GNI’s Reader Revenue Playbook helps publishers tailor strategies

2021-02-10. “A big part of reader revenue success is building a culture that creates space for and rewards experimentation,” says Arun Venkataraman, Global Strategy Lead, Google News Initiative, USA. “This gives you the ability to identify the tactics that work best for your organisation and your readers.”

by Brian Veseling | February 10, 2021

Venkataraman, the co-lead for the global Digital Growth Programme, is the primary author of the recent GNI Reader Revenue Playbook. Before that, he was focussed on GNI’s portfolio in Latin America and their broader reader revenue strategies. He also led a number of GNI labs around the world.

During WAN-IFRA’s Digital Media Europe conference, he discussed the Reader Revenue Playbook and GNI’s broader work in helping build and grow reader revenue models for publishers worldwide.

“We’ve seen a growing interest across almost all of the partners we work with about building and strengthening their reader revenue model,” he said.

Helping publishers navigate the reader revenue journey

Publishers need to cultivate deeper relationships with the readers who drive long term value, Venkataraman said.

“We’ve all seen how fundamentally important local journalism is in the wake of COVID, and the necessary role that it plays for well functioning, open societies everywhere. Producing the sort of content that gets to the spirit and mission of quality journalism is something reader revenue models certainly enable,” he said.

During the past couple of years, GNI invested in a series of labs with vendors worldwide based on questions they were receiving from publishers about navigating their reader revenue journeys.

Sharing what they’ve learned

In mid-2020, Venkataraman said, they decided to take a step back to think about how they could share what they had learned. In particular, they wanted to help news organisations that were early in their reader revenue journey.

As a result, GNI launched the Digital Growth Program, which is focussed on helping small-to-mid-size news organisations worldwide succeed online.

Reader revenue is the first business topic they’ve launched, and Venkataraman said they are creating more content about other business topics, such as advertising revenue, data, product and audience development.

The plan, he said, is to release a playbook and a set of interactive exercises to help bring insights and learnings to life using a publisher’s own data. They also plan free workshops to help publishers through the curriculum and the content.

The aim is to demonstrate the impact of the content and curriculum with publishers and to test out hypotheses and inform the knowledge base they’ve been developing through the labs, Venkataraman said.

Exercises to customise answers

While each organisation’s journey is different, the Reader Revenue Playbook is intended to help take publishers through a set of strategic and tactical decisions that hopefully allow them to arrive at answers that are right for them, Venkataraman said.

This is done using a series of exercises.

The first step is helping publishers develop or revise their value proposition informed by reader feedback through surveys, interviews, analytics and to get a deeper understanding of readers’ needs and their behaviours.

Next, a gap analysis is used to identify what a publisher’s readers need, what they currently offer, and ways to close the gap between them. 

Venkataraman said this offers a structured way for publishers to think about their ideal value proposition, where they are now, and identify how far there is to go in meeting the two.

Building a long term plan for success

The overall aim is to help publishers build a plan for reader revenue success and help them to feel more confident.

“A big challenge we routinely hear is the struggle to galvanise the organisation internally and really make reader revenue a focus or a priority,” Venkataraman said.

To do this, they offer a goal setting exercise to help publishers come up with a holistic plan. This starts off with setting a long term reader revenue goal. That is followed by the target metrics needed to achieve the goal and the tactics they’ve seen publishers in their labs use to achieve those metrics.

“We start off with cultivating a deep understanding of who the reader is and what they want. I think grounding the understanding in data is absolutely critical,” he said.

Questions publishers should ask

Venkataraman said they typically take publishers through a set of questions they should ask in surveys, interviews, and focus groups across five different areas to get meaningful reader feedback. These areas are:

  • Product and content
  • Willingness to pay
  • Value-added benefits
  • Marketing and positioning
  • User experience

“We help publishers look at their analytics, data and use customer insights,” he said.

“In particular, we encourage publishers to pay attention to the behaviour of loyal readers and brand lovers,” he added, because those are the readers they are most likely to convert.

Once publishers have reader feedback and analytics data, they begin crafting the publisher’s value proposition in a reader revenue context. This really means what is unique and differentiated about what a publisher offers as a news organisation, he said, adding, “What makes you worth spending money on?”

A clear value proposition

Venkataraman said they start by focussing on building a clear value proposition anchored around the needs of readers.

“A value proposition is not just a mission statement. It will also define what you stand for consistently and clearly, helping to decide what not to do when you can’t do it all,” he said.

Once a publisher has that value proposition, it’s important for them to communicate it effectively. Marketing their reader revenue programme should be front and centre for potential subscribers and contributors.

This is often referred to as the user funnel.

“We found that the average news organisation needs to convert between 2 and 4 percent of their reader base to be successful,” Venkataraman said.

Every small thing you can do to reduce friction could be critically important, he added.

A user-funnel diagnostic

They also have a user-funnel diagnostic that publishers can use to input their own data to see how they compare with region-specific or model-specific benchmarks.

In addition, they provide:

  • Case studies to help improve performance
  • Tactics to address metrics

“Readers you have email addresses for are significantly more likely to convert or to become a subscriber. A registration wall can be a great way to make that happen,” Venkataraman said.

For example, he said Slovakia’s Denník N, a GNI Subscriptions Lab participant, allowed subscribers to gift an article to a friend. Recipients, however, were required to provide an email address to access it.

Denník N drove about 70 percent of their registrations this way, Venkataraman said. Recipients also exhibited a high rate of conversion to subscription. Almost 90 percent took the trial offer, with 40 percent still subscribing after a year.

Other examples show how publishers identified a metric or experimented with a tactic to help improve performance, he said.

An ongoing relationship requires care and attention

“We also emphasise the importance of continually strengthening your relationship with members,” Venkataraman said. “Like any relationship, it doesn’t end with conversion. Keeping it strong and healthy requires care and attention over time.”

He noted that The New York Times and the FT had galvanising moments for their reader revenue businesses when senior leaders communicated clear reader revenue goals. These goals were followed by strategic and operational decisions aimed at orienting the entire company towards achieving those goals.

“A big part of reader revenue success is building a culture that creates space for and rewards experimentation. This gives you the ability to identify the tactics that work best for your organisation and your readers,” he added.

The Reader Revenue Playbook is available at:

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