Is Exclusive Content the Key to Driving Subscriptions?
In an industry where advertising dollars are dominated by the duopoly of Google and Facebook, digital publishers are beginning to rely on subscriptions to diversify their revenue streams.1 In fact, after interviewing 133 publishing executives, Digiday found that for publishers, an average of 54 percent of revenue comes from retained subscriptions.
Recognizing the financial stability provided by a subscription base, many publishers are now focusing on the lifetime value of their audience, as opposed to the value of a single pageview.2
“It doesn’t cost a lot to reach 1 million more people,” said Sam Rosen, head of growth for The Atlantic, “But are those people going to be worth the effort of continuously trying to get them back over and over?”3
Digital publishers rely on several different methods to drive subscriptions, but one of the most popular tactics is to provide subscribers with access to exclusive content or special benefits.4 Surveys show that consumers are responding positively – 38 percent of subscribers to digital publications see exclusive content as the biggest benefit of their subscription.5
Accordingly, many digital publishers – of varying sizes and with varying types of readership – have chosen to offer exclusive benefits, hoping that special treatment will bolster subscribers.
“We want more and more people to feel like they’ve entered a whole new world once they’ve become a subscriber,” said Clay Fisher, senior vice president of consumer revenue for The New York Times.6
National, Wide-Reaching Publishers
To create this aura of a “new world,” The New York Times offers its subscribers inside access to its content, including conference calls with reporters and early access to podcasts like Caliphate, which details the Times’ ISIS reporting.7 A subscription also provides access to subscriber-only VIP events, one of which included a talk with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and other pop-up discussion events at venues such as the Newseum and the International Spy Museum.8
Subscription numbers show that this strategy may be working – in the first quarter of 2018, the publisher added 139,000 digital-only subscribers, a 25 percent increase over the same period in 2018.9
The Atlantic is another example of a digital publisher leveraging exclusive content to drive subscriptions and retain its loyal readers.
The publisher recently announced “The Masthead,” a special membership program priced at $120 annually. Benefits include a digital subscription to the magazine, a daily newsletter with exclusive content, weekly conference calls with senior Atlantic editorial staff and discounted tickets to Atlantic events.10 Members are also given a direct avenue to contact editors with questions and ideas.
After just one month, The Atlantic reported that membership was in “the thousands” and that the program would continue to adapt using membership feedback.11
National, Niche Publishers
Publishers have also discovered that leveraging exclusive content to target small, niche audiences can possibly be a profitable endeavor.
Politico, a politics publisher, offers a paid edition called Political Pro – premium content laser-focused on providing unique content for government workers, lobbyists and policy analysts. 12
A five-account Politico Pro subscription costs roughly $8,000 per year, up from $2,495 in 2010. Politico Pro drives nearly half of the publisher’s revenues despite only 20,000 of its 30 million unique monthly visitors subscribing.13
“There’s so much growth at the higher end that it makes more sense for us to target those customers,” said Bobby Moran, Politico’s VP and GM. “That’s not to say there isn’t a long tail. But we’re more focused on the narrow, niche audience.”14
A similar approach is used by E&E Publishing, a small company with only 75 journalists. It posts around 70 articles a day – all related to energy and environmental policy.15 None of the content is free, with subscription prices ranging from $2,000 to $150,000.16
Like Politico Pro, clients include law firms, lobbyists and staffers on Capitol Hill. “It’s not like we’re reaching five million people – that’s not our intent,” says Braun. “There are only so many people that really care about energy and environmental policy.”17
National publishers are not the only companies generating significant revenue through subscriptions, though.
Smaller publishers have found subscription success through quality coverage of local topics of interest. This content is not necessarily exclusive, but hard for readers to find elsewhere due to its local nature.
The Media Insight Project, sponsored by the American Press Institute, surveyed 4,100 recent subscribers to digital publishers, finding that 60 percent of these people saw access to local news as a precondition to subscribe, and 30 percent saw it as their main reason.18 The most frequently followed topics by these specific subscribers were local politics and collegiate or high school sports.
The Dallas Morning News, knowing that pageviews were particularly high for stories on high school sports, began sending a message to users on their first visit to a sports article. In less than a month, the paper collected more than 10,000 email addresses and began sending a high school sports newsletter called “The Fifth Down.”19
The newsletter has a 27 percent click-through rate and generated more subscriptions in a 3-month period than the remainder of the website combined.20
Indeed, it seems possible that exclusive content subscription models could be a driving force in digital publishing – for all publishers, regardless of reach.
1. Patel, Sahil. “’A Diverse Portfolio of Revenue Is Important’: Publishers Shore up Their Consumer Revenue Strategies.” Digiday, Digiday, 23 Mar. 2018
2. Willens, Max. “In the Search for Consumer Revenue, Publishers Start Tracking Lifetime Value.” Digiday, Digiday, 20 Mar. 2018.
4. Burstein, Daniel. “Exclusive Content Drives Digital Subscriptions.” Publishing Executive, 26 Apr. 2016.
5. “Paths to Subscription: Why Recent Subscribers Chose to Pay for News.” American Press Institute, NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, 27 Feb. 2018.
6. Moses, Lucia. “To Get to 10 Million Subscribers, The New York Times Is Focusing on Churn.” Digiday, Digiday, 26 Oct. 2017.
7. Lee, Meena, and Sarah Guinee. “The New York Times Has Signed up a Lot of Subscribers. Here’s How It Plans to Keep Them.” Nieman Lab, Nieman, 17 Apr. 2018.
8. Moses, Lucia. “To Get to 10 Million Subscribers, The New York Times Is Focusing on Churn.” Digiday, Digiday, 26 Oct. 2017.
9. Peiser, Jaclyn. “New York Times Co. Reports Revenue Growth as Digital Subscriptions Rise.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 3 May 2018.
10. Moses, Lucia. “One Month in, The Atlantic’s Membership Program Is in ‘the Thousands’.” Digiday, Digiday, 6 Oct. 2017.
12. Willens, Max. “Politico Now Has 20,000 Paid Subscribers That Account for Half of Its Revenue.” Digiday, Digiday, 14 July 2017.
15. O’Donovan, Caroline. “E&E Publishing Is Spending a Lot of Money on Reporting Most People Won’t Ever See.” Nieman Lab, Nieman, 25 Mar. 2014.
18. “Paths to Subscription: Why Recent Subscribers Chose to Pay for News.” American Press Institute, NORC Center for Public Affairs Research , 27 Feb. 2018.