Publishers shouldn’t ignore conversion metrics in building reader revenue

Conversion metrics
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The percentage of the population willing to pay for content online varies wildly around the world. In news, it’s as high as 45% in some Scandinavian countries, where in the UK it’s less than 10%. But even where audiences are more willing to pay for content, studying conversion metrics is crucial to maximise subscription revenues.

Conversion challenges
  • Digital subscriptions are seen by publishers as the leading hedge against declining revenues in other areas of their business, including newsstand and advertising sales. Before the pandemic, almost 70% of leading newspapers had a paywall in place.
  • Reader retention has received a lot of attention recently. But the initial challenge for any publisher is to convert long-term free readers, discovering exactly what content they consider to be worth the cost of a subscription. For new readers, communicating the value of the content hidden behind a paywall is crucial to conversion.
  • In both instances, conversion is made easier by behavioural data that builds a deeper understanding of the type of reader that is most likely to convert to paid. A clear picture of the types of content, engagement levels and the referral sources that ultimately convert audiences to subscribers is also key.
Key conversion tactics

At its simplest, conversion rates look at how much traffic a website receives, and from there, how many subscribers sign up. But this hasn’t always been a focus for publishers.

  • Previously publishers judged the success of their content purely on metrics that proved attention – visits and time spent. With the switch in emphasis moving from advertising to subscription sales, conversion metrics are now much more important.
  • The switch from the business-to-business mindset that underpins advertising sales to a business-to-consumer mindset needed to sell subscriptions aligns with many of the metrics used to quantify success in e-commerce businesses.
  • Under its News Consumer Insights initiative, Google has been partnering with publishers to help them access the data, analytics, and insights to build sustainable digital businesses.

Google’s Amy Adams Harding told the Digiday podcast, the number one lesson from the programme is:

You need to be able to act like an e-commerce player, because those are the ones that are having success online.

Propensity to pay

A key initial conversion metric might not be revenue based at all, but focused on newsletter sign ups, a key tactic for publishers to build relationships and sell subscriptions to loyal audience members.

  • Adams Harding says, in her experience, the primary indicator of a reader’s subscriber potential is whether they subscribe to a newsletter. She describes newsletters as ‘$0 subscriptions’ as although free, newsletter readers have already taken the step to subscribe.
  • Testing trials and special offers is standard practice in ecommerce. Keeping a close eye on the conversion rates of discounted subscriptions, marketing messaging and on-site buttons and banners will also play a key part in refining conversion strategies that work.
  • Finally, editors should be analysing audience data to understand which articles are driving subscription activity. Focusing on conversion rates in this way aligns editorial and commercial objectives, guiding future content commissioning to support subscriber acquisition.

As with any metrics, it’s key to know what you are measuring and why. Without this understanding, you will find it difficult to judge the success of any actions you take. For example, The Wall Street Journal measures how many days a reader is active over a 28-day period because it has strongly connected that metric with a likelihood to churn.

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