Commentary

Study: Stricter Paywalls, Email Newsletters Help Boost Paid Subs

Publishers with stricter paywalls, email newsletters and clearly defined audiences were most likely to boost reader revenue, a survey of more than 500 digital publications found.

Publishers growing their digital subscriptions are outperforming the industry average by a factor of 10, according to the study by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center and the nonprofit Lenfest Institute.

“Digital news consumers will indeed pay for access to high-quality content, particularly when they are presented with compelling, relevant information and marketing messages that inspire deep and ongoing engagement,” the study said.

Subscription sales and paywall fees have become imperative to the survival of publications that have lost readership and advertisers to digital rivals. More than 1,300 U.S. communities have lost local news coverage since 2004, according to the University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism.

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Publishers with thriving digital businesses tended to have higher meter stop rates. That is, they prevented people from reading too many articles for free before asking them to subscribe, according to the Shorenstein and Lenfest study.

The newspaper industry has a median stop rate of about 3.6%, while the best-performing digital publications had stop rates of 6% or more.

“These publishers often invest heavily in audience development, effective newsletters and social-media marketing to circulate their content to build engagement,” the study said.

Pushing out emailed newsletters can help to highlight stories and urge readers to visit a publisher's website. One publisher found that newsletter subscribers or readers who had provided an email address were five to 10 times more likely to subscribe to its main publication.

Becoming reader-oriented also means basing digital strategies on a well-defined market and aligning editorial objectives to best serve that market.

One city newspaper in a major college-football market found that it got higher pageviews by covering a nationally ranked team, but paying subscribers were more interested in a smaller school in the area. Instead of competing with national news media like ESPN to cover the bigger team, it focused more reporting on the smaller school and boosted paid subscriptions.

“High-performing publishers studied tendencies to offer a distinctive value proposition to the reader, incorporating reporting only that publication can provide,” the study said.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune Network and Boston GlobeMedia were most effective, compared with other newspapers, at reaching their local markets.

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