Commentary

How Local Newspapers Can Boost Subscriptions, Reduce Churn

Local newspapers have faced challenges with declining readership and advertising sales since before the pandemic started, leading them to develop other revenue strategies. Subscription revenue has grown dramatically at larger publications like The New York Times, but industry observers have questioned whether smaller newspapers would be able to emulate the strategy.

There are some signs of encouragement. Some 20% of U.S. consumers saying they paid for online news in the past year as more publishers hardened their paywalls, a global study from the Reuters Institute found. Readers are learning the days of free news are coming to an end as more communities lose their local newspaper.

Boosting subscription revenue and lowering churn are critical parts of a reader revenue strategy that more local newspapers have adopted, as Publishing Insider has covered. A recent blog post about The Spokesman-Review, a newspaper in Spokane, Washington, with a circulation of 150,000 print readers and 1.6 million monthly digital users, highlighted its strategy to engage online readers.

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The newspaper saw its digital churn rate slide from 49% in 2018 to 33% last year, with further declines expected by the end of 2020, according to a Q&A between Tyler Pisani, The Spokesman-Review’s digital audience and engagement manager, and Kathleen Coleman, the newspaper's director of marketing and business development.

A key part of cutting that churn rate was improving the onboarding experience to boost engagement with more customized emails. Instead of blasting out a couple of emails with the same creative to everyone, the newspaper segmented its readership into digital-only and print subscribers — and customized the messaging.

It also extending the onboarding to eight emails over 105 days, with supplemental emails to point out different billing options, based on more individualized subscriber data. A recent acquisition campaign consisting of four emails, each highlighting five reasons to subscribe, saw a conversion rate that was eight times higher than the average.

Readers are most likely to respond to email content that showcased sections in the newspaper and journalists. The newspaper sent an email promoting the women in its newsroom two days before a special Sunday section that honored women in the community and commemorated the 19thAmendment. Twenty-two percent of subscribers who opened an email returned to its website two days later.

Read the full Q&A for more insights, especially publishers developing reader revenue strategies as the economy recovers.

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