The difficulty of driving subscriptions through Apple News

Since September, publishers including The Wall Street Journal, the Economist, National Geographic and the Radio Times have been using Apple News’ subscribe feature. The service lets publishers sell subscriptions from within Apple News, with Apple taking a 30 percent cut of subscriptions it drives. Before the service, Apple frustrated publishers by driving traffic but not much in the way of revenue. Still, there’s little evidence it’s driving much revenue for publishers yet, and there are difficulties in driving traffic.

“The vast majority of people who pay for content are unlikely to do it in aggregator apps. It’s not the right environment to attract paying readers,” said Thomas Caldecott, senior research analyst at Ender Analysis, saying they would instead go straight to the publisher’s own apps and digital properties. “Time spent, traffic and revenue is low, so they will struggle to gain traction.”

Readers access Apple News for free. The platform shows a selection of articles from publishers in a feed, some of which are behind a paywall. In a recent 24-hour period, The Wall Street Journal published more than 80 stories on Apple News, including a few stories on food. Most are behind the Journal’s paywall, shown by a yellow subscribe label under the article. Only a handful are viewable without a digital subscription to the paper, which costs £24.99 a month ($31.20).

The Economist published around 15 stories to Apple News a day. About seven are free to access; the rest are behind a paywall, which costs £44.99 for three months ($56.06). Other partners that were announced for the subscription feature, like National Geographic, are only putting two pieces a week behind a paywall. For these publishers, it is too soon to share data on Apple News. Others have grumbled that traffic has been underwhelming.

Part of the difficulty for Apple News lies in getting people to use apps that are pre-installed on their phones. The visibility of the platform grew with the update of iOS 10: Publishers could send out breaking-news notifications. Many publishers recorded a traffic boost. However, this is also in line with the traffic decrease some saw from Spotlight search: swiping left from the home screen brings up links to news articles; previously, this sent readers to the publisher’s site, and now they go to Apple News.

Data on any new subscribers who sign up through Apple News goes to Apple and is then shared with the publisher. Publishers need to ask readers to re-enter details on their own properties to get their hands on first-party data. But Apple has always held the key to this information if it’s bought through iTunes.

The yellow subscription label shows content behind a paywall.

Access to data has been a bone of contention for publishers. The Financial Times pulled its apps from the Apple app store in 2011 over fights about customer data. The FT has dropped out of Apple News too. The publisher declined to comment for this story, instead issuing a statement from a spokesperson: “We regularly experiment with new ways to deliver our journalism with a focus on platforms that achieve reach while complementing our business model. After a trial period, we have decided to focus our efforts elsewhere.”

One company seeing early encouraging signs is Radio Times publisher Immediate Media, who is using the feature on three of its specialist titles: BBC History, BBC Focus and Sky at Night. While the the traffic is relatively low, the conversion to subscriber ratio is high: One of its titles has doubled its monthly acquisitions, although the publisher declined to give specific numbers. Still, Immediate Media said it was pleased with the number of people paying the full price for an annual subscription too, rather than cheaper trial subscriptions: 30 percent of one title’s conversions paid the full annual price of £38 ($47.44).

“The important thing for me is this is generating actual revenue through another channel,” said Andy Healy, publishing director for the specialist group at Immediate Media. He added that more promotional opportunities from Apple in the main “For You” section would help, as well as longer teasers for each article that sits behind the paywall — currently non-subscribers can only see the top line of text. Even so, because it adds very little by way of additional workflow, Immediate Media is planning to use the subscription feature for all its titles.

“There’s no massive downside [to being on Apple News], but it’s not going to be a massive revenue generator,” said Caldecott. “Other tech platforms are more important to build audiences, and more dangerous in terms of the user data they hold.”

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