How Le Monde site tweaks helped increase subscriptions by 20 percent in 2018

Le Monde is seeing the fruits of its labor after focusing on driving reader revenue for the last two years.

The French news publisher has grown digital subscriptions by 20 percent to 180,000 in 2018 thanks in part to increasing the number of articles behind the paywall and improving its tech platform, culminating in a site redesign in November 2018.

The new homepage design more clearly highlights subscriber content. Le Monde has a premium paywall, where subscribers pay €9.90 ($11.30) a month for digital access to around 37 percent of Le Monde’s best content. Yellow logos have always signaled Le Monde’s subscriber offering, but previously subscribers were taken to a different site tab. Keeping all readers on the same page has the benefit of highlighting the content that’s deemed worth paying for as well as making the journey from reader to subscriber shorter.

“We needed to unify the experience for both readers and subscribers so it was the same page for both,” said Lou Grasser, head of innovative subscriptions at the publisher. “People do want personalization — that is important — but they also want the selection of the best content on the homepage and not too many articles so it feels like you are reading the paper.”

The new site increased subscriber conversions by 46 percent. On busy news days, like coverage of the gilets jaunes, or yellow vests, political protests against President Emmanuel Macron’s proposed fuel tax hike, conversions were over 90 percent higher than before the site redesign.

Putting free and paid-for content side by side has a psychological effect, said Greg Harwood, director at strategy and marketing consultancy Simon-Kucher & Partners. “By forcing consumers to make this decision, of the price-value trade-off, they are able to effectively create the call-to-action that is often required to get a prospective reader over the inertia barrier.”

Le Monde’s site redesign puts subscriber content next to free.


Getting the balance of how much content to give away for free and how much to hold back as an incentive to subscribe is a common concern for publishers. Previously, 33 percent of content was behind the paywall. The publisher found gating over 40 percent of articles began having a negative impact on the non-subscriber audience, which it relies on for a healthy pool of prospective subscribers. According to Similar Web stats, total monthly visits to Le Monde in November were 83.6 million. In December, after reducing the amount of paid content on the homepage, traffic rose to 95.7 million.

The goal for 2019, according to Grasser, is to reach 220,000 digital subscribers. A 30 percent growth is ambitious but not impossible, according to François Godard, European media analyst at Enders Analysis. In France, 11 percent of people have paid for online news in the last year, according to Reuters Digital News Report, the market average is 14 percent, but Le Monde — which is the most trusted news brand and second-most-accessed online news site, per Reuters — is well paced to keep growing. “As a general rule of thumb, the natural ceiling for digital subscriptions would be the circulation at its highest. For Le Monde, that’s just over 400,000,” he said.

On social, Le Monde’s marketing and subscriptions teams work together on which subscriber content to promote, with the hashtag “abo” (short for “abonnements,” subscriptions in French). It also promotes paid content through push notifications. The number flexes depending on the news of the day. The French daily has a Snapchat discover channel too, but the platform is more brand-building than subscription-driving for now.

Le Monde has to keep retention under control to meet its 2019 goal, although the publisher would not share its current retention figure. “The focus for 2019 is to make sure the most valuable subscribers know they are valuable, they have more advantages and benefits,” said Grasser. There are different levels of loyalty: Some readers will comment on stories but read very little; others navigate around the site or use lots of products. Understanding these cohorts and what makes them stay on site, whether to show them content through pushes or newsletters, is key. The route to subscribing plays a part: Those who sign up through Facebook, for instance, might not be as familiar with the brand, Le Monde is working on ways to automate sending them relevant articles several weeks after signing up, for instance.

Speaking to Digiday in December, Le Monde’s president Louis Dreyfus said that subscriptions account for 55 percent of digital revenues. Driving reader revenue, which accounts for 75 percent of revenue across print and digital, has been a key focus, over challenges like ad blocking. 

“The focus is more on subscription, not on audience, just for audience,” said Grasser. “When started to understand who they were and what they liked, we understood what to offer them directly; that’s why a good push strategy is important.”

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