Launching a paywall is easy. Pivoting a whole business from an advertising-centric mindset to one focused on reader revenue is not.

Despite 10 years of experimentation and increasing attention, the news industry still needs to develop some of the attitudes, technology and skills needed to sustain exceptional membership and subscription programs.

To succeed with reader revenue, news publishers need to better understand readers and all aspects of the subscription business — data, insights, marketing, loyalty, conversion and retention. That will require fundamental changes in our organizations.

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I have spent the last seven years, first at The Boston Globe and most recently at McClatchy, working with teams dedicated to making this transition. This report is intended as a brief guide to the technical and strategic challenges that arise when building a subscription program. There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution, but everyone can be smarter about using data to support reader needs and grow subscriptions.

Among the work to be done:

  • Data collection: We must identify, collect and store the relevant reader data and understand its importance.
  • Data analysis: We must analyze this data and develop insights to support business decisions and activities.
  • Data action: We must eliminate internal business silos and streamline our operations to let data drive our decisions and to reduce the time to market for new products and features.
  • Make reader revenue the top objective: Everyone in the business must be aligned around a core vision, goals and incentives that support reader revenue growth.
  • Provide a better user experience: We must improve the usability of our websites and apps to increase reader loyalty and engagement.
  • Test and measure: We must deploy tools to test, market, and measure the performance of our subscription programs.
  • Establish a reader-first culture: We must recognize that technology is only part of the solution and take steps to enable the cultural changes necessary for us to put our readers first.

Every organization is at a different stage in the effort to become data-centric and reader-focused. This report will discuss the steps, decisions and actions needed to transition from a “mostly advertising” revenue strategy to a “reader-focused” approach that balances advertising and subscription revenues while building products that align with those goals.

In each section that follows we will review key questions and tactics, and provide some examples of the discussions to have and the decisions to make, and some of the vendors or technologies involved.

We also must recognize that any effort to improve our understanding and use of data must support a mission to publish meaningful journalism that serves our communities. No data and business strategy can succeed without a readership that finds value in the news coverage we produce.

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