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What news giants are learning about subscribers during lockdown uptick

The Drum 18 Jun 2020 09:40
WSJ, FT and Reach detail new subscriber bump and product launches in lockdown

News brands have been attracting record audiences during the pandemic as more and more people find themselves with a new daily news consumption habit. But while demand for subscriptions at quality titles is through the roof, ad-supported businesses haven’t been having such a fun a ride. Execs from the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and Reach talk to The Drum about the ups and downs of lockdown, and about the products they’re designing for the future.

The Wall Street Journal

Having breached the 3 million subscribers mark, more than 2 million of whom are on a digital plan, WSJ has been showing just how to build a product that’s less reliant on newsprint.

Suzi Watford, its chief marketing officer, believes the pandemic has sped up a so-called “flight to quality” news sources.

Watford has been monitoring the accelerated growth to WSJ’s subscriptions business and is aware that there must be a ceiling to demand. And with the wider Dow Jones Group now boasting 5 million subscribers, it is clearly winning the battle for consumers’ wallets – but, this may be at the expense of local and mid-range titles.

“We have this unique role to play, not just with our core business audience who we were already seeing come to us, but also with younger readers who have perhaps been coming to the Journal for the first time.”

From its dynamic paywall, the Journal can gather data on user activity, from the content that inspires a subscription to the content that keeps readers in the system.

Reflecting on the pandemic, Watford says: “There’s nothing quite like a crisis for a news brand to show how we are really good at working quickly.”

David Buttle, the global commercial marketing director at the FT, says the title has also “seen an acceleration of subscribers”. It breached 1 million subscribers before entering 2020. It is now fast approaching 2 million, with close to half of those being digital-only.

Of course, the FT could see these new entrants as competition, but it actually has a consultancy to help news orgs retain their subscribers.

Buttle offers a warning, however: “There is a limit to the number of titles any one individual is likely to pay for. And that’s purely on the basis of how much value you are able to get and how much time in a week you’re going to spend reading.”

He sees an opportunity to build out “mini-brands” around select content verticals. Could it offer a reduced entry price to consumers keen to pick and choose select coverage – such as an insight-filled newsletter around a certain sector?

A final shoot of positivity for Buttle is that when the firm was “stripped” of its physical assets in lockdown, the machine kept on turning. “We’re very lucky to have amazing people,“ he concludes.

As an ad-supported business, Reach (parent company of news brands including the Express, Mirror and Daily Star) isn’t able to rely on user-generated revenue. And it has been far from business-as-usual for the publisher as many marketers block Covid-19 news from their media buys.

Terry Hornsby, digital solutions director at Reach, says of its stable of national and local titles: “With our scale and the volume we have, we are the fifth biggest platform in the UK.” Its income, he says, is largely reliant on programmatic advertising, direct advertising and sponsorships.

It is also rushing new products to market, including newsletters, just like the FT. One, called Lemonade, is tailored to help parents in lockdown and is seeded across the Reach group. The publisher had saw a need and moved to fulfil it and now has a database of parents that can be advertised to directly. It has many other examples of these verticals building up engaged audiences.

Not all the action is online. But, in many respects, he believes Reach has refocused on local audiences too. “We’ve been delivering papers to the doors of people who couldn’t get out. We’re a trusted brand and have a care in the community vibe.”

News brands aren’t alone in welcoming floods of new subscribers. Earlier this week, a dozen execs from the UK magazine publisher sector explained how their print titles are performing, while sharing the feasibility of their business models after the lockdown.

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ButtleWSJSuzi WatfordDow Jones GroupDavid Buttle
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