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SCMP’s 10 questions for publishers launching digital subscriptions

2020-11-18. The South China Morning Post (SCMP) has been reporting news about Asia and China and its impact on the world for 117 years. It recently launched a digital subscription service.

by WAN-IFRA External Contributor info@wan-ifra.org | November 18, 2020

By Lee Kah Whye

At the time of WAN-IFRA’s recent Digital Media Asia, the Hong Kong-based publication was eight weeks into its new digital subscription service. SCMP’s Adrian Lee – Senior Vice President, Marketing and Events, and the executive sponsor of their digital subscription project – discussed some early lessons from the Post’s much-anticipated global subscriptions launch. He highlighted 10 questions publishers should ask themselves when they consider launching a subscription service.

Question 1 – Why are you launching a subscription service? 

“For the South China Morning Post, revenue diversity is something that is key to the sustainability of not just us but news organisations in general, especially in the digital age,” Lee stated.   

“Building direct relationships with readers is a healthy value exchange between readers and news organisations. Everyone knows that quality, premium, fact-checked journalism is not sustainable if there isn’t a revenue line that supports that.” 

Lee went on to explain that what helped SCMP launch their subscription service was their growth. In March 2017, they had 3 million monthly active users. This ballooned to 50 million by March 2020. This was aided by global interest in China’s rise as well as Covid-19. 

Question 2 – Who’s in the room? 

Starting and running a digital subscription service is a collaborative and cross-department effort, and the right people must be “in the room.”

“We had to have all our respective teams engaging and aware of what the impact of raising a digital service would mean to them,” Lee reasoned. “Leaders from each department meet weekly to discuss what is upcoming, what are the learnings and what the implications might be.” 

Question 3 – What’s your positioning? 

There are two market positions for the SCMP subscription service. 

First, the legacy of SCMP is that of the newspaper of record in Hong Kong. It desires to serve every English speaker in Hong Kong and make everyone a subscriber. 

Outside of Hong Kong, The Post is looking to support anyone who wants to have an elevated understanding of China. It sees itself as a specialist publication which this target group will additionally subscribe to. 

“Knowing we have different positions actually changes the way we build our product, potentially changes the way that we price and also changes the way that we market and communicate our service.” 

Question 4 – What type of subscription service should you choose? 

There are three different types of subscription service – hard paywall, freemium, or flat or dynamic metered. 

SCMP has chosen the metered route, but it is also looking into finding a blended option.

“We’ve seen a number of news organisations blend their subscription services based on market needs, audience needs and effectively, the premium-ness and the strength of the content they are able to generate,” said Lee. “The choice of a subscription model is an evolving decision. It’s not something that is wholly fixed.”  

Question 5 – What should be in front of your meter? 

SCMP had a lot of discussions about what should be behind their paywall. They decided that core editorial content should sit behind the paywall. 

The content that SCMP decided should stay in front of the paywall includes commercial content where there are advertisers paying for it, corporate pages, public service content, product and services pages, experimental content and some nascent areas and specialty sub-brands.  

“Do elevate your strengths, but do not strangle your growth,” Lee said. 

Question 6 – What kind of technology decisions should you make? 

There were four things that SCMP had to decide regarding technology. 

The first decision to make was whether to buy or build the technology. SCMP decided to buy as it allows them to scale quicker.  

The second was related to the selection of a payment gateway, what currencies to process in and the local tax implications. 

Thirdly, SCMP had to implement a system to capture customer information and to market its services. 

They knew that being data savvy was important. Among other things, it helped them understand and track their audience and allowed for efficient and effective communication with users.  

They had an email service provider which helped them automate client communication via newsletter and EDM (electronic direct mail). Another requirement is a digital ad server for running house and paid ads.  

The final piece is customer service, which the SCMP decided to outsource due to their requirement for speed of deployment, scalability, and the need for 24/7 support for global customers. 

Question 7 – How are you pricing your products? 

Some of the things SCMP had to consider for pricing are the various types of customers they have. Website and in-app pricing also had to be considered.  

To leverage customers of existing products and services, SCMP used bundling to encourage them to subscribe to the new digital service. SCMP looked into bundling digital subscriptions with their print newspaper, their events business and their knowledge vertical, SCMP Research. 

Other important considerations are the duration of plans, trial pricing and launch promotions. 

Question 8 – How are you marketing your products? 

“We worked out that the best way to convert subscriptions is to speak to your existing readers,” Lee said. “We spent a lot of our time working on our contact strategy to understand how we should be communicating to our existing users who have SCMP accounts and who have subscribed to newsletters but who have not yet bought a subscription. Those are people who understand the value proposition of SCMP.”  

Similarly, SCMP built a strategy around communicating with potential subscribers and subscribers who have churned or who are coming to the end of their plan in order to encourage them to sign a new contract. 

SCMP has a blended approach of organic and paid marketing. Among the various marketing campaigns that have run recently include a “support journalism” mission-driven message for Hong Kongers and the rest of the world, tactical marketing focused on price, and some experiments with specific messaging for various high-growth markets around the world. 

Question 9 – How are you measuring success? 

SCMP has set very ambitious goals and tracks these with a daily dashboard that displays daily revenue numbers and also shows which stories are driving up the subscription numbers, as well as churn attribution. 

“You really need to take a daily look at all of your data to understand what is working and what is not. This goes for paid and unpaid pieces, as well.”   

Question 10 – How are you iterating and learning? 

To grow a digital subscription service, Lee recommends continuous iteration and learning. 

SCMP’s core leadership team meets weekly both to suggest new approaches to testing but also to assess performance. 

They have various subscription teams looking at user acquisition, conversion, retention, and community and a special team looking at performance and how to maximise conversion. 

The data team helps them understand and evaluate performance, which leads to ideas and further debate. Goals are set weekly as well as quarterly. 

“Having this combination and the frequency of communication does help us,” said Lee. “We frequently do retrospectives, as well, which makes us able to have honest conversation about what works and what doesn’t.”  

About the author: Lee Kah Whye is Director at Project Mercury, a media business consultancy. Before this, he spent nearly 20 years at Reuters and was head of the news agency business for Asia.   

Edited by Bill Poorman

WAN-IFRA External Contributor

info@wan-ifra.org