turn their paywalls into promotional spaces for their subscription programs.

Make sure to include a clear link that readers can use to subscribe right away, along with a form where readers can enter their email addresses to continue receiving more information from the publication.

Some publishers change the content on their paywalls based on the number of times a reader has visited their website. For example, the advertised price of a monthly subscription might go down once a visitor has arrived at a paywall five times in a week. The goal here is to entice the reader with a promotional rate. It’s more cost effective to lower the price for a reader who is already on the website than it is to go out and find new readers who may or may not subscribe.

Lesson 3: Take advantage of email advertising
We know that paywalls should include space for readers to enter their email addresses. The next question is, what should publishers do with the email addresses they collect?

Publishers who are interested in turning readers into subscribers will want to email those visitors at regular intervals with promotions and discounts on their subscription packages.

Publishers should also send out email digests with links to their top stories. When readers click on those links, they’ll hit a paywall and be encouraged to subscribe in order to view the rest of the content.

Lesson 4: Get reporters involved
Increasing subscription rates should be a family affair. Top newsrooms, including The Seattle Times, are using advanced analytics tools to give reporters a closer look at how their stories are faring.

Journalists, editors, and publishers should all be watching the traffic coming in to specific stories, and the percentage of visitors who ultimately subscribe. This information can help reporters choose which topics they want to cover in the future. It can also be helpful in setting up and formatting stories in a way that’s enticing to readers. For example, a local publisher may discover that readers who visit the sports section are more likely to subscribe than readers who come for local news coverage. Similarly, readers may be more likely to subscribe after viewing videos or photo galleries than text stories. All of this data is useful when reporters, editors, and publishers work as a team.

If you’d like to learn more about the latest strategies for turning readers into subscribers, please reach out. We can show you which strategies are working best for local publishers in real-time and offer advice on how to improve conversion rates on your existing website.

increase subscription revenue

How to Increase Subscription Revenue – A Guide for Local Publishers

Subscription revenue is on the rise at online news outlets across the country, so why are local publishers still feeling the financial pinch?

Readers are flocking to online news outlets, and there’s been a renewed interest in supporting local journalism over the past few years, but publishers still need to optimize their subscription programs if they want to make up for declining online advertising rates.

Simply adding a “subscribe now” button to a homepage isn’t enough to make a financial impact. To increase their subscription revenue, publishers have to go further.

The Subscription-First Model

Subscription revenue at major news outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post is on the rise. The New York Times added 132,000 subscribers in just the first 18 days after the 2016 presidential election, and new subscriptions at the Post have grown by 75%. Local publishers are experiencing similar successes, but subscription rates and subscription revenue are two very different beasts.

The increases publishers are seeing in subscription revenue are being negated by decreases in advertising rates. To that end, some local publishers are going with a subscription-first model that does away with advertising altogether and focuses on increasing the appeal to readers with VIP experiences. These publishers are finding that readers are more apt to subscribe when they get access to an ad-free publication. That means no pop-ups covering their screens or filling up their browsers.

Local publishers who aren’t quite ready to do away with ads altogether are taking a hybrid approach, allowing paying subscribers to enjoy an ad-free experience while non-paying readers still see ads alongside most website content.

Understanding the Audience

Subscription revenue is tied to subscription rates, so how does a publication get more readers to subscribe? If only there was a magic solution. The truth is that the most successful local publications rely on analytics to understand what their readers want to see. Catering to the audience is always important, but especially so in a time when publishers are trying to increase subscription revenue.

Using analytics tools, publishers should segment their audiences by loyalty and the likelihood that they will pay for access. That’s the group that publishers should be catering to. In addition to tracking which pages these readers view, publishers should be keeping tabs on engagement.

Drilling down in this way, publishers may discover that the readers who are likely to pay for access care about different topics than the public at large. They may also discover that members of this group are more likely to click on coupons or arrive at their sites through social media.

In a series of studies looking at what moves readers to subscribe to news publications, the Media Insight Project found that quality and accuracy matter to almost every subscriber group, and regardless of their underlying motivations, many subscribers are triggered by well-times subscription discounts.

The Media Insight Project found that market size matters, too. New subscribers at smaller news outlets are more likely to subscribe after moving into town than those at larger outlets.

Other factors that drive readers to subscribe have to do with an interest in news, having noticed interesting articles, or being concerned about the accuracy of other news sources in their communities. Local publishers can focus on these factors as they look for ways to drive subscription revenue.

Closing the Deal

We know what types of subscription programs drive revenue for local publications, and what factors make readers to want to subscribe. So how do successful local publishers close the deal and turn readers’ interest in their websites into subscription revenue.

Conversion requires a trigger, and the most successful trigger in this case is a price reduction.

According to the Media Insight Project’s research, discounted subscription pricing is the most effective trigger, with 45% of recent news subscribers citing that as a reason for subscribing. Twenty-one percent of readers subscribe to local news sites as a way to get coupons from ads, and 16% say paywalls are a motivating factor. A recent move into the area, or a lifestyle change, can also lead readers to subscribe to a local news site.

Timing is everything here. When readers hit paywalls, they should see a quick way to subscribe for immediate access. When they click onto pages designed for new residents, they should see ads encouraging them to subscribe. And when readers have visited a website a certain number of times in a month, pop-ups should start appearing with discounted subscription prices. These are all conversion tactics that will increase subscription revenue, with minimal work on the publisher’s part.

Increasing subscription revenue isn’t a one step process, but simple tweaks can add up to major changes in subscription patterns.

turning readers into subscribers

The Price Is Right: How Local Publishers Set Subscription Prices

How much will people pay for local news? It’s a question that every local publisher has pondered. But with the number of publishers launching subscription and membership programs on the rise, the need for real information about how to set subscription prices has never been greater.

Where is the ceiling on local publishing subscription rates? How much will readers pay, and at what point will a high price tag turn them away?

The answer to these questions has to do with the perceived value of the subscription. The greater the perceived value of whatever the reader is paying for—whether it’s a subscription, a membership, or even just limited access to premium content—the higher the price tag the publisher can justify.

Increasing the perceived value of a local publication’s subscription program requires publishing more high quality, relevant articles, and launching add-on services like local business directories, podcasts, and email newsletters.

Perceived value is also tied to marketing. A local publication that successfully promotes itself through both traditional and non-traditional forms of marketing is going to have a higher perceived value than one that does not, even if the publication that promotes itself has a lower quality of journalism.

Publishers looking at how to set subscription prices should consider the perceived value their publications or websites are providing to readers. What are readers getting in exchange for their hard earned dollars? The higher the value, the higher the acceptable subscription rate.

“The Price of a Cup of Coffee”

If you’ve been around the local publishing industry for any length of time, you’ve seen subscription marketing materials that tout monthly rates that are lower than the price of a cup of coffee. The Guardian is one of many publications charging $5 per month for subscriptions, roughly the same price as a grande-sized latte at Starbucks.

When local publishers set subscription prices at $5 per month, they position themselves alongside cups of coffee. When rates go up to $10 per month, they position their subscription programs alongside Spotify and Netflix. The value proposition there is much harder to justify for small publishers, which is why $5 per month seems to be the sweet spot for many in the industry.

One way that local publishers do justify higher price points with their subscription and membership programs is by offering paying readers ad-free experiences and valuable extras, like exclusive stories and podcasts, invitations to meet up events with reporters, and early access to new website features.

Considering Reader Demographics

Reader demographics play in a role in the subscription prices that publishers can charge, as well. Publishers who are getting ready to set subscription prices have to look at who their readers are and how much they can afford.

Niche publications will often find that their readers will pay more than the readers of community-focused news sites. For example, Stratechery, a site that provides free weekly content and additional analysis to paying subscribers, charges $10 a month. That price would be on the high side for a website covering local news, but Stratechery focuses specifically on the technology and media business, with readers who tend to have high incomes.

Publishers that sell exclusive content, like research papers, can charge even more for access. This is especially true if they market their subscriptions to businesses rather than individuals. For example, Business Insider’s research division was charging $2,495 for all-access memberships back in 2016. Politico Pro offers up another example. The policy intelligence website, launched by the team at Politico, has been known to charge corporations between $5,000 and $10,000 for premium access.

Scale becomes a lot less important when you’re selling subscriptions for thousands of dollars a pop. But, of course, the vast majority of local publishers can’t expect to set subscription prices so high. According to an analysis conducted by Pew Research Center, the median price of a digital subscription to U.S. newspapers is $10 per month. Online-only outlets tend to charge less, while the largest newspapers in the country charge considerably more.

The median subscription rate for digital news is considerably lower than for print news. However, that rate is still 83% higher than it was in 2012, when the Reynolds Journalism Institute published its own report on the optimal price for online news subscriptions.

Market size didn’t play a role in Pew’s findings, however discounted trial subscriptions did result in higher conversion rates than free trial subscriptions, which is something for publishers to keep in mind as they design their marketing and conversion programs.

Given all of this information, it’s clear that local publishers looking to set subscription prices should keep these factors in mind:
1) Who is reading the publication?
2) How much can those readers afford?
3) What value are readers getting in exchange for their subscriptions?

Paywalls

When Should Local Publishers Use Paywalls?

Do they work, or not? It seems like everyone in the local news business has an opinion on using paywalls as a strategy to generate revenue. If you read news online, you’ve no doubt run into a paywall yourself.

Paywalls are a useful tool for encouraging people to subscribe by restricting access to content. Visitors who have not paid for access run into virtual walls when they try to read certain stories on publishers’ sites. The only way around these virtual walls, in many cases, is to become a paying subscriber.

Although paywalls have been in effect for more than 20 years, they really started picking up steam within the digital news industry after The New York Times instituted its paywall in 2011. In that incarnation of the paywall, non-subscribers were blocked from accessing content after reading 20 articles per month. (That number has since been reduced to 10.)

In the years since The Times launched its paywall, the tool has become more common, especially as hyperlocal news publishers began instituting their own subscription programs. The Times now generates more than 20% of its revenue from digital-only subscriptions, which is something that hyperlocal news publishers would love to replicate.

Who Needs Paywalls?

In an analysis by the Columbia Journalism Review, news sites with higher traffic were more likely to implement paywalls than younger sites with less traffic. The most popular paywall strategy, in that same analysis, involved using metered access for non-subscribers, with just one or two exceptions. (For example, visitors could still access articles when they clicked on a link from social media.)

Paywalls are most useful for publishers trying to build their subscription programs, but they can have their downsides, too. Placing content behind a paywall can drive down pageviews, which limits advertising revenue. Restricting too much content can also make it hard to build an online community, and some readers might be so turned off by the restrictions that they stop visiting a site altogether.

Which paywall strategies are most effective?

To overcome those obstacles, some publishers favor what’s known as “leaky paywalls.” Leaky, or porous, paywalls are something that visitors can get around. The Times’ strategy of giving away 10 free articles to readers each month is one example of the leaky paywall strategy. Other publishers have loosened the restrictions on certain types of articles—for example, bringing down the paywall on breaking news stories and during local emergencies.

Removing a paywall for certain readers or reader segments is a form of promotion, and when it’s done in the right way, the strategy can encourage repeat visits and boost subscription rates.

One strategy that’s flown under the radar among local publishers is the dynamic paywall strategy. Dynamic paywalls are flexible based on the individual or segment trying to access an article. For example, a publisher may restrict content that a non-subscribing reader has been highly-engaged with, even while that same content remains available to a first-time reader. Dynamic paywalls are most popular among digitally savvy publishers who are well versed in web analytics.

Another strategy that some publishers are using involves tracking the time readers spend on their sites, rather than the number of articles they consume. Introducing paywalls on a section-by-section basis—for example, limiting access to articles on a particular topic after a reader has spent a certain amount of time reading about that topic—can encourage readers to explore new areas of the website. In that case, the paywall is serving as a redirection tool more than a blockade.

Do paywalls actually work?

That’s the million-dollar question. Publishers tend to have the most success with paywall strategies when they cater to a young, highly-educated, high-income audience dominated by males who identify as Democrats. According to the American Press Institute, news readers in this group are twice as likely to subscribe to large metro news outlets as other subscribers. The further a publisher strays from that audience segment, the more challenging it’s going to be to successfully implement a paywall strategy.

Questions to Consider Before Adopting a Paywall Strategy

  1. What goal am I trying to achieve?
  2. Does my website have enough traffic to make a paywall strategy sustainable?
  3. Could a paywall stymie my publication’s efforts to generate community engagement?
  4. How will my paywall strategy encourage visitors to become paying subscribers?
Premium Content for Publishers

3 Rules for Generating Revenue with Premium Content

The notion that readers won’t pay for news is a myth. Local publishers around the country are finding that readers are willing to pay for access to premium content.

According to research by the Media Insight Project, an initiative by the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, 53% of adults already pay for news and 26% of those who use a source for free would be “at least somewhat likely” to pay for it if they were asked.

Local news websites that publish compelling, original content have a valuable product, and yet oftentimes that product is being given away to readers for free.

Coverage of a specific topic is the No. 1 reason why people start subscribing to news sources, according to the Media Insight Project. This is a particularly important point for hyperlocal publishers, because in many communities their websites are the only sources of truly local news. In these towns, readers are showing that they are willing to pay for access to content and information that’s unavailable anywhere else.

Publishers who have found the most success in using premium content to generate revenue are following these three basic rules.

Rule #1: The content must be incredible.
In order to justify the price tag, publishers should make sure their premium content is compelling, original, and valuable to readers. It isn’t enough to have information that readers can’t find elsewhere on the web—although that is important, too. Publishers must package their premium content in a way that makes it irresistible to readers. That means including infographics, images, and videos whenever possible.

Look at The Atlantic. The Atlantic isn’t the only publisher covering politics, business, culture, and technology, but the company has found a niche in publishing the type of thoughtful, long form journalism that readers can’t get anywhere else. The Atlantic’s digital-only subscription cost $24.50 per year, which is the same as its print-only subscription.

Rule #2: Premium content can be a commodity.
When most people think of premium content, they think of paywalls. That’s for good reason. The majority of publishers with premium content utilize a subscription model that requires readers to pay on a monthly or yearly basis for access to articles. But premium content isn’t just about dollars and cents. Or rather, it isn’t about that directly.

Publishers with membership models or subscription models can also trade premium content in exchange for valuable data about readers. The Economist is a great example of an outlet that does this. The Economist sells a digital-only subscription that costs $12 for 12 weeks, as an introductory price. But readers who haven’t become paying subscribers can still read three articles per week when they sign up to receive free daily newsletters.

It might look like The Economist is giving away content for free, but in exchange, the publisher is getting into its readers’ inboxes each day. Within those emails, publishers can target readers with paid ads and additional solicitations to sign up for paid subscriptions.

Rule #3: It can pay to give away something for free.
Readers need to know what they’re missing. Hiding all of the best content behind a paywall will make a publication stagnant, which is why most hyperlocal publishers using premium content models are inclined to give some content away for free.

The sweet spot here is pinpointing the exact number of articles or amount of content that it takes to persuade a reader to pay for more. Many digital publishers let readers access a certain numbers of articles for free each month before putting up a paywall. The New York Times, for example, lets readers access 10 free articles per month. Many hyperlocal publishers have dropped that number to three.

The Ken is an independent site that publishes one original article from India every weekday. The Ken gives away four stories per month. For anything beyond that, readers must sign up for paid subscriptions. It’s made clear on The Ken’s website that articles “are not free,” and that the site’s staff puts a lot of effort and resources into its content.

Some publishers don’t feel like giving away a pre-determined number of articles to readers each month is a good value proposition. Instead, these publishers have decided to manually determine which content is “premium” and which content should be accessible to all readers for free. This is the strategy behind local publishers who allow complete access to news and sports articles, while still placing features and opinion stories behind a paywall.

The upside to this strategy is that it’s usually harder for readers to game the system when certain articles are available for free and others are available only paying subscribers. The downside to this strategy is that a site’s best content—the very content that’s most likely to inspire readers to sign up for more—is usually locked away behind a paywall. That’s not a great practice from a reader acquisition standpoint.

If you’re interested in learning more about the latest premium content strategies, feel free to reach out to us for more information.

Membership Programs for Publishers

How 5 Publishers Use Membership Programs to Maximize Revenue

Membership programs have become a source of sustenance for independent local publishers struggling to make up for decreasing ad revenue. While there’s no firm count on exactly how many local publishers are selling memberships to readers, the number is clearly growing. Forward-thinking publishers are finding new ways to maximize revenue through their membership programs, as they adjust the pricing and benefits to suit unique reader demographics.

If you’ve been following along, you’ve already learned what membership programs are and how the membership model works for local publishers. Now lets look at some real world examples of how digital news organizations are structuring their membership programs.

1. The Ferret
Over in Scotland, The Ferret relies on news tips from its members to support its editorial efforts. The investigative journalism platform—which is technically a co-op, with both journalists and readers on its board—is completely ad free. Instead of generating revenue through advertising, The Ferret uses a membership model with five pricing levels, ranging from £3 per month to £500 for a lifetime membership. The Ferret also offers a free community membership, which allows readers to take part in online forum discussions, while still limiting the number of premium stories they can read each month. The Ferret’s reporters discuss story ideas with members before starting new investigative work. The site’s director, Peter Geoghegan, credits that transparency among members with promoting social sharing on sites like Facebook and Twitter, since members are more inclined to share links to articles when they feel like they’ve made a contribution to the website.

2. azcentral
Part of the USA Today Network, azcentral is a local news source for Arizona. The company’s “Insider” membership program is designed to promote its subscription sales, as memberships are only available to people who’ve subscribed to either the print or digital editions. As with many similar membership programs, azcentral’s membership program gives subscribers the feeling of being on the “inside” of the newsroom. Members can get premium access to special events, local discounts, and other perks, like the ability to read certain stories and participate in games that non-members cannot. Members also get first dibs on purchasing tickets to local shows and events.

3. Berkeleyside
Berkeley’s independent news website is entirely reader-supported. Unlike many of its industry peers, Berkeleyside doesn’t charge readers for access to stories. Instead, the site suggests a number of ways that readers can help out, including sending in tips and sharing articles on social media. Certainly one of the most effective ways Berkeleyside has been able to generate revenue is through a paid membership program. Members have the option to contribute once a month, and in exchange they receive tickets to an annual members-only party, a free t-shirt, discounted tickets to local events, and advance notice of all other special events.

4. Charlotte Agenda
Positioning itself as the user’s guide to Charlotte, the Charlotte Agenda publishes five to 10 stories on its website each day and sends a popular email newsletter each morning. The Agenda’s membership program was developed as a way to build deeper relationships with the site’s most loyal readers. A list of members is posted publicly on The Agenda’s website. Members get early access to events, invites to member meet ups, discounts at local businesses, an exclusive “insider” newsletter, and free swag when they pay in advance. Members are also asked to weigh in on hot local topics, and The Agenda publishes those thoughts on a regular basis as op-eds on its website.

5. Honolulu Civil Beat
Launched in 2010, the Honolulu Civil Beat is a tax-exempt news organization. That means that donations to the Civil Beat’s membership program are tax deductible. Memberships start at $5 per month. For that price, members get access to a monthly members-only newsletter and invitations to coffee meet ups with the Civil Beat’s staff. The Civil Beat has developed a tiered pricing structure, where members who pay more receive more benefits. For example, members who pay $120 per year get advance notice and reserved seating at monthly Civil Beat events, and members who pay $1,000 or more a year get invitations to VIP donor experiences.

To find even more publishers utilizing a membership model, check out this database from The Membership Puzzle Project, a public research project focusing on the future of sustainable journalism.

Hyperlocal Publishers

The A-to-Z Guide to Membership Programs

As they look at declining ad rates, independent publishers are searching for new paths to financial sustainability. While there is no single solution that works for everyone, membership programs are growing in popularity among online news publishers.

Premium memberships aren’t the same thing as subscriptions or paywalls. Paywalls block access to content for visitors who haven’t paid to subscribe to a website. There was a time when people questioned whether paywalls could actually save journalism. The answer, however, appears to be no, as more local publishers have transitioned away from traditional paywalls in favor of the more enticing membership model.

Restricting access to content lowers page views and drives down advertising revenue. Paid memberships generate incremental revenue without limiting reach, but that doesn’t mean they’re giving away everything for free. The most successful membership programs emphasize value added extras for readers who are willing to pay a monthly or yearly fee.

Independent publisher memberships provide readers with extra benefits, sort of like a VIP room for loyal readers. The extra benefits publishers offer to their members might include things like premium video content, discounts at participating businesses, in-person access to reporters at meet-ups, or branded swag.

In order to develop membership programs that readers will actually want to join, publishers need to really get know their readers. What do readers want? What do they need? What types of rewards will motivate them to consider paying for a membership? Some publishers are conducting focus groups to find out this information, while others are having success posting queries to readers on their social media channels.

Here are more details about how publishers are structuring their membership programs.

Offering discounts for loyalty.

A publication’s longtime readers will usually become its first paying subscribers. Reward them for that loyalty. When The Atlantic launched its paid membership program, the Masthead, last September, the company offered a discounted bundle to early adopters that included both print and digital subscriptions to The Atlantic, in addition to exclusive content, discounts to events, and access to private social media pages.

Integrate calls-to-action to subscribe.

Calls-to-action encouraging readers to sign up to become members should be integrated throughout a publisher’s website. It’s not enough to promote the program with a banner ad or within a website footer. According to Mary Walter-Brown, CEO of News Revenue Hub, a nonprofit that helps journalism organizations with member recruitment, publishers should take advantage of fundraising software and include numerous calls-to-action to subscribe. That means giving readers multiple opportunities to donate on the website homepage, within each article, and in any email newsletters.

Walter-Brown also says it’s also important to “personalize the ask” by letting readers know what the publication stands for and how the publication’s journalism is impacting the lives of locals.

Finding new ways to utilize audience data.

A paywall requires visitors to pay for access to content, but data walls put an emphasis on personal information that’s not necessarily tied to a fee. Publishers who are utilizing data walls as part of their membership models are asking site visitors to provide information about themselves—such as email addresses, phone numbers, or demographic information—in exchange for access to premium content. With the right marketing and advertising strategies in place, publishers generate revenue from this data, either by using the information to re-target visitors or by selling it to brands and other outside vendors.

Maxing out the membership rewards.

Most readers won’t pay for something they were previously getting for free, so the benefits that publishers offer as part of their memberships need to be enticing. A few examples of the creative rewards that publishers are offering:

  • Discounts on bundled subscription packages that combine digital and print editions
  • Exclusive access to podcasts and articles available only to members
  • Conference call access to reporters and editors
  • Discounts to local events or businesses
  • Members-only Facebook groups
  • Behinds-the-scenes access to the newsroom
  • Free e-book downloads

Emphasizing audience participation.

A membership model positions readers as partners in the organization. In the words of Jay Rosen, NYU professor and director of the Membership Puzzle Project, which is researching sustainable solutions for the journalism industry, that means publishers with membership programs are “reporting with, not for,” their audiences.

When they adopt membership programs, publishers open the door for readers to engage with reporters and editors in integrated ways. Reader participation should be requested, and then based on that feedback publishers can make the necessary adjustments or changes to their membership programs. Participation can also lead to news scoops, since readers typically have their boots on the ground in local communities in a way that reporters and editors do not.

If you’re interested in launching a membership program, we’d be happy to help. Please reach out for more information about the solutions we offer at Web Publisher PRO.