How The New York Times finds new subscribers on Facebook

Publishers have a lot of tools to bring readers back to their site. But often those visitors amount to little more than drive-by traffic, especially if they come from social media.

Publishers need that traffic to work harder, especially if they’re like The New York Times, where subscriptions account for more than half its revenue. To drive subscriptions, the Times, like other publishers, has been shifting from direct-response approaches to softer sells like buying traffic on social media and content-recommendation engines. Now, it’s finding success in targeting audiences on Facebook and getting them not just to visit the site but to subscribe, too.

The Times is one of a handful of publishers using a startup called Keywee, which uses natural language analysis to find keywords in articles that are likely to be relevant to potential Times subscribers, then buying traffic against those audiences on Facebook. The NYT is also an investor in Keywee.

The Times knows that the longer people stay on the site and return, the more likely they are to subscribe. So once the readers are on the site, the Times will target them with more articles designed to lead them down the subscription funnel, helped along by the familiar “subscribe” buttons and reminders that they’re reaching the limit of free articles a month allowed by the Times paywall.

The Times has been using Keywee since September and was reluctant to say exactly how many subscriptions it has sold this way. But the Times said the service “constantly outperforms” other channels. The Times said it’s getting a 150 percent return on subscription revenue for every dollar it spends this way. Another key stat: Half the people coming to the site this way are first-time visitors.

“We know not everyone on Facebook is a casual reader,” said Mat Yurow, the Times’ director of audience development. “There’s still potential to find loyal subscribers, and Keywee has been one of the best ways we’ve found to leverage those users.” Keywee claims more than 70 clients, including Condé Nast and CBS.

Here’s a more detailed explanation of how the process works. The Times sends Keywee 50 to 100 articles a month. Keywee scans each one for relevant terms to pull in readers. Then the Times buys traffic (for now, just on Facebook) against those terms. Keywee makes its money by taking a cut of the publisher’s media spend.

The Times has a similar practice at work with Facebook interest targeting, a feature that lets publishers target their editorial content to a subset of their followers based on their being a fan of a certain Facebook page, such as an athlete’s or TV show’s. With Keywee, the targeting is much more granular, and the targeted readers doesn’t have to already follow the Times on Facebook. Yurow said this granular targeting is cheaper than buying traffic against general terms that lots of others are buying on the social network.

“It’s a little like a Facebook hack,” he said. “But I think it’s a smart marketing play. It’s unlocking those audiences nobody else is thinking about.”

For example, the photo essay “Forty Portraits in Forty Years” was originally published in October. A couple of months later, the Times gave it another push. Simple interest targeting would have pushed it out to people interested in terms like “photojournalism” and “women.” Keywee suggested other terms that had a tangential connection to the article, like women empowering women, the movie “Boyhood,” the Museum of Modern Art, things, said Yurow, “I never in a million years would have thought of.”

Months later, the story was surging again as people saw it in their Facebook feeds and reshared it. “That was a huge performer for us — there was this really great downstream impact,” he said.

Breaking news, on the other hand, isn’t well suited to this type of promotion because it has such a short shelf life, but evergreen and service features like health, data-driven and archival stories have done well at pushing people down the subscription funnel. The side benefit, of course, is that this also helps the publisher get more value out of its editorial content, as all publishers are trying to do.

Paul Berry, CEO of Rebel Mouse, which helps publishers with social amplification, said it’s important for publishers to focus on loyalty and not just getting viral hits. Buying traffic may have an associated stigma and Berry said it can be “an addiction that can be damaging,” but as long as a publisher isn’t relying on this method for too much of its traffic, it can be a good way to get people back to their sites, whether it’s to sell subscriptions or push them to branded content.

“If you can get someone who’s loyal, it can be good for media companies — otherwise you’re subject to the whims of one viral hit,” he said.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.