A digital paywall shouldn’t mark the end of a publisher’s free content offering, according to chiefs at the Washington Post, Le Monde and paid newsletter platform Substack – who have shared insight into their subscription strategies.
Free content is important to help paid subscription-based publishers to continue to grow their audience, some of whom who will go on to pay for content, panellists at the FT’s Future of News event said.
“We always tell people at Substack: make your best work free,” said Hamish McKenzie, a former journalist and co-founder of Substack. It’s an approach he said would let individual publishers “have your cake and eat it”.
Substack co-founder: ‘Make that best thing free…’
“Make that best thing free… and that will win you the readers that build into loyal readers over time, and some of those loyal readers become paying subscribers and the paying subscribers go with you further into the weeds…
“They’re not paying grudgingly, they’re happy to pay to get deeper access to you, to get more stuff from you, to get involved in your community, to feel like they have an intimate connection with you…
“You can have your important free stuff that reaches a wider audience and you can have your monetised, in the weeds stuff that’s more like a raw feed from your brain – that lets you have a sustainable business model and I think that’s a way forward here.”
He added: “It’s not a whack everything behind a paywall thing, it’s smartly use free content to grow and build your following and then wisely monetize the stuff that your most devoted followers will pay for.”
McKenzie’s approach is put into practice by US journalist Ben Thompson, who writes and publishes the Stratechery newsletter from his base in Taiwan, covering tech and media from a business angle.
Thompson said it was important for online publishers to understand that they’re “not selling text on a webpage… there’s nothing tangible here”, unlike print titles which do sell a physical product.
“Paper was where advertisers put their ads, that doesn’t exist on the internet. You’re not selling anything. What you’re selling and what you’re asking a subscriber to pay for is the ongoing production of content.”
He said he believed the subscription model “works so much better” than alternatives such as micro-payments, or a payment per article approach – “that model doesn’t work at all [if] you’re trying to sell something that can’t really be sold”.
Thompson said breaking news and scoops are valuable free content that can help to grow an audience.
“The value of a scoop goes to zero the moment it’s actually delivered because now it’s just news and it’s in the ether – and that’s a great thing to keep free. You might as well get full credit for breaking it. What you want are subscribers and readers that want what you do to continue to happen, and they pay for that to occur.”
He said of his own approach: “My bigger pieces are the free ones and then for the ongoing ones that cover the news of the day… those are paying, and people will read that in part because they want the ongoing coverage, but there is an aspect where they want Stratechery to continue as a going concern… because they value the free articles as well.
“I think thinking about what you’re actually selling and being clear about that is very important in this regard.”
Publisher paywall strategies from WaPo: ‘The trick is to start a relationship that then continues and lasts…’
Washington Post managing editor for digital Kat Downs Mulder told the FT that a loyal readership mattered for a subscription model, but she warned that “you can’t develop loyalty if you don’t continue to have a large audience”, and these two things are “not in opposition” to each other.
“The trick is to start a relationship that then continues and lasts, and one of the ways that you can do that is through people that users connect with and they want to hear from on a day-to-day basis,” she said.
Pointing to the Post’s TikTok “personality”, reporter Dave Jorgensen, Downs Mulder said the title had seen “fantastic growth” on the youth-focused social media platform, including success with hard news and investigations.
“The idea there is to start to build a relationship that builds awareness [and brand affinity] that one day will translate into a subscription. That is top of funnel, that is brand building, that’s not going to pay off tomorrow,” said Downs Mulder.
“I think you have to have loyalty initiatives at every phase, from the most unaware to the most deeply aware and ready to buy.”
Le Monde CEO: ‘We will get more and more subscribers if we can grow our free audience’
French national newspaper Le Monde is a title that has also been experimenting with building a free audience on TikTok. Louis Dreyfus, chief executive of Le Monde, said in using a younger team to work on content for the platform the title is able to “rapidly reach a very large audience”.
“We cannot oppose the free part of a strategy to get an… audience, and the goal to get subscribers,” he said. “We will get more and more subscribers if we can grow our free audience.
“So we are looking to expand with the younger generation, but also on the larger scale with [a] French-speaking audience, obviously for Le Monde… the next step will be to develop outside our boundaries and to be able to have an international brand with a French-speaking audience, and we will be able to do that with these new formats.”
Referring to the issue of trust in news organisations, which has waned in recent years with the rise of digital platforms, Dreyfus said: “That’s why we need to carry on a strategy of free content, otherwise we will deal only with an elitist audience.
“We’ll have a business model, but we won’t be able to intervene in the debate and it will [leave] a large part of the population facing only free content [that is] often distributed by non-media companies.”
He said “interactive formats”, such as explainers, had proven successful for Le Monde on social media, but to help build trust “our younger audience need to interact with our journalists to make sure that they understand that they are real journalists and they can ask [them] questions.
“And my bet is, after a year or two of discussion with my journalists, using my interactive formats, they will trust us enough to pay for the content and go on to become a Le Monde subscriber, and then we’ll share with them a different level of thoughts, a different level of news.”
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