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August 25, 2022updated 07 Oct 2022 7:13am

Digital magazine and newspaper app Readly eyes ‘sustainable growth’ as it adds podcasts to mix

By Charlotte Tobitt

Digital magazine and newspaper app Readly’s “North Star goal” is engagement as it endeavours to reach profitability and keep hold of its Covid-19 subscribers with new products such as podcasts.

Readly was among the companies that benefitted from the Covid-19 pandemic, with a boost to subscriber numbers as people found themselves with more free time and new difficulties in accessing print copies.

It is now working hard to create habits and keep as many of those subscribers as possible with a drive towards innovation and being “product-led”.

It needs to stay focused on engagement – the metric that is key both for its publishers, which are paid according to reader dwell time, and itself, as it needs those newspaper and magazine companies to be happy.

In fact, Readly is now, “in some cases, actually having to turn away publishers”, according to chief content officer and UK managing director Ranj Begley (pictured), who told Press Gazette that many of its 37 categories are now “over-flooded with content”.

Begley, who led the launch of the then-start-up in the UK in 2014, said it was a difficult pitch process to sign publishers up at first, but now “we don’t even have to say these things to them any more” because they know their competitors on the platform have been able to boost their ABC circulations and revenues and they want a “slice of that pie”.

She said publishers on Readly also benefit from having a “goldmine of data” about what content people like to read and how. It is also an easy way to provide audiences with access to evergreen back issues, which make up 22% of all titles read in the UK on Readly – meaning, Begley said, it is “money for old rope”.

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The company launched in Sweden in 2013 and, after expanding to markets including the UK and Germany, listed on the Swedish stock market in September 2020. Its next phase is a focus on engagement in pursuit of “sustainable growth” and profitability, according to Begley.

She told Press Gazette the company has moved on from its previous focus on marketing and acquisition to retention and keeping users on board

“We’ve gone from sort of start-up stage to hyper-growth stage to IPO, to now being an established company – eventually, all companies want to go down that path of profitability and sustainable growth and that’s the path that we’re heading on… It’s about keeping what customers we have on file engaged,” she said.

Readly’s full-paying subscriber numbers increased steadily from before the Covid-19 pandemic throughout that period, reaching a peak of 478,362 at the end of 2021. They have declined by 7% in the subsequent half-year but are still above any point before December.

Begley said average reading times are stable on about seven hours per month, which she claimed "is pretty much on par with listening to podcasts".

Revenue has also continually been on the up each year, with growth of a third last year to reach SEK 466.3m (£37.1m). UK revenue increased by 38% year-on-year in 2021 to SEK 99.9m (£8m), benefitting from the cut to VAT on digital publications, and grew by a further 14% in the first half of 2022.

Average revenue per subscriber has increased from an average of £6.69 per month in 2017 to £7.32 last year.

Podcasts part of 'habit-forming' plan

As well as product features designed to build a "habit-forming mentality" – such as exclusive content from publishers, more personalisation, a featured articles carousel extracting pieces from magazines to highlight, and push notifications to remind people when their favourite titles are out – podcasts were chosen this year as one of the ways forward to boost engagement and try to reduce churn.

Begley said "audio is no longer an afterthought" and that it was therefore a "natural evolution" to add alongside the existing written content.

The UK makes up a fifth of Readly's net sales and was the market chosen for the six-month testing period for podcasts until the end of the year, with 40 such as The Guardian's Today In Focus, Immediate Media's HistoryExtra and Top Gear, and Future's The MoneyWeek Podcast added to the platform alongside their respective newspaper and magazine brands.

However, Swedish publishers got wind of the project and wanted in, so 20 podcasts have been added in that market during the test period as well.

Although the podcasts on offer are freely available on other platforms, the idea is to keep users engaged with their favourite brands on Readly and spend more time there. The exact method of display is under experiment, but at the moment the podcasts are highlighted in a carousel on a publication's page.

Begley said: "Churn is very real for everyone. It's not just for Readly, but for publishing houses as well and there's no denying that it's going to happen. But it's about keeping that customer locked in and engaged through innovation, hence the reason why we've gone down the audio route as well.

"But yeah, [there are] lots of product enhancements to come, which we're working on behind the scenes, which will hopefully create that stickiness to the product."

She added that many people "don't really want to have to think about what they're going to do next within the app" and "just want everything to be handed on a silver platter".

Begley said that at the moment all the podcasts involved are from publishers and that although Readly has been approached by non-publisher podcast producers it is "all about promoting quality journalism".

"Every podcast that we have on our platform sits alongside a magazine and those magazines have editors and teams that are like the gatekeepers of all of that content," she said, "so I think for now we're going to stick with that. Long term, who knows what's going to happen?

"I think, for me, I just want to get to the end of the test, look at all the data, and then decide how we move on from there. It's not through lack of people knocking on our doors – everybody wants to get on it."

Price rise in line with Apple News+

In total, Readly now provides unlimited digital access to more than 6,300 titles. In the UK, it recently added The Week, now owned by Future, which it had been trying to secure for years, while other coveted additions this year have included US magazine publishers Dotdash Meredith and Hearst.

Readly has recently returned to its original UK price of £9.99 to reflect the greater breadth of its content. It dropped the price to £7.99 in 2016 to woo more customers and grow the number of titles available to ensure the price was justified.

The new price is in line with Apple News+, the tech giant's own newspaper and magazine subscription product that launched for iOS users in 2019 with content from around 200 publications. But Begley said Apple was not a competitor more than any other news or entertainment provider, and that, in fact, Readly can "learn a lot" from it.

"They're a huge company, they have lots of money, they can afford to experiment and try out different formats, and we can sit back and watch them and see what works and what doesn't work," Begley said.

"When Apple News first came out some people were like: ‘Oh gosh, that's it, that's the death of the likes of PressReader, Readly, all of those types of organisations.' But it hasn't killed us. As I say, we're learning. And it's good because there's room out there for another one… What might be good for an Apple News person might not be good for a Readly user, so I think it's horses for courses really. I see it more as an education piece as opposed to competition."

Apple News+ does not publish any audience figures, but on Readly in the UK, 21 million issues were read in 2021 and 10% of all titles read were foreign (including US magazines). The most-read category by Brits is celebrity and entertainment, and 6pm on Thursdays is the most popular time to read magazines on Readly.

Seizing opportunity for industry digitalisation

Despite difficult times feared ahead for many, with major publishers like Reach and DMGT already struggling with rising paper and energy costs, Readly believes it is in a good place to seize opportunities presented by the continuing trend of digitalisation.

Readly chief executive Mats Brandt, who joined the company this year, said in this month's earnings report: “We are still at an early stage in the digitalisation of the magazine industry, and Readly is well-positioned to lead the transformation together with the publishers.”

Begley told Press Gazette that Readly and the ongoing digitalisation of reading could benefit from the current industry headwinds and wider economic climate impacting the likes of inflation, paper and energy costs, and supply chains.

She added: "I think there's just so much M&A activity going on in the marketplace… [leading to] print issues closing down and they are becoming digitalised or being merged onto websites or behind paywalls, etc. That does work in Readly's favour and it also allows us to work really closely with our content providers – with our publishers in terms of what kind of content we put onto our platform as well.

"So I think there are interesting times for publishers absolutely, and that's what makes the industry such an amazing place to work in, because it's constantly evolving."

It is a similar opportunity to the Covid-19 pandemic, of which Begley said: "We used it to our advantage and we helped our publishers to use it to their advantage as well."

She added: "Following on from that, with all the other various different issues that are going on in the world now, digitalisation has just come to the forefront, so it's a given that that's the way things are going to go."

Press Gazette is hosting the Future of Media Technology Conference. For more information, visit NSMG.live

Picture: Readly/Marcus Glans

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