‘A business of marginal gains’: How The Telegraph pairs user registration and paid subscriptions

At the end of 2018, U.K. news publisher The Telegraph hit 3.5 million registered users, beating its 3 million target for the year in August. According to the publisher, it’s making good progress to meet this year’s goal and then onto reaching the 10 million milestone in a few years’ time.

The publisher hasn’t shared how many subscribers it has since it switched from a metered paywall to a variable paywall three years ago, where 20 percent of its content is gated. Since introducing the premium tier, where users register an email address to view one premium article a week, the daily subscriber acquisition number tripled compared to the previous model, according to the publisher, and conversion has been growing as it becomes more sophisticated in understanding readers’ reasons for registering.

“The one thing we have learned — and it’s no secret — but the pursuit of digital subscriptions is a business of marginal gains,” said Chris Taylor, The Telegraph’s chief technology officer. “You increase a few percents here and there, and if you manage it well, you can accumulate strong subscriber benefits.”

Last July, the publisher launched My Telegraph across its site and app, allowing registered users to save articles, follow specific journalists and customize the topics that show up in their feed. According to the publisher, 5 percent of its registered user base interacts with My Telegraph. By far the most popular use of My Telegraph is saving articles, then it’s following journalists, followed by customizing content topics.

“That was a big surprise,” said Taylor, adding that My Telegraph works as an acquisition and retention mechanism where anonymous readers can follow journalists or topics and are then prompted to register. Registered users invest time in developing their own feed and setting up alerts. “That creates strength in retention,” he said.

Taylor stresses that My Telegraph is offered as an accompaniment to The Telegraph’s core editorial proposition, and points to the popularity of saving articles as proof of the strength of its journalism in converting. The publisher said it has now increased the amount of content behind the paywall to roughly 35 percent, depending on the news cycle. Just over 12 months ago, it announced it would grow editorial heads by 39, last March it launched a new tech vertical with 15 new staffers globally.

Of course, managing acquisition while keeping churn stable is a balancing act. The subscriptions team at The Telegraph is growing under chief operating officer Aki Mandhar, and the publisher is wary of recruiting low-value subscribers, acquired through discount offers, for instance. While the publisher wouldn’t share retention figures — often a private metric for many — Taylor said retention levels have “proven solid” as acquisition has grown, although improving it remains a focus.

In part, keeping churn down is due to the work the publisher has done in mapping journeys from anonymous readers to registered users and subscribers while monitoring at what propensity they are at throughout each stage based on triggers.

Also last summer, the publisher switched how it experimented with what messages and content converted the highest. Previously, it ran A/B tests on product improvements. It has since introduced a self-learning paywall, which runs multiple executions, and machine learning determines which is best for the reader, thanks to rich first-party data on browsing habits as a registered user, making testing more practical and efficient.

But it still needs enough structure around experiments to understand the value. Currently, the publisher is focused on understanding the journey 30 days after people register, a known key time frame for people to convert. In the last few months, The Telegraph’s site has cut down display ads from other advertisers and replaced them with Telegraph products that are likely to nudge people to convert.

“Good quality advertising has its place in premium environments,” said Taylor, adding that as it’s a relatively small time frame of 30 days or 30 visits, this only represents a small percentage of overall pageviews. The publisher still has scale through its open and premium model: Unique monthly visitors have fluctuated seasonally just over 21 million, according to Comscore stats. Hard paywalls suffer more from falling traffic, potentially making the tussle between the advertising and subscription sides of the business more fraught.


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