Building Relationships in 2019: Takeaways from the Reuters Report

when readers block paywalls

Every year, industry analyst Mary Meeker sets the internet alight with her Internet Trends report, a comprehensive slide deck highlighting the top trends in technology. Released annually since 1995, the eagerly-anticipated arrival of each edition marks a so-called holiday season for data nerds—and this year, data nerds in the publishing space have special cause to celebrate.

As the internet lapped up this year’s trends, an equally-important report (for digital publishers, at least) also made its debut: the 2019 Reuters Institute Digital News Report. This report covers global attitudes and consumption habits around news, making it a must-read for any publisher (hard news or not) searching for the best path forward in an ever-changing industry.

[You can read the full report here.]

The findings in these reports can help digital publishers shape content strategy, distribution, and even forge new business models. Here are a few key findings from the report and what they may mean for you.

The percentage of paying news subscribers is flattening out.

More publishers are putting up paywalls, and for a while, it seemed like readers were willing to follow. However, we may be seeing a stall in that upward trajectory, as just 16% of American readers surveyed report paying for online news. Norway seems to have the highest proportion of paying readers; 34% of their respondents pay for online news.

But before you book your one-way ticket with Scandinavian Airlines, it should be noted that even the world’s biggest news junkies aren’t exactly signing up for multiple subscriptions.

The report notes:

“Even in countries with higher levels of payment, the vast majority only have ONE online subscription – suggesting that ‘winner takes all’ dynamics are likely to be important. One encouraging development though is that most payments are now ‘ongoing’, rather than one-offs.”

More “ongoing” payments may be a result of the increased subscriber retention efforts of publishers. An unwillingness to pay for more than one subscription makes it all the more important to hold onto the subscribers you do have, and building reader engagement habits makes it more likely that a reader will renew.

Still, that “just one subscription” figure is glaring. How do you become that one subscription?

Probably not by trying to be all things to all subscribers. Niche publishers are finding subscription success with a focus on quality and expertise that differentiates them from free content. Other publishers are differentiating themselves elsewhere.

To drive subscriptions, news publishers are going beyond news.

It’s possible that some non-paying audiences don’t want to pay for news because they’re unwilling to pay for what they perceive as freely available. After all, there are a bazillion sites that offer news for free.

So in addition to setting themselves apart with high-quality content, publishers are offering other products to provide value to their subscribers. Business models are expanding to include events, e-commerce, and even different kinds of digital products:

“40% of new subscribers at the New York Times now joining up for cooking and crosswords – a different kind of bundling.”

Finding unique ways to connect with audiences will be critical moving forward. One of the report’s key conclusions:

“Loyalty and the ability to forge direct connections will be critical, as our data clearly indicate, but this will be hard to achieve just through the desktop or mobile web where news access tends to be fleeting and distracted. That’s why publishers are showing such interest in podcasts, longer form video, and even live events – more immersive formats that allow a brand personality to be expressed more fully while maintaining the choice and control demanded by a younger generation.”

These “immersive” experiences will help publishers forge direct relationships with their audience, all the more important in online news.

Publishers must work on direct relationships.

Without direct relationships, publishers don’t have an avenue to nurture audiences and build habits—a critical part of driving subscription revenue.

That’s why the shift to digital has been particularly hard for some publishers, as the report notes:

“One of the biggest implications of the shift to online news has been the weakening of the direct relationship between readers and publishers.”

Interestingly, the report notes a correlation between countries whose news sites see more direct traffic and countries whose readers are more willing to pay for content. Of course, there’s no causation here; growing your direct traffic won’t necessarily increase your paid conversion rate. That being said, direct traffic does tend to be a good signal that readers have made consuming your content a habit.

So how do you engage your audience directly? As data has previously shown, email is a significant source of direct traffic.

Where are your most engaged audiences? Email.

Over the last few years, the percentage of respondents who use email newsletters for news has remained relatively flat, but their level of engagement remains high:

“Generating more direct traffic to websites and apps is an important priority for publishers, with email newsletters a particularly favoured tactic for retaining subscribers but also for attracting new users. The Washington Post operates around 70 different newsletters and has found that recipients consume around three times as much content as those who don’t use email news.

Converting site visitors into email subscribers is the first step to a lasting relationship because it gives you a channel to deliver content directly to your audience. An effective email capture strategy is paramount. With calls-to-action that clearly convey the value of an email subscription, you may even win over a subscriber or two who wouldn’t normally turn to email for news.

You can also deepen engagement with current email by encouraging them to sign up for multiple newsletters with cross-promotion and sending targeted marketing emails.

Publishers are getting smarter about mobile notifications.

Whereas email usage for news is flattening out, the percentage of readers who get news from push notifications has tripled since 2014. These notifications might come from the publisher’s own app, or publishers can use browser push to send “appless” notifications to users on both mobile and desktop.

For a while, publishers raced to take advantage of this growing channel, blasting audiences with as many push notifications as they could manage. Now, publishers are more mindful of notification fatigue, using the channel strategically to push top content and targeted news to this direct audience.

Keep in mind that, whereas your app audience will be a small percentage of your total audience, the one mobile app everybody has is their email. As audiences are largely mobile-first, make sure your email capture and email newsletter templates work on mobile too.

Publishers still need to connect with their social media audiences.

According to the report, Facebook usage for news is down, the trend seemingly corresponding with algorithm shifts over the last couple of years. The downtrend in news usage could be a result of Facebook surfacing less news, or it could mark a shifting attitude towards the platform for news seekers. After all, surely people who closely follow the news have seen a news story or two about Facebook.

In the meantime, Facebook isn’t going anywhere. 43% of American respondents report that social media is their first point of contact with news. Try to find ways of converting fleeting social visitors into email subscribers, whether it be through Facebook’s own calls-to-action or the email capture on your own site.

So what will 2020 hold for publishers—apart from a slew of bad jokes about vision? Stay tuned for next year’s report to find out!

Editor, PostUp PlayBook