Case studies in reader revenue, subscriptions, data highlight industry transformation

Satisfying Audiences Post
01 October 2019
By Matt Lindsay

Last week Mather Economics and INMA hosted the Reader Revenue Symposium in Hamburg during the Media Innovation Week. It was the second Reader Revenue Symposium the two organizations have hosted together; the first was in Amsterdam last year during the same event.

There were several topics discussed throughout the day, including:

  • Consumer revenue: a broad category that includes subscription revenue in addition to other revenue streams from a publisher’s audience.
  • Business model diversification: the goal of developing business units that are adjacent to the core publishing service as well as new revenue streams not directly related to content publishing and advertising.
  • Improving the digital product value proposition and aligning the organization around strategic objectives: common themes that reflect the gradual transformation of publishers into digital businesses.

 Matt Lindsay, president of Mather Economics, at the Reader Revenue Symposium in Hamburg last week.Matt Lindsay, president of Mather Economics, at the Reader Revenue Symposium in Hamburg last week.

Here is a brief recap of the speakers and takeaways from their sessions follows on three more general topics. You can read a detailed account here.

Reader revenue

Tor Jacobsen of Schibsted shared the company’s strategy and tactics for growing reader revenue. Schibsted dynamically places articles behind the paywall; about 30% on average are categorised as premium. Interestingly, about 60% of subscription sales are from non-premium content by design.

Schibsted has developed a “buddy” system where a new subscriber can choose the editor, CEO, a columnist, or podcast host to virtually walk them through the digital product. His CAN strategy was an interesting categorisation of revenue opportunities by coreadjacent, and next areas of growth. He shared the success of pricing analytics in growing subscription revenue for the company’s titles.

Lou Grasser, head of innovative subscriptions for Le Monde; Tobias Henning, general manager of premium for BILDplus and WELTplus of Axel Springer; and Esfand Pourmand, senior vice president, global head of subscriptions, for Newscorp participated in a panel discussion facilitated by Robert Whitehead about their digital reader revenue strategies.

Grasser shared how his company continued digital reader revenue growth following the French elections by lowering the share of free content on the site. Henning observed that freemium models make newsrooms think about what drives conversions as compared with metres or premium models, and he feels this is a strength of that strategy. Pourmand stressed his team discusses the value proposition of the digital products from a number of perspectives, including habit-building content, the page load speed, and the personalisation strategy.

Common themes among their organisations were newsroom metrics and data sharing, including the percentage of articles classified as premium and the importance of KPI alignment across the organisation. The range of the paid article share was from 20% to 35% across the panel, with each organisation balancing advertising inventory and revenue with the need for audience revenue growth.

Reader data

Greogorz Piechota and Dietmar Schantin discussed their research into successful digital transformations among publishers. The need to align resources to those activities that are most critical to strategic success is paramount but difficult to implement. The scarcity of analytical and technical resources for local publishers is a significant challenge. Piechota and Schantin stressed operational execution is the major factor for transformation success and not developing the perfect strategy.

Alan Fisco, publisher of The Seattle Times, recounted the company’s journey toward a digital business model, including the decision to launch a paid model despite less-than-perfect technology solutions. He shared that The Seattle Times required readers to enter more than 16 pieces of data to start a subscription when they first launched. That figure is now down to three, and it will soon be a single fingerprint with the addition of Apple Pay.

The Seattle Times now has more than 44,000 digital subscribers that generate more than US$9.5 million in revenue. It also has more than 1 million readers who receive one of the 11 newsletters. It has developed a tool called the Analytics Hub that provides data to the newsroom on content performance, which has helped focus on content supporting overall KPIs.

Arvid Tchivzhel of Mather shared case studies from publishers using the Listener digital data platform and intelligence layer. This session included interesting benchmarks for important digital reader revenue KPIs. Regional differences between Europe, North America, Latin America, and Australia were identified.

Tchivzhel interviewed Maggie Louie of Dev/Con about her organisation’s work protecting companies from malicious third-party JavaScript, most often from the advertising ecosystem. Ad threat was distinguished from ad fraud as a much more serious problem that could adversely affect publisher revenue. For instance, risk from ad threat was more than 150 times greater than from e-mail phishing attacks.

Frederic Filloux of has developed a scoring system that detects and surfaces quality journalism. This model has been trained using data shared by Mather’s Listener tool, and it is now able to provide statistically valid rankings for 80% of content it evaluates. This number is continuing to grow as the model receives more data. Filloux and his team found quality scores and actual article performance are positively correlated across subscription conversion and advertising revenue.

Finally, Wiebke Meeder of Der Spiegel wrapped up the speaker sessions with an overview of her organisation’s digital subscription growth strategy. Despite only launching its digital subscription products in 2018, the company already has more than 100,000 digital subscribers paying €4.95 per issue/week. An important part of its digital transition is editorial dashboards developed in-house that focus on those metrics important to their journalists, who are balancing their significant digital advertising inventory with the growth of digital subscriptions.

Reader subscriptions

Satwant Singh of the National Basketball Association and Kent Schacht of the United States Tennis Association shared how those organisations work to acquire and retain subscribers and members. The parallels in strategic objectives and operational tactics between the sports industry and news media was apparent. They asked that the content of their presentations not be shared publicly.

Griet Ducatteeuw, publisher of De Standaard and Het Nieuwsblad with Mediahuis, gave a compelling summary of his organisation’s 20 clearly defined projects and impressive success in pursuing its 2020 transformation plan. These projects achieved necessary improvements in growing profitability, reallocating resources, growing top-line revenues, implementing necessary organisational changes, accelerating digital growth, and realising cost savings.

Mediahuis has also had impressive success with applying audience analytics to grow revenue through subscription offers and pricing tactics.

Bill Nagel, publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle, described its goal of tripling digital subscriptions and how the organisation is focusing on its product’s value proposition to digital subscribers. Developing consumption habits among readers is one key objective. Using events to maintain a physical presence in the city as it increasingly relies on digital distribution platforms is helpful for maintaining relevancy.

Matthijs van de Peppel of NRC in Amsterdam provided an update on its strategy of offering long-term subscriptions and dropping trial subscriptions. This shift in subscription offers was complemented by a focus on customer relationships and new KPIs, such as subscription years sold, and the results are impressive. NRC is growing print subscriptions for the third year in a row along with operating margin from its audience group.

Matt Lindsay and Matthijs van de Peppel sign copies of their book, "How to Succeed in the Relationship Economy," at the INMA symposium.
Matt Lindsay and Matthijs van de Peppel sign copies of their book, “How to Succeed in the Relationship Economy,” at the INMA symposium.

A goal of these symposiums is to provide the attendees with several good ideas they can take back to their operations and implement. We want to offer our heartfelt thanks to the speakers who shared their reader revenue stories — including some of the mistakes and lessons learned along the journey — at the symposium. Also, many thanks to the teams at INMA and Mather that organised the event. Last but not least, our fearless conference host, Robert Whitehead, kept a full agenda on track while extracting great ideas and valuable insights from each session. Robert then hopped on a plane to attend his son’s graduation in Sydney 24 hours later. Many thanks, Robert!

Please reach out with any questions or feedback. We look forward to hearing from you.

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