The Information is a subscription-based publication that reports on business through the lens of technology. On Friday, September 13, they hosted a Media Business Bootcamp in New York City to discuss building subscriber loyalty, marketing post-paywall, and shifting the balance of power with the tech platforms.
The founder is Jessica Lessin, an absolute rock star in the space, who was told a subscription service for $400 per year would never work. Five years later, she’s proven the industry wrong, and publishers across the board are now using paywalls. At the bootcamp, she generously shared what works and doesn’t work at The Information.
She also did fireside chats with Nicholas Thompson, Editor-in-Chief of Wired, Shaun King, Founder and CEO of The North Star, and Jon Steinberg, President of News of Altice USA & Founder/CEO of Cheddar.
In addition to Sociality Squared, attendees included an impressive cohort from News Corp, Forbes, Business Insider, YouTube, TED Conferences, and more!
Read on for my top takeaways from the day.
You Can’t Put a Paywall on a Pig
Jessica offers a framework to think about paywalls that can be applied to any type of gated content: a paywall is a promise to readers that the content is worth paying for. It’s not merely a line item for a new revenue stream – paywalls need to be done thoughtfully to be successful.
Focus on what you do ten times better than your competition. Incremental features that aren’t meaningful to your audience is a quick way to fail at leveraging paywalls.
Franchise Your Content
Attendees were encouraged to think about content as franchises they could build brands around, like the New York Times Crossword. At The Information, they look to their Org Charts as a franchise and offering that differentiates their publication. Jessica cautioned to not be all things to all people. She obsesses over what The Information can do that’s interesting and differentiates them in the marketplace – a cue we can all take!
Milk Content that Works
When there’s an article that is driving KPIs, milk it for everything you can. The Information will consider turning off trial features to keep an article exclusive for readers and increase subscriptions. An article that’s driving views or subscriptions will be propagated across multiple areas from email distribution to featured site content.
For Wired, the archives is a huge opportunity to tap into for content recirculation; however, it sounds like Nick is dealing with a CMS nightmare (which sadly, the audience could relate to all too well!).
Both Nick and Jessica pointed out that some of their niche articles drive the most subscriptions – not necessarily the most views. To this point, Jessica encouraged attendees to not shy away from really narrow and niche content as it may prove to be a valuable differentiator.
Jessica looks at The Information’s data religiously. Important metrics for them include email open rate (and they’re not as concerned with email clicks), percentage of subscribers who read their articles, subscription growth, overall traffic, and other media pick-ups. Subscriber loyalty, retention, and minimizing churn was another key point Jessica shared with the audience to prioritize. Learn as much as you can from your audience on what you’re doing right and where you can improve.
At Wired, Nick focuses on reducing churn, an area where he can directly have the most impact with his marketing tactics. They’ve seen affinity for writers and reading across different verticals as signals of quality subscriber leads. He also shared that they have a subscription index score for every article published. And to drive reporter morale (without compromising journalistic integrity), he awards colorful socks to the reporter whose article drove the most subscriptions that week.
Funnels: Test, Test, Test
The Information always tests their funnel to optimize what works. They’ve found that free trials muddy their audience and have high churn. Dollar per article trials work okay. They’ve seen the most success with unlocking articles by email and then sending the reader suggested articles in their inbox. Any marketer or publication understands the value of a quality email – it’s incredibly valuable. If a subscriber is in the bucket of high risk, The Information will email them articles they may have missed to keep them engaged, and most importantly, as a subscriber.
Invest Time in Newsletters
With the rise of Slack and email pop-ups on what feels like every site across the internet, it may seem like the outlook for newsletter effectiveness is bleak, but that’s not the case. At least it’s not the case when you produce quality content that adds value to readers.
Long Live Facebook
It was interesting to hear Nick’s complicated relationship with Facebook – as a user, publisher, journalist, and media leader. Facebook’s failed Instant Articles and other unsuccessful promises to the media industry has left publishers skeptical of their upcoming news tab curated by Facebook editors. Facebook got into paid subscriptions too late; however, Facebook is still a key platform for distribution and, in turn, to driver viewers and subscriptions. Nick pointed out that Facebook outcompeted the media industry with their ad product, and Shaun King has seen success with Facebook and Instagram ads to drive new subscribers. Jessica is bullish that Facebook and media industry should break up. It sounds like – surprise, surprise! – Facebook isn’t going anywhere, anytime fast and is still an important platform to grow brands and reach audiences.
Jon Steinberg warned that publishers should not rely on Facebook for ongoing revenue. It seemed like a general consensus is to assume that it could disappear at any moment. (As a side note, there wasn’t much optimism for Apple News either if not an underlying wish that it doesn’t succeed due to limited ad distribution, data access, and potential to cannibalize publishers’ own subscription business.)
AI + Content Creation
While this wasn’t a theme that was addressed on stage, I did get to ask Nick how he thinks about AI at Wired in terms of content creation. They already use AI and will embrace it more to help writers with editing and title suggestions. In general, I think we’ll see AI augment human creativity and output more and more, and is certainly something to keep an eye on.
Podcasts are a channel for high quality storytelling and CRMs. Nick agreed that there may be a potential for a podcast bubble, but they’re great for revenue opportunities and top-of-the-funnel awareness. Shaun, who produces a daily podcast for The North Star, actually advises most not to do a daily podcast because it’s a lot of work. Luckily, there are plenty of people doing the hard work so important news gets coverage.
The Customer Journey
Brandon Erlacher from CXENSE said that we’re asking for the kiss before the first date when it comes to pop-ups, and when and how to use paywalls should be carefully considered and customized for the customer journey. Personalization is a theme that continues to become more sophisticated and integral to marketing efforts and can be incredibly effective when done well.
Nick launched Wired’s paywall in February of 2018. In a little over one year, they’ve seen the rate of new digital subscribers climb 300%. He shares daily videos on LinkedIn with his ruminations on articles and topics he’s reading and thinking about that I really enjoy and recommend. Check them out on his personal page.
Shaun, previously senior justice writer at The Intercept, launched The North Star in February with over 25,000 founding members funding the outlet. Their podcast, The Breakdown, reached #1 in News & Politics and #3 in overall podcasts. He is a master of social media and was recently named one of the 25 Most Influential People on the Internet by TIME Magazine. Subscribe to The North Star and check out their work.
The Information’s Articles from the Bootcamp
As someone who is curious about the news industry and a marketer who works with clients on subscriptions and gated content, the above points are what I found most interesting. For more insight from the day, here are the articles The Information published:
- Media Companies Need Huge Scale to Survive, Cheddar Founder Says
- Shaun King Admits Mistakes in Launch of News Outlet North Star
- Publishers Increasingly Skeptical of Working With Tech, Says Wired Editor
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