How The Times of London grew its registered users to 1.2 million

Like a lot of newspapers, The Times of London is trying to grow its paying subscriber base. But going in cold with a subscriptions message to non-Times readers doesn’t always work. That’s why the Times has focused on getting people to register as a first step toward asking them to pay.

During the past year, the Times did six months of rigorous testing into what would get people to register for access to two free articles on its site, which has a hard paywall. Getting readers to return for the second article took additional prompts, as did converting those who returned into paying subscribers. As a result, it got 1.2 million users to register, and initial tests show they’re four times more likely to subscribe than those who aren’t registered, according to the publisher.

The Times has 430,000 people paying for subscriptions, 185,000 of which are digital.

“If we take anonymous users and push them through a buying journey and they bounce, we basically have a 30-day anonymous cookie. Unless [we] can convert them in 30 days, [they] just go back to being anonymous. We wanted to bridge that gap,” said Chris Duncan, managing director of the Times.

The Times assigned eight people from marketing, editorial, audience development and product to monitor which articles drove the highest upticks in registrations, decide where to focus social media spend to boost those articles on social platforms and then tweaking the design of marketing messages around them to prompt conversions once users clicked through to the Times’ desktop and mobile sites.

The Times used social platforms as the main shopfront, posting articles marked for registration pushes to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Users that clicked through were taken to a landing page showing the headline and a 100-word preview of the article, where they’d be asked to register. From that point, the bulk of the experiments occurred.

“We experimented with the tone and wording of messages, their position on the page, whether we interrupted with a pop-up or a bar floating at the top of the page and what we did on mobile compared to desktop. We’d tweak and refine on a weekly basis, based on the data,” said Nick Petrie, deputy head of digital of the Times.

In-depth analysis and exclusives, profiles and opinion pieces are the Times’ bread and butter, and the registration drive reflected that. Politics and lifestyle pieces drove high numbers of registrations, though articles were selected for registration pushes on a daily basis from across the news agenda. Increases have occurred gradually rather than in big waves, with the exception of a few major news events like the death of well-known restaurant critic and Times columnist AA Gill in December, and an exclusive interview with Donald Trump, the former U.K. justice secretary and Times columnist Michael Gove in January. Petrie said both stories drove “considerable” sign-up but wouldn’t give specifics.

One of the biggest challenges was nudging users that had clicked through to an article on a Facebook post into completing their sign-ups. That’s where the most drop-offs would occur. Reducing the number of fields they had to complete for free access helped. Requests for phone number and location, which the publisher could infer from IP addresses, were therefore dropped.

Those who registered automatically received the Times’ daily email newsletter, which features editorially curated highlights from that day’s editions. The email was particularly useful in driving people to their second free-access article.

Users didn’t respond well to the use of loud colors and aggressively worded messages in overly prominent places, so the Times adjusted accordingly. Those who returned a third time were sent more urgent prompts to subscribe, including a full-page message informing them that their free access had ended and that to see the article they had clicked on, they would need to subscribe.

The Times is considering making video available to non-subscribers, Petrie said. That said, the publisher won’t succumb to the scale trap anytime soon.

“There comes a point when you stop looking at the big reach figure and only care for the conversions. The target is making a channel that drives weekly subscription acquisitions,” Duncan said. “A lot of our targets will be around the efficiencies and sophistication of how we tell when people are ready [to convert].”

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