Digital Subscription Benchmarks during COVID-19 Pandemic

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INMA Satisfying Audiences Blog
March 2020
By Matt Lindsay and Arvid Tchivzhel

Mather Economics is working with many publishers on digital audience and content analytics.  We have prepared the following benchmarks from data we receive from these publishers, and we have identified best-practices for growing digital subscriptions while staying true to the journalistic mission of informing the public.

During times of crises, media companies face a dilemma driven by their conflicting goals of serving their community and maintaining a sustainable business model.  This conflict is exacerbated by the dramatic decline in print advertising, which places more importance on audience revenue for supporting the newsroom.

Common statements are:

“My journalistic mission is to serve my community, first and foremost”

“I don’t want to be perceived as capitalizing from a global emergency”

“Now is not the time to think about business, we need to handle the crisis”

Fulfilling the journalistic mission is critical during this time and its importance should not be understated. However, during difficult economic conditions, taking proactive and thoughtful action to ensure long-term business sustainability is even more important than during normal economic circumstances.

We have prepared early benchmarks that can help guide digital revenue management. We hope these are helpful to you, and we are available to answer any questions you may have on these metrics.

Benchmarks on audience traffic and virus coverage

Overall, we are finding significant growth in online traffic, paywall sales attempts, conversions, and unique users.  We are also finding an increase in overall audience engagement, as more unique users fall into the most engaged user segments.  Known users have grown by 10% in the last 30 days.

Chart 1:  Significant growth in volume, engagement, conversion, and subscriptions.

KPI Changes noted from Listener data for the periods of 1/17 – 2/16 vs. 2/17 – 3/17

Glossary of Terms:

1. ALL USERS: Unique users over a 30-day period

2. KNOWN USERS: Unique users who have at one point registered an account, opted-in to email newsletters, and subscribers

3. NEW USERS: users who have not been identified as repeat users’ period-over-period

4. FANATICS: Mather Economics’ highest engagement segment that is tightly correlated with propensity to subscribe

5. UNIQUE PAYWALL HITS: Unique users who encountered a restricted article (premium, or metered)

6. CONVERSIONS: Paid subscriber start via the digital channel either through the paywall, SUBSCRIBE button, or email marketing

7. CONVERSION RATE: The ratio of unique paywall conversions vs. unique paywall hits

The amount of content published daily has increased in two-thirds of publishers.  This increase is primarily driven by Covid19 coverage.  The remaining third of publishers have published less content on average.

Chart 2:  Most publishers have increased their daily article production while one-third have reduced content.

Chart 3:  On average, 15% of articles published in the last 30 days are related to COVID-19 coverage.  A histogram of the share of articles related to COVID-19 across publishers:

Effective Tactics

The publishers that are translating their increased traffic into subscriptions are using the following tactics:

1. Basic and breaking news COVID-19 content remains free though counts towards the meter

2. A registration wall is present on COVID-19 content to gather email addresses and add known users

3. In-depth coverage remains behind the paywall, similar to premium content designation in other content areas

4. Active newsletter development and promotion (long-term and breaking news) is increasing engagement among new readers and non-subscribers

5. Paywalls remain active on their websites with limitations on other content remaining as it was prior to the epidemic

6. Several publishers are asking users to donate: sponsor a subscription, donate to a good cause, donate to the newspaper

7. Active outreach to print subscribers to encourage digital activation; the latest news will be in digital form and doing so will help reduce risks and challenges of home delivery

8. Use the influx of new users to your site as an opportunity to state your editorial decisions related to the coverage and promote the value proposition of a subscription

9. For repeat non-subscribing readers, encourage them to sample non-COVID-19 content to grow the relationship (via widgets, newsletters, banners, and other calls-to-action)

Activating New Segments

To convert new readers, we advise creating audience segments to identify new users to the website over a rolling 7-day period.  For instance, a “NEWLAST7” segment retargets new users with tactics to push them down the engagement funnel.  Mather is helping publishers identify and target these individuals.

Among new audiences and non-subscribing existing readers, three levels of content engagement have been observed. Some users read COVID-19 content almost exclusively, others read it along with other content, and a third group appears to be searching for anything but COVID-19 content.

These three content engagement segments allow you to target anonymous and known users with relevant, personalized, content messaging to engage, acquire, and retain customers.

We are helping publishers identify and target these segments using “COVIDONLY”, “COVIDFOLLOWER”, and “COVIDINTEREST” segments.  These targeting segments can be applied within the paywall, registration wall, ad server, email system, and other marketing channels.

In Conclusion…

– Mather Economics is committed to helping our clients during this difficult time and are taking action wherever we see opportunity to better manage digital revenue. ​

– Benchmark data will continue to evolve as the world adapts over the coming weeks and months. ​We will update these metrics regularly during the crisis.

– Audience segment volumes for the new audience and COVID-19 content will be prepared along with testing and recommendations for campaigns at our client’s discretion. ​

– The segments may be used in the paywall, ad sever, email system and any other marketing channel for engagement, acquisition, and retention tactics.

– Mather Economics will seek to proactively inform our clients and partners of any relevant insights. ​

– All data is from the Listener Data Platform for periods Jan. 17 – Feb. 16 and Feb. 17 – Mar. 17, 2020. ​

Please do not hesitate to reach out to any of us at Mather with questions. ​


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