While The New York Times and The Washington Post crow about attracting big digital subscriber numbers, the sledding is tougher for local newspapers. The Seattle Times is starting to gain traction with digital subscribers, attracting 36,000 since starting a metered paywall in 2013.
“Five years ago, the idea of paying for news was new. Since then, consumers’ expectations have changed,” said Sharon Chan, vp of innovation and products at The Seattle Times.
The paywall is the biggest subscription driver for The Times, but Chan has also focused on adding digital products, like newsletters, contest tools and an election app, to keep subscribers engaged and attract new ones. Launched over the course of last two years, newsletters lead the charge with seven different types of offerings like daily news and food and dining.
“Newsletters are leads for the Seattle Times funnel,” said Chan. “At first it was many things. We wanted writers to be creative and try out a lot of things. But we’ve refined that to drive subscribers and then retaining them.”
Currently, the newsletters have 183,000 subscribers. The goal became to create a list of engaging stories in the newsletters that drove a reader to hit the paywall multiple times and then register to subscribe. In addition to newsletters, the product team works closely with the marketing team on various timely surveys to evaluate what is and isn’t working.
“A lot of these conversations about improving value proposition of the digital subscription program comes through surveys,” said Chan. “We look at unique visits and how many people get to the point where they have to stop [because of the paywall] and subscribe to read further,” said Chan.
What came to be an important part of the subscriber value proposition in that retention effort was turning on the comments feature. Every visitor to the site has to register to be able to leave a comment, which helps the Times in moving these visitors through to the mid-funnel.
“It’s an important driver for us. We know from the market data that our readers value the ability to comment [on stories],” Chan said. The engagement is a two-way benefit for the Times and its readers, and now the publisher is looking to improve the experience. “We’re exploring other products for high-quality comments system. How to remove trolls and hate speech comments is an important part of it.”
The overhaul in its internal systems has also come through over years. Chan said new and more efficient audience management systems had to be purchased and built internally.
“It’s a pretty good number for a city of that size,” said media analyst Ken Doctor. The Minneapolis Star Tribune, which plays in the same tier of market size as The Times, has 55,000 subscribers. In the past, print publishers would get 70-75 percent of their revenue from ads. Now, it’s dropped to 50-55 percent, according to Doctor. “They’ve got to pass 50,000 subscribers in the next two [or] three years for digital revenue, assuming the advertising revenue keeps dropping at the same rate,” said Doctor.
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