By Sherwin Chua
“With ad revenues in free fall, can paid digital subscriptions work, especially in Asia?”
That was a key question for delegates attending a session on digital subscriptions during WAN-IFRA’s Asian Media Leaders e-Summit in July.
Speakers from the Indonesian newspaper Kompas, the online news portal Malaysiakini in Malaysia, and Scandinavian-based media group Schibsted, agreed publishers should focus on reader revenue and build a long-term digital subscription strategy.
They reported marked increases in online readership and subscriptions during the COVID-19 pandemic, while advertising revenues declined.
With the exception of Malaysiakini, a digital-only news website, both Kompas and Schibsted have experienced shrinking advertising revenues from their print newspapers during the past few years.
“We believe this may be the right time to further grow our digital audience and retain them,” said Eko Prabowo, Marketing Strategic Manager at Kompas.
Diversify content and products for different audiences
Pandemic or not, readers will pay because they see value in your content. More importantly, publishers must think about having different types of content and products for different readers, especially when demand for COVID-19 news begins to wane.
“We have readers who subscribed because of our breaking news stories, and others who signed up via our e-newsletters, which cater to a different type of audience,” said Lynn D’Cruz, Chief Membership Officer at Malaysiakini.
“Over time, to retain audiences, we learned that we need to be sensitive to different groups and be able to craft different experiences and strategies in engaging them,” – Lynn D’Cruz, Malaysiakini
Let metrics, big and small, be your guide
Big, measurable targets, such as revenue figures and conversion numbers, serve as important “North Stars,” but it is also critical to look at more refined audience metrics.
Bård Skaar Viken, Director Consumer Business at Schibsted, said his team is keen to grow the number of subscribers who read their digital news more than 10 days per month because “10 days a month appears to be the threshold for readers continuing to subscribe.”
To be sure, there are many metrics and finding the right ones also depends on where a publication is at in terms of its digital subscription growth.
“We have now also shifted from volume growth to look more at those metrics related to increasing value per subscriber,” – Bård Skaar Viken, Schibsted
Building up digital competencies; breaking down silos
As more readers go online for digital news during COVID-19, it is even more crucial for newsrooms to invest in better digital and data capabilities. However, establishing effective communication channels between editorial and commercial teams is just as critical, especially in terms of sharing common metrics or goals, the panelists said.
“There’s no shortcut to this. Our marketing and editorial teams sit down every Friday to discuss in detail which stories get the most conversions. From this, we can all fairly and objectively evaluate the best types of articles for conversion and what our teams can do to get better numbers,” – Eko Prabowo, Kompas
Paying attention to friction points
Digital publishers must reduce or eliminate potential online friction points if they want to attract and retain subscribers. This is especially important as a publisher gains more signups. Both Viken and D’Cruz said potential friction points such as identity or login solutions, website loading time and payment systems, must be hassle-free.
“I cannot stress this enough. A poor user experience will frustrate readers and they will simply stop subscribing or stop coming back,” said Viken.
Growing reader revenue as an industry
COVID 19 may have accelerated and exacerbated the challenge for publishers to pivot from advertising to reader revenue, but the panelists agreed that this is a long term, industry-wide hurdle and should be tackled together as an industry.
In addition to being agile in experimenting with different reader revenue strategies (and be prepared that some strategies will fail), publishers have to be willing to share best practices and knowledge gained from each other’s trials and errors, panelists said.
In Asia, many publishers are now struggling to survive and many are concerned about their own bottom lines, said D’Cruz.
“However, it is true, that it would be far more significant for Asian publishers to band together and strive to protect the sanctity of press freedom as an industry, and then it would not be too difficult to tackle the issues of reader revenue as an industry,” she added.
For details on how publishers are responding to nine post-pandemic challenges, read WAN-IFRA’s recent report.
About the author: Sherwin Chua is a doctoral candidate at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, whose research focuses on media innovation and journalism. He is also a freelance journalist who covers digital transformations occurring in journalism. His articles have been published by Nieman Journalism Lab, WAN-IFRA (Asia Pacific) and The Splice Newsroom. He was a former editor and journalist in news media and publishing, and taught journalism and mass communication courses at a polytechnic in Singapore.