How The New York Times uses T-shirt discounts and tours to drive subscriptions

The New York Times has a team of 100 consumer marketing and retention experts working to get to its 10 million subscriber goal. They work to figure out when people are likely candidates to subscribe, put just the right offer in front of them and intervene when customers seem at risk of canceling. But its subscription effort doesn’t end there. As part of its shift to seeing itself as a consumer business, the Times has called into service its various brand extensions to help.

A year ago, the Times relaunched The New York Times Store with a focus on Times branded- and Times-inspired items like T-shirts, framed historic front pages and a personalized Times cookbook. Subscribers get 15 percent off their purchases.

The School of the Times initiative shifted its focus to high-schoolers from young professionals three years ago, with summer courses in writing and other subjects taught by Times journalists and other experts. Kids who enroll get a yearlong subscription to the Times, the first in what will be a series of steps the Times hopes will make them lifelong Times customers.

And Times Journeys, a travel program, this summer added day trips to its roster of multiday trips and cruises. Subscribers who sign up for a day trip get a 15 percent discount on the cost of the trip; non-subscribers who sign up get a one-month free trial to the Times.

David Rubin, the Times’ svp of audience and brand, said that with the shift of the Times to a consumer and subscription focus, it saw the chance for these brand extensions to serve not just as profit centers but ways to enhance the greater subscription goal. The extensions like the store are still mainly a way for people to express their affinity for the Times, and Times knows people won’t subscribe just because they got 15 percent off a T-shirt or trip. But the express hope is that something like the trip experience will make them feel more connected to the Times.

“We’re looking at this more of deepening engagement and the relationship as opposed to, ‘is the subscriber out or in,’” Rubin said. “The core difference with a subscription business is, it’s all about relationship. Tomorrow, I want someone to feel more connected with the Times than they did today.”

The Wall Street Journal takes a similar approach with its benefits program, WSJ+, that is free to subscribers. It’s found that subscribers who take advantage of those rewards are less likely to drop their subscription, so it offers rewards to WSJ+ members through its brand extensions, too, according to the newspaper. Its WSJ Wine club and WSJ Business Travel Service are open to everyone, but WSJ+ members get exclusive discounts and rewards like a free set of Bose sound-canceling headphones for members who made their first travel booking, for example.

Subscription or membership offerings with multiple benefits can be productive when it lowers the acquisition cost for the publisher and gives the consumer more value, said Jim Friedlich, executive director of The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, which advises publishers on digital news practices. “Over time we’ll likely see more cross-marketing and bundled subscription offerings rather than less,” he said. “This has been the case in the television, music and movie business; why not in news?”

Many publishers are looking to subscriptions to offset soft digital ad revenue growth, and strong subscriptions businesses often require cooperation across departments. Roping in other departments to promote subscription growth can create internal tension when the departments may have been operating on other incentives, though.

In the case of the Times, the emphasis on subscriptions meant the Times Store dropped items like a wooden pie box and ship-building kits that were high-margin but didn’t contribute to the new mission of only selling things that bore the Times’ name or were inspired by its journalism. The new one-day city tours now offered by Times Journeys are less profitable than multiday trips but, at a cost of around $75, are accessible to far more people. Similarly, the School of the Times is looking at ways to open itself up to still more people beyond high-schoolers and young professionals, Rubin said.

“We had to change the questions people were asking; that leads to a different framework,” Rubin said. “It certainly orients them on scale and not profitability. In prior days, a sub-$100 trip would have been a lot of work for lower margin. So you can see where the shift in mindset lets them do that. That means I can get a lot more people to experience the Times and Times journalism. If I measure you only on your profit margin, you wouldn’t take it on. The T-shirt space is not known for its profit margins.”

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