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August 25, 2022updated 07 Oct 2022 8:33am

What content-first success at Disney+ and Immediate Media can teach publishers about subscriptions

By Christine Hayes

Christine Hayes is group editor in chief (BBC Good Food and Olive) at Immediate Media.

Here she writes for Press Gazette about what publishers chasing subscription growth can learn from Disney+’s content-first strategy in the so-called “streaming wars” and what her brands are doing to boost their own engagement.

The “streaming wars” have taken so many twists and turns for the casual observer it’s almost as exciting as watching an episode of House of the Dragon or Bridgerton. In the latest development, Disney+ subscription numbers have overtaken those of the original streaming disruptor Netflix. This is a remarkable achievement considering Disney+ only launched in November 2019, while Netflix first stepped into the streaming arena 15 years ago.

But is it that remarkable when we look at it from a content-first lens? Disney is just one more illustration of how quality content delivers when it comes to creating and retaining loyal audiences. Get the strategy right and you’ll develop audiences willing to pay a premium for the content – but identifying what makes strong content and how to understand and connect with your potential audiences is a challenge.

Disney+ has the heritage of proven brands, a slew of strong franchises with enthusiastic followers, an eco-system of content channels and an unerring sense of what its audiences want and how to reflect shifts in the cultural mood.

All this resonates with our editorial approach at Immediate’s food portfolio, producing two of the strongest brands in the food sector – market-leading BBC Good Food, Britain’s biggest food media brand, and premium title olive. Our experience in optimising their potential means we have useful insights in how to craft and share content.

Know your audience and build trust

Our audiences are excited about all aspects of food – its provenance and eating with the seasons, improving their kitchen skills, getting the best value from shopping, preventing waste and making sustainable choices and most importantly, how to enjoy cooking healthy, flavour-packed meals every day.

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Papermule: Workflow automation for publishers and attract 31.5 million users a month, so staying across their ever-changing needs is key. There is no substitute for putting the audience first. The deeper knowledge you have of your audience, the better you can craft content that will surprise and deliver. We track our audience’s reaction and behaviours through a variety of methods, including through the comments and ratings they leave on recipes.

The 135,000-strong BBC Good Food Together Facebook group is another invaluable source of insight: what recipes are popular, what the group wants to see more of, which ingredients they love, topics they feel we are under-serving and how current events are affecting us all. It allows us to be part of the national conversation around food and is a great place to trial editorial ideas.

We launched the site in lockdown and the hunger to participate in a group to ask for and share ideas and support remains just as powerful now as it did when we couldn’t leave our homes.

An engaged audience helps keep content fresh and invigorated with a broad range of ideas and suggestions. We love to amplify the content our community creates by publishing their recipes online, in print and on social media, which in turn deepens the relationship.

Data leads content development

Understanding the many streams of data available to us is fundamental to planning and spotting opportunities. We create content plans across channels well in advance and access a variety of tools to spot new trends and high-volume content gaps.

Evergreen content that can be repurposed, reused and is a proven success is worth its weight in gold. However, audiences also expect innovation and we check data and trends daily. Approximately 20% of the content we produce is reactive – developed quickly to respond to breakout searches, health trends, social wins and increasingly the pressures of the current economic climate. A notable example is our current Cook Smart campaign, which spans all channels and helps people get the most from their food shop.

Content is commissioned and briefed with all platforms in mind and allows us to explore our key content pillars in different ways. For example, the weekly olive podcast, which has seen 80% year-on-year growth, includes a new bonus episode linked to olive’s “effortless” pillar, highlighting clever shortcuts and high-quality brands to buy. In this extra, quick-fire episode we share hacks and tips from leading food industry experts.

After big food events in the calendar, such as Pancake Day and Christmas, we research what content worked online to identify new opportunities and actions for the following year. Where we’re already seeing huge UK dominance of our own content, we may look to the US to predict emerging trends. This data is shared with the recipe development team to nurture new content ideas.

Keep on top of ways to connect

We constantly evaluate new platforms and channels to determine our distribution strategy and to help our audience access the content in the way that matches their needs and lifestyles.

Immediate is the leading publisher for print subscriptions, with over 1.2 million subscribers, with Good Food’s subscriber base growing by 10% in 2021. Our challenge now is mirroring this success across digital platforms to drive increased value from our scaled digital audience – and the key to this a quality content offer.

We relaunched the BBC Good Food app behind a premium subscription paywall in December 2021 and our premium web strategy has continued to pivot as we’ve developed insight into what the audience values. It’s early days still but the number of sign-ups and conversion rate from free trials is exceeding expectations.

We move quickly to commission exclusive recipe content when we see quick and easy recipes trending on TikTok, our feta pasta and green goddess salad recipes being just two recent examples. We know our users are six times more likely to interreact with an exclusive recipe than a standard one.

Bring on the experts

Deploying expert voices across every channel also builds trust. We call on the best celebrity chefs, established and up-and-coming cooks, new and diverse voices and our in-house team of food experts who are as passionate about food as our audiences. Melissa Thompson (@fowlmouthsfood), columnist Emma Freud and star chef Tom Kerridge are just some of the experts who bring their knowledge and enthusiasm to our well-informed content.

Working with experts will drive ever greater engagement and trust in your brands, and can be leveraged for revenue opportunities, ranging from subscriptions to product sales and product subscription services. For instance, we have successfully grown the BBC Good Food Wine Club, which offers great-value cases and tasting masterclasses curated by our wine experts: members trust the opinions of our authoritative voices, try the wine, love it and trust us even more.

Publishers can’t stand still. There are always new tools, methods and insights to help sharpen content development so what we offer meets and, even better, surpasses audience expectations. That’s the way to boost engagement, win hearts, minds and subscriptions.

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