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November 17, 2020updated 30 Sep 2022 9:47am

How news publishers should use Black Friday to drive paid subscriptions

By Fran Quilty

We’re just over a week away from Black Friday, the annual consumer-fest of cheap TVs and discounted smart speakers. Ad sales teams are no doubt rubbing their hands together at the prospect of a much-needed influx of cash. However, publishers are missing the bigger opportunity to drive ongoing subscription revenues.

Some titles have been heavily promoting discounted subs throughout the year. Nonetheless, Black Friday and Cyber Week should occupy a special position in publishers’ calendars. People are in a purchase mindset and actively seeking out promotions during this period. If someone has demonstrated an interest in crossing the paywall, this is the time to give them a push.

This has certainly not been lost on other subscription-based businesses. Telecoms operators and loot box services alike step up their marketing efforts over Black Friday and Cyber Week.

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Equally, savvy publishers recognise that shoppers are looking for content to consume on their new e-readers and tablets. Historically, the likes of Future and Dennis have used Black Friday to push digital subscriptions, both through their own digital platforms and via Amazon. Readly has also used Cyber Week to drive app sign-ups.

But the opportunity goes beyond consumer magazines. Black Friday has largely been underused by the news media to date.

We know there is an appetite for quality, long-form journalism, both national and regional, as a much-needed antidote to clickbait and ‘fake news’. However, consumers have got too used to ‘free’ digital content and increasingly fragmented audiences mean ad-funded online publishing models rarely generate sufficient revenue.

This leaves publishers between a rock and a hard place. While many have become adept at harvesting data, the challenge lies in monetising it. Data remains a dirty word for some editors, who rightly don’t want to sacrifice long-established editorial principles to an algorithm. However, they will increasingly use this information to decide what content goes behind the paywall.

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It seems a hybrid system supplementing premium paid content with ads is the best option for many publishers. The more subscribers though, the more leverage sales teams hold with advertisers. This puts the onus on publishers to drive sign-ups.

This is where Black Friday and Cyber Week come in. It makes sense to work on a campaign-led basis in the first instance to focus on warm prospects with a proven interest in particular subjects or journalists. As such, it’s advisable to push tailored promotions to those that have already signed up to newsletters.

While this isn’t a particularly scientific approach, there’s still typically a 70/30 split on profit, over loss-making sign-ups. This makes it a worthwhile strategy – and one worth repeating.

However, the next step is to review engagement and segment the new subs into those worth nurturing long-term at the expense of those more likely to lapse. Potential lifetime value can be discerned through a close analysis of frequency and recency of access to digital content.

That said, in a challenging market every subscriber is an asset in terms of circulation figures. Consequently, it’s also worth paying close attention to the behaviours of former subscribers in the months preceding Black Friday. Target any that have the potential to be brought back into the fold with tailored marketing. While this isn’t common practice in the publishing sector, subscription pay-TV services are well-versed at retargeting people to highlight what shows/matches etc. they are missing out on as aligned to their individual preferences.

Once you have a deeper understanding of your subscribers, this data can then be employed to build stronger relationships for the longer term, as well as opening up new monetisation avenues. This is where publishers can get creative. Recently we’ve seen some very smart brand partnerships – for instance one business news title linked up with a well-respected challenger bank. Others offer subscribers paid-for exclusive access to conference calls, live or virtual events. One business title even links up columnists and readers via the subscription text message platform Subtext.

Print sales have been decimated by the pandemic, but this has only accelerated a downward trend reflected in the year-on-year ABC figures. The news media may now find itself in a parlous state, but the shift online makes it one of the most data-rich sectors in the world.

If it’s to successfully reinvent itself for a digital-first landscape, a publisher needs to restructure how it works to take full advantage of the data resource. Despite the scare stories, data-led doesn’t have to mean automation and ‘robo publishing’. Rather, publishers should think carefully about how they can use the data they hold to convert readers to paid tiers and add value to loyal subscribers.

Black Friday is a good starting point, but what comes next is where it gets really interesting – who said data is boring anyway?

Fran Quilty is chief executive and co-founder of data consultancy firm Conjura.

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