Like other publishers, The Times of London wants to build up a stable subscriber base, but it’s a long and strenuous journey. Working out the content and formats that drive interest and then pushing readers to subscribe is a continuous learning experience.
The Times has signed up 1.8 million people to its registered-access model — people can read two articles a week in exchange for an email address — since introducing the option in May 2016. It hit 450,000 subscribers, 210,000 of whom are digital-only, this month.
Between March 2016 and March 2017, subscribers grew 8 percent. That might not seem like much, but growth had stagnated before that, said Nick Petrie, deputy head of digital at the Times and Sunday Times.
“Journeys are complicated,” Petrie said at Digiday’s Publishing Summit Europe in Berlin. “Do we show someone who came to us through a sports article more sports coverage, or do we show our breadth? The question is, how effective can we be? And we don’t know.”
The publisher is testing different messages to people unknown to the Times to drive direct subscriptions or registered-access sign-ups, Petrie said. Before the experiment, users landing on an article page were offered the option to subscribe or register for access. Now, the subscription message has recently started mentioning pricing.
Growing the pool of prospects with the right type of audience is also important. Last week, the Times created a game ahead of the Premier League season where viewers act as a football referee and judge whether a shot was offside. The first round was free to play; to play the next round, users had to register or subscribe, which led to 12,000 registrations to play the next level. In May, a piece about pop star Harry Styles from the Sunday Times Magazine drove high registered-access sign-ups, but it’s unlikely a high percentage of audiences will convert to a subscription.
To draw statistically significant conclusions about how to grow audiences and convert them to subscribers, the Times needed over a year’s worth of subscriber data to account for cases like someone being a registered-access user for seven months before converting. And like other publishers, the Times has a number of different subscription campaigns, including one offering eight weeks of digital access for £8 ($10.50); a digital subscription usually costs £26 ($34) a month.
Newsroom analytics can show what content drives direct subscriptions, registered-access users or conversions, but this data isn’t helpful on its own. “Stories are individual; we have to try and unpick backward the commonalities — the way it was written, the tone, the format and layout — to make it useful.” said Petrie. “Otherwise, it leads you down the wrong path.”