Let’s consider what it means to truly shift your business to prioritize reader revenues. Because to fully commit to that change, you have to commit to a new focus on trust, loyalty, data, and understanding your audiences.

A “pivot” to reader revenue is a pivot to trust

The consumer’s journey to subscribing is simple in the abstract: going from passive awareness of your company to active support of your mission. But news is a unique product — it makes claims about the world, tells you what’s true and sometimes what to believe — so trust is distinctly important to a willingness to subscribe. As such, improving trust in our digital products equally benefits editorial and revenue goals, and must be an active focus.

Publishers are well positioned to benefit from the public’s growing data privacy concerns. The backlash to Facebook’s handling of user data and the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the European Union show that people are uneasy. But while data is key to our subscription strategies, news organizations often have a local relationship to their readers and can earn and honor trust to manage the information we collect.

Reorienting ourselves to focus on subscription revenues requires not just adding a paywall, but overcoming organizational reluctance to focus on the needs of readers instead of advertisers.

To do so, we must develop digital products that value readers’ time, support their needs for reliable news and meet other local information needs. Those efforts must be reflections of our internal culture and mission, through our approaches to user experience research and news coverage, the metrics we use to measure success, and the tactics we use to drive engagement and revenue.

A pivot to reader revenue is a pivot to loyalty

News organizations have made significant investments in recent years to grow audience and increase page views. Among other tactics, we have hired SEO experts and social media specialists; written “attention-gap” headlines and tried distributed platforms such as AMP, Apple News and Instant Articles.

While “visitor growth” is valuable, it has lead us to structure our staff and strategy around audience scale at the expense of audience quality. And when newsroom goals are based on page views — instead of loyalty, engagement or subscriptions — we primarily benefit advertising revenues and at best coincidently support the distribution of quality journalism and subscription growth.

This has created a conflict of missions and ultimately favored advertisers over readers. The results are evident when looking at news websites:

  • Average page load times are rising, often as a result of ad units added to the page.
  • Ad takeovers and abusive redirects cause daily complaints by readers.
  • Auto-play audio and video (valued for its pre-roll advertising) is increasingly being blocked by popular Web browsers.
  • Google, among others, is leading the charge to punish “obnoxious” advertising experiences.

As a consequence, we are alienating the audience we need most — loyal readers who visit on a daily or weekly basis.

Reorienting ourselves to a focus on subscription revenues requires not just adding a paywall, but rethinking and overcoming a decade of organizational reluctance to focus on the needs of these valuable readers.

A pivot to reader revenue is a pivot to data

Can you answer these questions about your current subscription business:

  • What is your annual revenue per user?
  • What is your annual revenue per subscriber?
  • Do those figures account for the user’s advertising revenue as well as their print and digital subscriptions?
  • How many people must be consulted to gather these answers?
  • How long will that take?

The last two questions — “who” and “how long” — are the key to a data-focused strategy. The details of revenue performance can be calculated within any organization. But if they are available only on a monthly basis, or they are siloed within their respective departments and not accessible to everyone, then you do not have a data-focused culture that will allow you to reach your goals.

Building a culture around data means:

  • Key executives agree on core enterprise objectives and that alignment is communicated across the organization.
  • There are trusted sources of key business data that are relied on across departments.
  • Updated metrics are available on a daily if not hourly basis.
  • Data is “democratized” across the organization, so that anyone who needs it has instant access.
  • Decisions are made using data.

A pivot to reader revenue is a pivot to understanding audiences

Consumers discover and read the news on an increasing number of platforms and devices including social, search, email, web and apps. And publishers attempt to target their audience across the same channels, not just for news but also to sell advertising or to market subscriptions.

Unfortunately, we can’t effectively track individual readers across different devices and platforms. And many of our systems (email marketing and website CMS, for instance) do not typically share information. So in any given month one individual reader may look like six or eight “unique visitors” in our analytics reports, and they may receive multiple and potentially conflicting advertising and marketing messages.

This creates a number of challenges:

  • We have no full picture of the potential cross-platform business value of individual visitors.
  • We are unable to consistently personalize the features and content of our products to encourage engagement and subscription.
  • We are wasting time and money through uncoordinated marketing efforts that lead readers to unsubscribe from our email communications.
  • We are speaking to readers in a generic and unpersuasive voice that does not respect their time, appeal to their interests, or increase their likelihood to subscribe.

So, our goals to improve our understanding of readers include:

  • Providing each visitor with a more relevant experience and increasing their engagement with our journalism.
  • Recognizing patterns among individual visitor behaviors that indicate likelihood to subscribe.
  • Targeting content, products, services and offers to potential subscribers.
  • Reducing conflicting messages (emails, ads, alerts) that do not serve both a business goal and a reader need.

We can summarize this approach as having a “single view” of each reader and speaking in a “single voice” to them.

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