Digital reader subscription models utilise data science for relevance. Meanwhile, reader appetite for quality content is growing
I am on record with my belief that print will never be dead. Printed media will evolve into a valuable new niche. It is also true that at the dawn of this new decade it is clear that traditional print publishing as we knew it will never return to the glory days of record-breaking advertising revenue and circulation.
While readers have traditionally desired the deeper, more engaged experience that print delivers, in this era of connected devices, could digital subscription models that use data intelligently be the saviour of reading?
The World Advertising Research Centre (WARC) Data Points research (published in January 2020), reveals that only 14% of publishers surveyed believe advertising will remain their main revenue stream in future. This finding compares to 35% of publishers surveyed about the same topic by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in 2018.
In 2019, the media content industry association FIPP’s Global Digital Subscription Snapshot also found that digital subscription is a key revenue focus, with publishers doubling down on paywall content and technology.
Traditional print advertising has lost its long-term dominance. As an example, printed newspapers accounted for a third of all advertising spend in 2010. This year, this figure is expected to drop to just 6%.
Digital subscriptions the new revenue model
The International Publishing & Data Conference revealed in 2019 that many global publishers are finding success with paywalls, as well as various membership and subscription models. The New York Times is particularly successful and has attracted more than four million digital subscriptions. FIPP’s subscription survey describes this shining example of reader revenue as “Another New York native that has become the de facto north star of subscription inspiration”.
Other international examples of sustainable reader revenue models are provided by The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and the United Kingdom’s Financial Times.
Global research, echoed by the Publisher Research Council in South Africa, indicates that Boomers and Gen X do read, whether on a screen or paper. But younger generations need to be enticed into reading the quality content publishers create for screens. Digital subscription models depend on it. In this respect, technology, and specifically data science, plays a crucial role.
The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) World Press Trends Report showed in 2019 that the number of digital news subscribers worldwide ballooned by 200% over the five years up to 2018, proving that reader appetite for quality news is growing online. Loyal users matter most, as they return to their favourite online sources at least eight times over a 16-day period.
Loyal users are also the largest contributor to online traffic globally. At 42% repeat readers account for more than two out of every five page views, followed by returning audiences (37%), defined as those who came back more than once in the past 30 days but less frequently than the ‘every other day’ pattern exhibited by loyal readers.
Last year Condé Nast International announced it would implement a paywall for all content. It is one of the first major global traditional magazine media owners to limit digital reading to subscribers only. While renowned Vogue editor Anna Wintour is quick to point out print itself is an enduring luxury product, it is clear the parent company has its eye firmly on a future when digital reader revenue makes a substantial contribution to its bottom line.
To that end Sarah Marshall, the head of audience growth at Condé Nast International, set an audacious goal of doubling digital traffic over three years through innovative content and distribution strategies.
According to Marshall, the subsequent research “influenced the way the Vogue sites commission stories – with ‘needs’ in mind. I think it’s a good way of having a set of criteria. It’s good to ask yourself if you are being useful, if you are helping somebody do something in their daily lives, instead of just writing what the editors want to write.”
It seems that, just as Netflix recommends content based on personal preferences, the secret to future-proofing legacy publishing is data science.
Local content access is increasingly paid for
South African publishers are also tackling revenue challenges. They want to rely less on advertising and are implementing a mix of other revenue streams such as memberships, subscription paywalls, paid content, branded events, content platforms and newsletters to drive awareness and adoption. Newsletters are again being recognised as a premium push notification tool to entice subscriptions to digital content.
Arena Holdings, owner of the Sunday Times, Business Day and Financial Mail, among other premium content brands, is an early adopter and has embraced various digital reader revenue models across its channels, as has Media24 with its paywall subscription service to Netwerk24.
A successful example of a voluntary contribution model is the Daily Maverick. Not only did editor Branko Brkic and publisher Styli Charambolous pioneer uncharted territory through bypassing print and going straight to digital, they were also possibly the first to offer founding subscribers an advertising-free experience. This approach has yielded remarkable results and proves that specifically targeted audiences are willing to fund quality journalism directly.
Free is not a workable business model
“Less free content, more intelligent dynamic paywalls,” reports FIPP. “Irrespective of which model publishers are using, there is a general trend which sees more content placed behind paywalls, with market-leading publishers steadily lowering the number of articles they offer for free.”
In our confusing content era of deep fakes and fake news, trusted online news brands are again rising in the ranks to satisfy consumers’ desire to dip in and out of news on screens with the peace of mind that their chosen content brand is reliably up to date with developments and real facts.
Magazines that are ahead of the curve are reimagining themselves with customer-focused strategies, driving conversations that matter, adopting reader-centric and easy to integrate, persuasive purchase channels.
Publishers that can crack this code will lead the pack and survive in a world of less interruptive advertising, with a loyal readership and advertising content partners who recognise the value of deep-rooted relationships between trusted content creators and their customers.
Reader research also adapts
Hope springs eternal, as audience measurement solutions and research technologies evolve to adapt to changing reader behaviour, with less expensive face-to-face interviews and a move towards more relevant research methods.
In the same way as readers are spread across multiple platforms, so too is research adapting. Organisations such as the Publisher Research Council, that I represent, are now using multiple methods to measure individual platforms.
Media and marketing pioneer Josephine Buys is CEO for The Publisher Research Council. Buys’ diverse career has placed her at the forefront of embracing media in a variety of industries [and platforms], from publishing and entertainment, to agencies and the public sector. Her experience spans sales, marketing, brand development and e-commerce. @jozib_sa