When No. 10 Downing Street got in touch with The Spectator last November and requested to write a rebuttal to an article published the previous week, the publisher knew it was on to something.

The article in question was a deep legal analysis of British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal, delivered in a tongue-in-cheek format broken into 40 points. Titled “The Top 40 horrors lurking in the small print of Theresa May’s Brexit deal,” the article was popular among subscribers and resulted in the U.K. Government’s legal team writing a rebuttal: “The Brexit deal: 40 rebuttals to Mr Steerpike’s 40 horrors.” The two articles alone generated 333 new paying subscribers for The Spectator last November, the publisher said, and helped it reach a record of 1,000 new paying subscribers in one week.

A heavy bit of legalese, albeit delivered in a digestible format, isn’t the kind of article the publisher thought would drive subscriptions. But a new way of monitoring its analytics has shed new light on what kinds of articles are most popular with subscribers, and can then be used to attract more, according to The Spectator’s editor Fraser Nelson.

The Spectator has a metered paywall, which allows people to read three articles before they must register their name and email address to unlock a further five. Being a relatively lean operation of 63 staff, though, with three digital hires set to join in the next few months, the magazine doesn’t have the resources to buy costly analytics tools that larger media companies typically use. Instead, The Spectator developed its own analytics tool over the summer, which shows more closely what subscribers are reading, rather than just general traffic to the site and what free articles are being consumed. The tool spotlighted some surprises for the editorial team: It is the heavier in-depth analysis of political developments subscribers have flocked to, rather than lighter, news-based articles.

“Previously, I’d have thought that running an article of 40 legal points around something like this was a bit of a nerdy indulgence,” said Nelson. “People likely have better things to do on a Saturday than read that. But the fact it was so popular with subscribers showed there was a real hunger to understand it [the deal] in depth.”

The Spectator doesn’t break out its exact split of advertising to subscriptions revenue, but Nelson was clear that he expects future growth to come from reader revenue. In 2018, subscriptions drove three-quarters of the publisher’s revenue growth, though Nelson wouldn’t reveal specific figures.

Nelson attributed that growth partly to a newfound confidence in what to commission based on subscriber consumption, as well as changes made to the payment model last summer. The magazine has gone for the Netflix-esque free-month sample followed by a weekly £8.99 ($11.50) for digital-only subscriptions and £11.99 ($15.25) for print and digital, rather than its former £12 ($15.27) for 12 weeks and no free-month sample. Since that change in the summer, subscriptions have climbed to 73,000, up from around 60,000 last April.

Although The Spectator has a metered paywall, it isn’t interested in scaling its non-subscriber traffic. In 2019, it will focus purely on driving subscriptions and reducing churn, rather than attracting new readers. Currently, retention is around 85 percent, says the publisher. Subscribers currently read a daily average of three articles on the site, and Nelson wants to push that up to four and a half per day. Subscribers, in general, have started spending more time on the site, with 35 percent of site visitors now being subscribers versus those consuming free articles.

Retention is often the part of the subscriptions equation neglected by many publishers, notes Gregory Harwood, director at strategy and marketing consultant Simon-Kucher and Partners. “More often than not, a lot of time, resource and effort is invested in acquiring customers and insufficient time is spent ensuring they stick around,” he said. “This ultimately requires a change of mindset internally which can only come from the leadership team.”

The Spectator isn’t alone in having enjoyed the same Brexit bump that many other British subscriptions-led publishers have experienced, similar to the Trump bump enjoyed predominantly by U.S. publications. But Nelson isn’t concerned that the windfall has faded.

“You could say the same for the Scottish Referendum, the snap [U.K. prime minister] election, the Trump phenomenon — we seem to be pretty well stocked for political crisis right now,” added Nelson.

Image: courtesy of The Spectator

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