News publishers adopt ‘show don’t tell’ for marketing subscriptions

News publishers have reaped the early rewards from paywalls and are increasingly turning their focus on the overall consumer marketing challenge of marketing their products beyond the most hard-core loyalists.

Part of that is bringing in new talent. Witness Condé Nast hiring former Stitch Fix marketer Dierdre Findlay to be its new chief marketing officer. And part of that is more robust marketing strategies that move people down the funnel to purchase a subscription by emphasizing the product benefits.

“When we look at the number of readers who’d encounter a paywall or encounter an offer from us, it is a very small percentage of our total audience,” Washington Post CMO Miki King said. “And while I think that the public understand to some degree that the Washington Post is a paid news product, there are many people who won’t necessarily encounter a paywall. We are trying to find ways to introduce the commercial aspect of our business in ways that are not intrusive.”

Over the summer, The Washington Post assembled a 12-person team tasked with improving the way that content is marketed and delivered to subscribers, King said. The team includes members of the Post’s newsroom, marketing, audience, product and engineering, whose goal is “to translate everything we’re doing across the organization into ways we can deliver things to subscribers,” King said. That group, which was assembled from existing staffers who still report in to their respective lines of business, coordinates to ensure that big stories are promoted in a more extensive, timely fashion.

For example, when the Post released “Where the Pain Pills Went,” a large editorial project around where prescription opioid medications were distributed across the United States, the Post’s team had a several-days head start creating messaging around the project for the Post’s subscribers.

Whereas in the past the Post’s consumer marketing team would largely have to rely on marketing stories after they had come out, coordination among the new team ensured that the Post was able to create several emails’ worth of marketing messages around several of its largest projects this year, including its opioid database.

King said at the Post, a newsroom representative keeps the group apprised of stories or projects that could work, ideally giving the marketing and product teams a chance to develop messaging and schedule promotions that can go out at the right time.

But the sensitive nature of many newsroom investigations limits the amount of coordination possible. For example, The Guardian’s blockbuster story about Cambridge Analytica was one of The Guardian’s biggest drivers of reader contributions and subscriptions, said Mark Rice-Oxley, the Guardian’s membership editor in the U.K. But the story was a closely held secret even within The Guardian’s newsroom, which required the contributions team to develop messaging and chatter around it after the fact.

“Ninety-nine percent of editorial didn’t even know about Cambridge Analytica,” Rice-Oxley said.

New publishers’ impulse to tailor messages about how much consumer revenue is valued must be balanced with an impulse to create messages that are broadly applicable. The Guardian, for example, tries to frame its requests for revenue and messaging around subscriptions in ways are “clear over clever,” said Amanda Michel, The Guardian’s global director of contributions.

“We have to write these things in a way that translates regardless of someone’s first language,” Michel said.

Publishers’ recent focus on consumer marketing are designed to support ambitious subscription targets that many news publishers have laid out. The Guardian plans to double the number of people directly contributing money by 2022, to 2 million; The New York Times has vowed to amass 10 million paying subscribers for its portfolio of products by 2025.

“We’re telling the story of our work,” Michel said.

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