Exclusive data shared with Press Gazette by Chartbeat reveals the readership habits of subscribers, registered users and other readers across 670 news websites.
According to publishers surveyed by the World Association of News Publishers (WAN-IFRA), while not yet as big as digital advertising, digital circulation revenue continues to grow at a much faster pace than income from online ads as the proportion of subscribers among news publishers’ audiences continue to grow.
Press Gazette’s 100k Club – an elite group of publishers that count over 100,000 subscribers continue to grow their combined numbers of paying readers.
Press Gazette looked at data from January to May from some 670 sites in the Chartbeat network with a subscriber model to see how often subscribers visit compared to non-paying readers, how long they stay and if there are any differences between markets.
Across the group of sites during the period covered by the data, 12% of page views were generated by subscribers, 4% by registered users and 84% by readers that are neither subscribed nor registered.
Jill Mercadante Nicholson, Chartbeat’s marketing chief, said: “Most of these sites also cover a good bit of general breaking news which is going to catch more of those casual visitors.”
There are however, differences between markets. In North America 32% of total page views came from subscribers, compared to just 15% in the UK and 8% in Australia and New Zealand.
The difference says Mercadante Nicholson can be down to different subscription strategies in different places. Many leading subscription brands in the UK such as The Financial Times and the Times are hard paywall sites. Hard paywalls are however, she believes, less popular in the US.
When it comes to registered users - users that have shared their details with a website but not paid for a subscription - across all markets, a very small small share of page views came from this group (2% to 6% depending on the global region).
Does it matter that such a small proportion of page views come from registered users?
Registering users is usually considered an important step in the path to subscription. News brands that see more known users see more subscribers. The Telegraph for example is aiming to reach 10 million registered users and 1 million subscribers by 2023. Studies in this area suggest that roughly ten registrations will yield one subscription.
Mercadante Nicholson expects however, that the number of registered users will grow.
"If I had to make a prediction, I would expect that registered user traffic is going to rise largely because of the popularity of having a dichotomy between registration and subscription. We're starting to hear a lot that the registration moment is really important because you are capturing information in your CRM about that person. You can think about the habits of individual people and it gives you a lot more messaging options to try to drive those subscriptions.
"We are thinking a lot now about those conversion moments, registration moment, the newsletter sign up, the saving of a preference, because we're starting to see that those are really important moments in a journey towards revenue," she says.
Page views, while one important indicator for ad-funded content in particular, are of course not the full picture. Page view metrics can’t tell us how much a reader is involved in the content and whether they plan on returning and potentially becoming a paying subscriber. That's where combining them with other metrics comes in to get a fuller picture of reader engagement.
Across the industry, publishers looking to convert readers into subscribers are using ever more complex metrics tounderstand reader engagement. The Financial Times came up with a multi-dimensional engagement score that looks at a reader's recency, frequency and volume.
The Chartbeat data also reveals how much of a site’s traffic comes from readers grouped by how active they are, a metric used by publishers such as The Wall Street Journal as well as the Financial Times.
Across all 670 sites, among subscribers, 71% of page views are from paid-up readers who visit at least every other day. That's not unsurprising since readers who have paid for a subscription are likely to use them. Four percent of subscriber page views came from those that were visiting for the first time that month.
Over one in ten subscriber page views in North America however, came from those making their visit that month. And across all markets, 24% of page views came from what Chartbeat calls returning users - people who visited a site more than once in the past 30 days, but less frequently than every other day.
"The takeaway here is that the conversion moment is not the end of a user's journey with your site. There has to be as deep of focus on retention as there is on acquisition. Because the percentage of subscribers that is not actually visiting the site they subscribe to particularly often indicates a pretty big churn risk," says Mercadante Nicholson. "Just because they're a subscriber doesn't mean they are loyal. In fact, the majority of subscribers are not visiting frequently enough to meet Chartbeat benchwork for loyalty."
What should publishers do about these people who are signed up but not visiting enough?
"Publishers do genuinely want to educate and build relationships with and inform their audiences. I can't say that they're not business and have revenue concerns but there are very few sites where as an organisation, they say, 'We don't care if they never visit us again, as long as they keep paying the bill'", says Mercandante Nicholson.
"Over the last five years in particular we've been getting many more questions about those retention opportunities as opposed to just grabbing as many subscribers as you can. Because as it's true with news products and other digital products, the foundation of a strong business and audience strategy is retention because it is much more expensive to acquire a new subscriber than it is to retain one.
"It's important not to ignore those subscribers who are not coming back because you may be with the happy with the revenue you're getting today, but you need lifelong revenue to support quality journalism."
Data across the sites in our study show that subscribers as a group spent more time engaged with content (41 seconds vs 26 for registered users and 31 seconds for guests. (Chartbeat calculates average engaged time as total engaged time on a site divided by its total page views).
Longer session durations are important as more engaged time tends to lead to lower rate of churn.
Across the sites in the network, the difference in engaged time between subscribers and non-subscriber is particularly big in some markets. Subscribers on large sized news sites in the UK (those with over 100k page views per day) were engaged for an average of 24.6 seconds compared to 1.9 seconds for non-subscribers. In North America this difference was 32 seconds for subscribers and 20.2 for non-subscribers.
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