How the Washington Post is expanding its global subscriber base

The subscriptions boom came for the Washington Post in March and April, as it did for many other publishers who lifted their paywall on coronavirus-related content. But the success the Jeff Bezos-owned news publisher saw in growing its global subscriptions business came from tactics that were deployed well before the pandemic took hold.

And while lifting the paywall certainly helped fuel that growth, the Post’s chief marketing officer Miki King said during this week’s Digiday Publishing Summit Worldwide that taking a regionalized approach to everything from marketing to pricing to bundling helped to keep its international subscriptions business growing when many of the publisher’s counterparts experienced a plateau in reader revenue.

Since the beginning of the year, the Post’s subscriptions business has grown by over 40% year over year, while its global subscriptions business, in particular, is up over 60% from last year, according to King. King did not disclose the publication’s total number of subscribers.

“Part of the growth that we saw was a result from things that we’d done prior to this year that began to gain traction and allowed us to be poised [for] this moment,” said King.

Currently, just under 10% of the publication’s subscriptions come from outside the U.S., though the goal is to double that number to 20%, which would be commensurate with the amount of readership that takes place outside of the U.S., King said. In September, the site had a total of 91.6 million unique visitors, according to Comscore.

And the majority of the news publisher’s international traffic comes from countries that have large populations of English speakers, including the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, she said. Because of that, most of her team’s growth efforts have been targeted in those areas. 

To date, that’s been done through newsletters and paid social media marketing that uses global content at its center. King said that 90% of the publication’s marketing uses article excerpts or graphics as its hook and in international locations, her team found it beneficial to include global perspectives while marketing outside of the U.S.

Additionally, King said she wanted to remove any friction from the signing up process, such as making sure the currency on the page matches the country the user is in. This was a change that was implemented within the first couple months of this year.

The other way that the Post has been getting new audiences, in the U.K. in particular, was through an introductory bundle deal with the Financial Times that gave the FT’s readers a discount to sign up for the Post and vice versa.

King said that her team is just “dipping their toes” into bundling with the FT campaign that ran for a couple weeks, ending in mid-October. But she said she sees a significant opportunity with the FT again, and is looking to initiate bundling campaigns with regional publishers in Canada next year.

There are two main groups that are likely targets for U.S. based news publishers expanding into international markets, according to Pete Doucette, the managing director in the telecoms, media and technology practice at FTI Consulting. 

The first are expats, or U.S. citizens who have since left the country, but want to stay abreast of the national news. The second are people from international countries that want to stay up-to-date on all that’s happening in one of the largest economies in the world. Not to mention keep up to date on the country’s political story, which has its own global ramifications. 

“I would have to assume that interest in the U.S. is at an all time high,” said Doucette.

While the U.S. is treated as a single region from a pricing standpoint, prices for subscriptions differentiate based on the country or region that the Post operates in outside of the U.S. This is because, local news outlets likely have the authority of being the first thing that people subscribe to and King said the Post has to be cognizant of where locals are spending their dollars on subscriptions.

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“Our presumption is that if you live in Toronto, the Washington Post isn’t going to be the first publication that you subscribe to. We are going to be priced below your local publication because that’s your first news subscription, but we want to compete aggressively against the other global publishers in that market,” said King. 

Doucette said, however, this has to be a short term strategy, otherwise there is the risk of losing out on additional subscription revenue.

A year and a half ago, the Post hired Nancy Cutler as its head of global brand partnerships and marketing to help continue this growth process, and it continued to build out its global newsrooms. King said the idea was not so much to compete with the local publications in those areas, but rather to offer a global news perspective familiar to those regions. 

“If you’re really going to scale this, there is only so much growth that you can do that’s controlled from Washington,” said Doucette. “To go to level 2.0, you will need some local presences to understand the pulse of these markets and understand trends.” 

A previous version of this story said the Washington Post was owned by Amazon rather than Jeff Bezos.

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