However, the company has been highly successful with its digital subscriptions, and in 2015, NYT had set a target to double its then $400 million digital revenue by 2020, using a combination of digital subscriptions and digital advertising, which would require them to reach 3-4 million subscribers.
By 2016-2017, the company witnessed a rapid acceleration in subscriptions in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election. Since then, the brand has managed to steadily accelerate its digital subscription journey and hit 3-4 million subscribers and $700-800 million of digital revenue by 2019, a year ahead of the goal.
The company got off to a strong start in 2019 and has maintained its momentum in 2020 with the addition of more than a million subscribers so far this year, with the first two quarters being the strongest in the brand’s history.
The NYT overhauled the way it runs its digital operations, which was the key driver in enabling accelerated digital subscription growth.
While earlier, the product, marketing, engineering and editorial teams worked in silos, the brand now functions with cross-disciplinary teams enabling faster and more collaborative decision making.
Ben Cotton, Vice President, Product, The New York Times, joined WAN-IFRA during our recent Indian Media Leaders eSummit to talk about how in mid-2018, the company decided on cross-functional missions to unlock future growth, tied to five core areas – subscription growth, engagement, new products and ventures, brand and digital advertising.
Core subscription growth
The big bet that the NYT made was on designing a deliberate user journey that created deeper and more engaging relationships with users to propel subscription growth.
Ever since its paywall launch in 2011, the company has focused on anonymous users, who visit the website for the first time from Google, Facebook or directly, but do not have an NYT account.
“We have been marketing to them very heavily trying to get them to subscribe. We lowered the meter for these users from the original 20 free articles per month to 10 and then to five,” said Cotton. “But for long term success, we decided to create a new model.”
So, instead of being hit with the subscription pop-up right away, this model required users to merely create a free account using their email ID, without involving payment.
“This process was aimed at developing relationships with users over a longer period of time. So, when a user moved on to their second free article, they’d be required to login or register,” Cotton said.
Once a reader has created their free account, they are encouraged to sign up for newsletters and download the NYT mobile application. Historically, the company has witnessed a higher rate of conversions with users who have subscribed to newsletters or downloaded the app.
“When we know who our users are, we’re able to communicate in a more personalised and targeted way with different kinds of subscription messaging. We have run smart testing to see what gets these registered users to subscribe,” Cotton said. “As a result we now have a much simpler landing page experience. We have also been able to experiment with new payment options, such as Apple Pay and PayPal. We know who these users are, can follow them across different devices and can look at the impact of these changes to the conversion experience.”
Thanks to the overhauled digital processes, the company was able to get more people to engage with its journalism. Once the company realised that it was excelling at getting users to register and creating a relationship after they had read one article, it was time to move those registered users towards the paywall.
“We knew we would be able to convert these registered users into subscribers. So, engagement levers that are focused on growing our audience and bringing readers back more often worked with growth levers to drive up the subscription business,” Cotton said.
This strategy immensely helped the company when the COVID-19 pandemic struck and the NYT saw an influx of readers.
While traditionally the NYT has been a print newspaper, it long ago began to lean into places where there was more opportunity tied specifically to the way news evolves and unfolds online, one of which is real time coverage.
This past spring, when the pandemic began unfolding, new readers and frequent visitors would be greeted to a constantly updated website, covering a range of issues rapidly.
The advantage of constantly updating the news coverage is higher Google search visibility, which attracts new readers and nudges them to share the content on social media platforms. The company has spent much of this year optimising their coverage for these channels.
Once the initial hurdle of getting a user to register is crossed, the brand has invested time and resources in engaging them deeply in major storylines from coronavirus to Donald Trump’s impeachment to the crisis between US and Iran to the protests around race.
“We have been creating product experiences that integrate with our stories and make it easier for audiences to understand our coverage, with easily accessible navigation bars and topical landing pages,” Cotton said.
In an effort to combat the coronavirus fatigue and offer users a product that’s fun, light and relaxing, the company built a new editorial and product experience called “At Home,” that offers readers videos, newsletters and suggestions on what to cook, watch, or do when you’re stuck at home.
“We’ve seen fairly regular usage out of this over the last six months; it’s a nice change of pace from hard news and is useful to people,” Cotton said.
Another major engagement driver has been newsletters. Noticing an influx of newsletter subscribers, the company decided to take its flagship newsletter called “The Morning Briefing” and relaunch it around one of its most prominent journalists, David Leonhardt, who writes it every day as a narration rather than a list of headlines. Besides that, the company continues to make investments in tailored recommendations by sending personalised emails to its subscribers.
“Additionally, we have taken what we have learned about getting people to engage via email and applied it more directly to this exact moment,” Cotton said. “When we realised that coronavirus was going to be a story that was going to be with us for quite some time, we thought about every way we could reach people with that coverage and the obvious way was to create a dedicated email newsletter that brought all the latest information about coronavirus to people, once every day.”
In addition to “At Home,” the company also brought out two more pop-up newsletters – Coronavirus Briefing and Coronavirus Schools Briefing.
The Coronavirus Briefing has one of the highest open click rates of any NYT newsletter.
“We were able to use everything we have learned about newsletters elsewhere, from how to launch it to how to get people to sign up for it, and apply that to grow our newsletters quickly and build a meaningful audience in a short amount of time,” Cotton said.