Driving value from subscriptions, publishers involve readers in the process

One emerging tactic in turning readers into subscribers: get them involved.

The Financial Times often asks for reader contributions to its projects, either through submitting essays, like during its Future of Britain initiative, or sharing personal experiences. Dutch publisher De Correspondent involves members throughout the process, from reporting to proofreading. The Guardian’s gambit: Reader surveys form the basis of articles across its news desks to encourage loyalty.

“Our readers know a huge amount about the topics that we cover,” said Lilah Raptopoulos, community editor at the FT. “If they’re not experts, they often have relevant experience around what we’re reporting on or have really good questions that our reporting can help answer. Opening up the traditional reporting process to include them is a no-brainer to me.”

Publishers have long invested energy in their comments sections not just to mine them for editorial direction, but to encourage loyalty and boost frequency of visits with audiences. Others, typically subscription publishers, have gone further. Just as giving access to editorial talent through events can encourage subscriptions, giving the most engaged members a look behind the curtain is a perk.

The FT considers the gap in coverage it wants its reader to fill and the best way to reach the reader — whether a survey, a prompt at the end of a story, questions on a podcast — as well as how responses are used and how to measure success. This week, Simon Kuper, life and arts columnist at the FT, published a callout on the site and on Twitter asking how young people plan to watch the World Cup. In December, the FT ran its seasonal appeal for Alzheimer’s Research UK, including a call to readers to share their experiences having or caring for someone with the disease. The three collections of stories and photos that were published had some of the highest dwell times of the series.

According to Raptopoulos, subscribers who respond to the FT’s callouts are 35 percent more engaged — measured by how often users come to FT.com, how long they stay and how much they read — for eight weeks after submitting their response compared to a control group.

Becoming more customer-centric is a natural evolution for publishers looking to grow reader revenue, said Nial Ferguson, a consultant who works with publishers on reader-revenue initiatives. “The word ‘funnel’ will be used more and more by all publishers,” he said. “Every ounce of reader data will be called upon to improve conversions and connection.” He also added that in terms of content, value and control will be key.

De Correspondent, which now has 60,000 paying members, has no audience engagement team. Instead, it’s the responsibility of everyone in the organization. Writers are contracted to spend 50 percent of their time interacting with members, who can contribute their own experience in publicly accessible reporters’ notebooks, said Jessica Best, engagement editor at De Correspondent. This stems from believing that a number of health care professionals will have more knowledge that one health care correspondent.

When reporting on the porn industry, De Correspondent sent out a wide range of requests, including asking for academics to talk about the sociological impact, asking readers to scrape data from porn sites and inviting actors from the industry to the publisher’s office. This range offered all readers opportunities to get involved as much as they wished.

Another byproduct of involving readers to this degree is it encourages entrenched reporters to think more objectively and avoid falling into their unconscious biases around topics they have covered for some time. De Correspondent writers are encouraged to share when they change their mind, too.

Ernst-Jan Pfauth, De Correspondent co-founder and publisher, said the publisher is in the process of introducing a reward system for readers to boost their reputation on the site. But even without visible kudos, offering readers the chance to get involved has benefits.

“The journalistic value of this translates into commercial value,” said Raptopoulos. “Even just the callout being there sends a message to our readers that we respect them and know we can learn from them. All of this work builds trust. And that builds loyalty.”


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