By Sherwin Chua
At a session at the Asian Media Leaders eSummit (AMLS) 2021, Rudyard Arbolado, President and CEO of The Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI), and Adisti Sawitri, Managing Editor of The Jakarta Post (JP), discussed how their respective publications had used lessons from WAN-IFRA’s inaugural Newsroom and Business Transformation Asia programme in 2020 to tackle obstacles when building digital subscription products.
In PDI’s case, the Manila-based publisher had in recent months launched InquirerPlus, a digital subscription-based version of its print newspaper, while JP had aimed to rejuvenate its digital subscription numbers after they had stagnated.
According to Arbolado and Sawitri, the efforts are thus far showing positive results.
InquirerPlus is enjoying steady month-on-month growth in subscription figures, a “double-digit rate” for converting trial users into subscribers, and an average subscription period of 12 months among new signups.
At the same time, JP has seen a 70 percent growth in subscription figures in the last 10 months.
Both presenters shared three key elements that are necessary for this kind of growth:
Define clear North Star goals for the entire company
A “North Star” goal is an overarching target that aligns the objectives and strategies of different departments within the company. Setting a clear North Star goal syncs and galvanises the organisation to work towards a common mission.
For PDI, one of the first things it did was to align the objectives of the editorial, commercial and technology departments towards a clearly defined North Star goal for the InquirerPlus product.
According to Arbolado, the company’s senior executives and management had decided upon a North Star goal for the project, which was to grow the number of digital subscribers for Inquirer Plus in stages over a specific time period, and formally recognised it one of the company’s key goals.
“That was an important step in making sure we had the commitment and resources of the whole company for this project,” said Arbolado.
It was a similar story for JP. To successfully overcome the stagnation in subscriptions, Sawitri said her publication had set a clear North Star goal to increase digital subscribers for JP, and aligned every department to work towards the goal together.
“We had stellar traffic at first. But then, when the number of digital subscriptions started to stagnate, we knew we had to set new and clear goals as a company so we can fix this together,” she added.
Become comfortable with new ways of working
Digitally transforming a company entails becoming familiar with new organisational cultures, work processes, and professional competencies.
For both publishers, this meant having to get comfortable with collaborating in cross-functional teams and using audience data to guide decision-making.
On fostering a collaborative culture, Arbolado said the alignment of goals across the departments at the management level had translated into better cross-functional coordination and collaboration throughout the company.
“At the working level, we set up a cross-functional team involving staff from editorial, marketing, IT, and distribution and finance to establish a strategic roadmap. As a team, we also aligned objectives, set up measurable targets and decided on resource allocation,” he said.
For JP, growing its subscribers is almost entirely a cross-functional effort, which was a way of working that the company’s staff had only gotten used to recently.
“Initially, we had many problems. But we realised that if we want to rebuild our subscription business, all the elements in the company, from business, tech, the newsroom, will have to work and take this journey together,” Sawitri said.
On using audience data, Arbolado explained that PDI had only recently begun to leverage insights from digital audience data to guide the company’s strategic decisions.
Nonetheless, the publisher’s efforts so far in becoming more data-informed include creating customer acquisition funnels based on its web and social media analytics, reducing friction in its payment system through A/B testing, and optimising its search engine strategy.
Similarly, using data and analytics are relatively new ways of working at JP.
To improve its data capabilities, the publisher set up an audience engagement division tasked with gathering and analysing audience analytics. Those are used to inform their digital editorial and commercial strategies in areas such as content, newsletters, social media, payments, and website redesign.
Communicate the publication’s distinctive value
For any publication, the ability to communicate its distinctive value and brand promise to readers is pivotal to the success of its digital subscription efforts.
For PDI, this involved communicating to audiences the unique value of InquirerPlus’ content, price point and convenience of subscription.
To this end, the Manila-based publisher targeted its communications via digital and social media channels at a specific segment of the market: more affluent and higher-educated Filipino readers, both in the country and abroad.
Furthermore, PDI highlighted the feature stories that are exclusive to InquirerPlus, offered potential customers various subscription and payment options, and also deployed chatbots and a dedicated customer support team to facilitate signups.
Likewise for JP, the Indonesia-based publisher used various digital and social media channels to promote its “flagship content,” on top of sending email newsletters to showcase their journalism to potential subscribers who have registered their email addresses with the publication.
According to Arbolado and Sawitri, both their publications were still in the early stages of implementing their digital subscription strategies, but the positive results so far have been encouraging and hints at the effectiveness of their tactics.
About the author: Sherwin Chua is pursuing his PhD at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, where he researches media innovations in journalism. He is also a freelance journalist who covers digital transformations occurring in journalism. His articles have been published by WAN-IFRA, Nieman Journalism Lab, and The Splice Newsroom. He was a magazine editor and newspaper journalist in Singapore, where he also taught journalism and digital media courses at a polytechnic.
Edited by Bill Poorman: Bill is a US-based editor, writer, journalist and media producer. He lived in Singapore for six years until 2020.