Making paywalls work: 4 Effective Subscriber acquisition strategies

By NativeAI / December 3, 2018

Subscriber acquisition is one of the biggest challenges facing digital publishers today.

Several digital publishers have chosen direct revenue from readers as their preferred monetization model. In this light, the traditional acquisition approaches — paid advertising, marketing to site visitors, etc. — simply aren't working well enough: It's clear that fresh tactics are needed to generate the desired volume of new subscriptions.

But, what are these new tactics? How can outlets attract and engage potential subscribers in innovative ways?

For inspiration, here are four strategies savvy publishers are utilizing to effectively acquire new subscribers:

1. Maximize Marketing efforts during major news events

It's common practice for publishers to drop their paywalls during major news events in order to provide accessible coverage and showcase the quality of their journalism. However, organizations often fail to convert the surge of visitors into revenue.

This is a big missed opportunity. If approached correctly, the easing of a paywall can lead to a significant increase in new subscriptions. Monitoring for spikes on real-time dashboards and tracking user behavior patterns using Paywall Analytics solutions can help you identify trends & capitalize on opportunities.

Case in point: The Financial Times increased its digital subscription sales by 600% when it lowered its paywall in the days around the UK's 2016 Brexit vote.

How did the paper generate so many subscriptions? By maximizing marketing efforts and coordinating across teams while the paywall was down.

As the FT's chief commercial officer told Digiday: “We dialed up our marketing on a real-time basis. We were looking at buying patterns, opportunities in social, and spending our marketing budgets in pretty aggressive ways in an attempt to try and dominate a story. We then made sure that didn’t conflict with the efforts of our audience engagement team, so there was constant dialogue between audience engagement and editorial, and between marketing and acquisition."

2. Engage Non-Subscribers with targeted email newsletters

Many publishers currently have a powerful subscriber acquisition tool at their disposal that is not being utilized to its full potential: email.

Because signing up for a free email newsletter is a lower barrier to entry than committing to a paid subscription, audiences are much more likely to take this first step with publishers. And once an email address is captured, it's much easier to convert a non-paying reader into a paying one by consistently delivering valuable content and effective offers directly to the inbox.

The key is that potential subscribers cannot be treated the same as current subscribers: each must be served unique experiences that meet both their needs and the publisher's needs.

An example of an organization that does this well is The Wall Street Journal. The publisher segments between members and non-members and works hard to deliver the right experience to each audience.

As the WSJ's product lead put it to NiemanLab: "If we’re thinking about the newsletter that is for members only, what does the landing page look like? What’s the signup form? Does the whole experience feel premium? Does it feel like something special you get as a member? And for prospective subscribers, it’s not enough to give them a cheaper version. It’s more about how can we show you the content we have for you in the best way possible without making it less of an experience."

3. Demonstrate value through alternative media such as podcasts

Earlier this year the Chief Operating Officer of The New York Times, Meredith Kopit Levien, outlined the firm's subscriber strategy in a talk entitled "The Truth Is Worth Paying For."

Levien noted that delivering truth was the brand's unique value proposition, and that this could be demonstrated to potential subscribers not just through traditional coverage but also through "expertise, content, and utility well beyond news."

An an example of this is the NYT's Caliphate podcast, which told a gripping story about a former ISIS fighter and also highlighted the impressive reporting skills of the paper's Rukmini Callimachi. The series was effective both as an acquisition and retention tool: for non-subscribers it served as a reminder of the value of the organization's journalism while for subscribers getting early access to episodes was a nice perk.

For publishers, this approach shows that demonstrating content value can be done through a variety of means, not just via the usual channels. Through alternative media such as podcasts and live streams, organizations can engage new audiences and make the case to subscribe in new ways.

4. Develop subscription-focused social strategies and content

Publishers are well aware of the reach of social media, but many still struggle to effectively use these platforms to generate subscriptions.

Part of the problem is that organizations don't develop social approaches specifically targeted towards reaching potential subscribers. Rather, acquisition tends to fall into a broader audience development and engagement strategies.

To make the most of the power of social media as a generation tool, it's necessary to create strategies and content tailored for potential subscribers.

The Economist is a good example of what this looks like in action: the publication thinks long and hard about the right level of teaser content to put up on social for potential subscribers, what types of original pieces to create for various platforms, and which organic posts should get paid promotion in order to boost conversions.

As Digiday put it: "The Economist is very clear about what it wants out of [social] platforms: to reach non-subscribers and give them samples of Economist content to eventually turn into more subscribers. The 10-person social media team repurposes content for platforms. For instance, facts of the day work as standalone content posted to Facebook as well as teasing [a] more in-depth piece."

Ultimately, the approaches outlined above are best used in combination. By utilizing a range of tactics together — including optimizing marketing during real-time events, engaging through targeted newsletters, demonstrating value via alternative media, and developing focused social content — publishers can consistently reach the audiences most likely to convert and and significantly boost subscriptions.

Read more in our Analytics for Paywalls & Digital Subscriptions series:

Different Subscription Paywall models for Digital Publishers

Conversion Optimization tactics for Subscriptions

5 Ideas for subscriber retention & churn management

Takeaways from NativeAI at DMNA2018 on Digital Subscriptions 

Written by NativeAI / December 3, 2018