10 ways to grow your revenue per subscriber

This article was previously published in InPublishing Magazine

Paid subscriptions are the future for B2B and specialist consumers, as a direct relationship with readers provides far greater insight and security of revenues than newsstand distribution or free to air websites.  Plus there is the opportunity to renew subscribers or sell them other services.  But in many niche markets the absolute size of the audience is limited: so the focus has to be on growing average revenue per user or subscriber over the long term, or ARPU/ARPS, borrowing a phrase more familiar in the telecom sector.

Subscribers are likely to be your most enthusiastic customers, and with a strong database publishers can build up plenty of data to profile and segment them, and gather intelligence about the purchases they make.  It’s not just about growing direct subscriptions revenue for your core publication, but also building advertising, merchandise sales and event tickets generated from the subscriber base.  Here’s ten ideas to get you thinking differently about the potential of your subscriber list to grow your revenue.

1. Offer digital upgrades

Let’s start with a simple one: upgrading print subscribers to digital bundles.  So long as you haven’t created a precedent of offering digital free to print subscribers, this is a good way to grow revenues.  Dennis Publishing have implemented this very successfully on titles from The Week to Digital SLR.  What’s crucial is not to be too greedy – make the upgrade a small extra cost, compared to the print subscription rate, even if the digital-only subscription is close to the print rate.  If your digital edition is more than a simple replica, this will make a stronger proposition. And if you can add exclusive goodies for digital subscribers, so much the better.  MotorSport includes Formula 1 Grand Prix Reviews and a monthly photo gallery and has seen digital revenues grow 39% year on year.  Use all possible promotion channels: from carrier sheets to emails.

2. Create a premier tier

Some subscribers can be persuaded to upgrade to premium packages with access to additional content and privileges. Singletrack, an independent publisher in the mountain biking market, offers three tiers, from £14.99 to £34.99.  They bundle print and digital editions and also offer other benefits including exclusive content, back issues, shop discounts and Premier members card.  http://singletrackworld.com/

Other publishers add value by allowing premier subscribers to contact editorial teams or meet them at exclusive events. And it’s worth thinking about some form of priority booking; Runners World is a famous example, where subscribers can book first for popular events online.  Take care not to make the pricing options too complex, though.  The New York Times has been criticised for its confusing multiple subscription levels.

3. Add premium products

A more radical approach is to add a completely separate premium product and market to the subscriber database.  The best examples of this are in B2B, where publishers identified a small group of buyers involved in high-value transactions.  EMAP title Health Service Journal developed HSJ Intelligence, building on editorial insight, gathering together public and proprietary data, and creating an easy to use digital interface to provide a service to profile NHS trusts.  It was a big investment, but they sold £100k of subscriptions in their first month.

Haymarket’s Windpower Monthly magazine created a data-driven premium subscription service, Windpower intelligence with a £3k price-tag. This approach could be adapted to specialist consumer markets with a “prosumer” subset – but it does require good development resource.

4. Package discounts

Subscribers are a powerful audience of buyers. If you can negotiate discounts from key advertisers you can add value for subscribers – and potentially attract more advertising revenues too. Singletrack includes a discount card at specialist bike retailers for its premier subscribers.  Here’s a mobile twist on that old favourite. Student Beans, a website for students, has built an app allowing students to prove their ID and claim discounts from 7000 retailers nationally. The app is free but they have used it to attract new advertising clients for their website.  So while this doesn’t directly grow subscriber revenue it is a useful retention incentive and can drive new ad revenues for the publication.

5. Sell holidays

Many titles sell reader holidays, but there are big rewards from investing seriously in data and marketing: Immediate Media have generated £4m of sales for their travel partners in their first year of Radio Times Travel.  Immediate selected a small group of travel partners and have created bespoke packages linked to editorial content on popular TV programmes.  Crucial to this has been editorial buy-in and a sophisticated database, plus an expanded data and analytics team.  By carefully segmenting their database and targeting emails they have seen impressive bookings.  On a smaller scale, Songlines, the independent world music magazine, has created a selection of music-themed holidays for Songlines Travel.

6. Sell merchandise

Immediate Media are also developing merchandise sales around their niche sports magazines like 220 Triathlon, using the database to segment readers as beginners, intermediate, experienced, and selling training aids and kit.  The challenge with physical merchandise is of course stock.  Motorcycle News offers biking gear for sale online, through agreements with a dozen retailers who fulfill the orders, paying the publisher a commission.  Songlines has focussed on music, creating its own compilation and awards albums and selling them via Amazon and itunes.  The Spectator has had good success with its wine club.

7. Sell tickets

Reviews-based magazines can take a commission on ticket sales for third party events: a trusted brand can drive footfall.  Ticket sales involve no stock and are easy to track online. The best example is Time Out – which has moved from a paid-for publishing model to 100% free digital only with direct transactions. They have concentrated on user content and social media to market their events content.  By encouraging readers to post their own reviews they have built up to 15,000 pieces of UGC a week, and have recruited 300 superfans who test new content and functionality.  Social media now drives 25% of traffic. By collecting email addresses Time Out are able to make direct, relevant offers to their audience.

Another clever scheme is run by Today’s Golfer, who developed a discount scheme for golf courses: “2 Fore 1” with hundreds of courses offering deals via the website, magazine and email database.  Readers buy e-vouchers online – this is redeemed by the golf course – but the publisher gets the cash upfront.  Again, close integration between editorial content and the discount scheme drives growth.

8. Launch events

Magazine publishers have many skills that transfer to live events. Brand trust, strong subscriber database, editorial contacts & insight plus advertiser relationships.

Future launched the Photography Show at the NEC and attracted 30,000 audience over 4 days with just an 8 month lead time. As well as using print magazines and photo radar websites, Future persuaded sponsors like Canon and Nikon to co-market the event. Exhibitors were happy, with Future achieving an 86% rebook rate on site.  Events need specialist logistical skills, but can be developed, marketed and sold alongside core publishing assets.

If the risk seems too great, then partnering with an existing event organiser is a smart option.  Smaller scale events, such as the Stylist Network evening events for entrepreneurial women, can be highly lucrative.

9. Sell training and skills

Many B2B publishers have branched out into training.  Econsultancy is a strong exponent of this with their wide range of digital marketing training courses.  The business started as a free blog, then developed a subscription package, and now its biggest revenue earner is training courses.

In the consumer/prosumer field a great example is Guardian Masterclasses – providing training courses for both vocational skills such as journalism and data visualisation plus personal skills like creative writing and photography. Their strong online presence and large reader database provide a powerful marketing channel – and their brand implies quality and authority in the key areas.  Plus it’s easy to source trainers and experts from the editorial team’s contacts.

And maybe the next step on is consultancy and advice.  Wired magazine now offer a business consultancy service for companies who want to hear more about what they have learnt about innovation.

10. Promotional platform for professionals

In many specialist markets some readers are keen to promote their services to other readers, and there are opportunities to create more sophisticated digital versions of the traditional supplier directory.

The Lawyer from Centaur traditionally relied on advertising revenue, paid-for reports and events, as both print and web were free to readers (legal firms).

In 2013 Centaur launched Acumen, providing an online content publishing platform which allowed law firms to promote themselves and generate new business leads, powered by The Lawyer’s high traffic. Each law firm participating can set up a content hub, which draws in relevant news articles from The Lawyer plus their own content including legal briefings. In its first year the service has generated over 16,000 leads for law firms – and has created a significant new revenue stream for Centaur.

What skills and resources do you need?

To develop a range of premium paid services for subscribers the first step is to create a sophisticated database, allowing smart segmentation.  This needs to be backed up with good analytics and smart email marketing, which could mean hiring in new skills.  The publishers listed here have all collaborated closely with their editorial team to share their insights and use their contacts to develop new services and create content that signposts them to subscribers.  It’s increasingly important to have flexible tech development resource, to create microsites and also manage multiple tiers of subscriptions.  Once customers are buying a suite of different products and services it is essential to track all transactions and create a single customer view, so that means working closely with your fulfilment bureau. And selling third party products means developing partnerships and negotiating contracts.

Finally, in the search for new products and services to sell to your subscribers, I’d advise keeping an open mind, and looking for inspiration outside your market sector.  B2C magazines can learn a lot from B2B publishers who have long been focussed on maximising revenue from a small group of subscribers.

About the author

Carolyn Morgan has launched, acquired, grown and sold specialist media businesses in print, digital and live events. Carolyn was a co-founder of the Specialist Media Show, and curated the conference programme from 2010 to 2013, when it was sold to SIIA.  She regularly speaks and writes about digital publishing strategy, and advises individual publishers on the most effective way to grow their digital revenues.