Why audience data is key to digital subscriptions

Times uses popular content to build registrations

Even formerly sceptical publishers are now starting to consider developing stand alone paid online content, beyond the digital magazine replica bundled with a print subscription.

And the consistent message from those who are succeeding is that quality audience data and a real understanding of readers’ online behaviour are absolutely crucial to making subs marketing effective.

Volumes are now getting large enough to drive significant revenues.  The Times now has 400k subscribers across print and digital and is making a profit.  The FT has 600k digital subs, the Economist 300k and French subscription only independent Mediapart is profitable on 140k digital subscribers.  Norwegian regional publisher Amedia has almost 500k subscribers in a country of 4m adults, with growth driven by digital and The Spectator has 67k total subs.

So how are these organisations using audience data to take readers along the path to paid subscriptions?

What content attracts interest

The Times has recently introduced a free registration option, allowing users to view two pieces of content a week.  They can track what content is most likely to lead to registrations – a mix of topical news analysis and longer term features.  They have also discovered that producing video content specifically for Facebook is an effective way to drive registrations.  The Spectator is finding that deep news analysis, often in the form of a podcast, is a big draw for free registrations.

Building a base of registered users means that e-newsletters can be used to drive traffic, and content consumption can be monitored on an individual level.

How patterns of engagement develop

Those newly registered users need to be carefully nurtured and encouraged to return.  The FT closely monitors patterns of engagement, and is very focussed on building up the frequency with which users return before getting into a subscription hard sell.  Registered users can also be tracked across desktop and mobile devices during the day and week to spot different content preferences according to time of day.  The Times has had good success in moving to a pattern of three daily editions, morning, noon and early evening, rather than rolling news.  Amedia can track readers’ frequency of visits and the number and type of stories they read.

When to market subscriptions

The FT has discovered the ideal level of engagement that shows that a registered user might be receptive to a subscription offer.  They can also tailor the wording of a subscription marketing offer to reflect that readers preferred content.  This approach makes subs marketing much more efficient and less likely to irritate readers.

What are the warning signs of lapse

Tracking engagement levels of paying subscribers, whether individuals or companies, can identify when their frequency of visit is falling below an engagement threshold.  The FT uses this to spot subscribers likely to lapse, triggering communications designed to entice them back.  The Times has seen a reduction in churn levels after moving from breaking news to its new style of edition based publishing.  Without good audience analytics, these early warning signs can be missed.

How to factor data into editorial decisions

Encouraging users to register and stay logged in provides far more detailed data on their behaviour and the content they view.  Sharing this information with editorial teams allows them to adapt content to users preferences.

Norwegian regional publisher Amedia has 300k daily logged in users (58% of page views) and logs 400 events per second.  They have tracked the topics that attract the biggest audience and share this information with editors.

The FT has built its own editorial dashboard to provide content teams with instant feedback on views and shares.

How to build a data team & system

Publishers have typically looked outside their own industry, largely to e-commerce and software businesses, to hire in data analysts, who can then share their skills with marketing and editorial teams.  Some, like the FT, have developed their registration, paywall and tracking systems and dashboards in-house.  Others are using external providers – The Spectator are working with Evolok, The Times with MPP, and niche publishers use providers like Abacus E media’s Webvision.  Most important is to establish a culture of using audience data to inform editorial and marketing decisions, testing different approaches and adapting based on results.


So it seems clear that audience data provides essential intelligence in acquiring new registrations, nurturing them successfully and making a subscription offer at the right time.  The challenge for media businesses is in setting up the systems and teams to gather this data and make informed decisions on editorial and marketing.

If you have experiences to share or would like to talk through the issues in your own business over the phone or over a coffee, please get in touch.

About the author:

Carolyn Morgan has over twenty years experience launching, growing, buying and selling specialist media businesses across print, digital and live events. Carolyn now advises publishers large and small on their digital strategy and writes and speaks on digital publishing strategy.