The newspaper industry is learning how to better understand the passions of readers to attract and retain subscribers. The New York Times reportedly now earns two-thirds of its revenue from subscriptions. Hearst is targeting having 30 percent of its revenue come from subscribers.
One of the more innovative efforts to attract paying subscribers is under way at the Omaha World-Herald, flagship daily of BH Media Group. Omaha’s new program is called Subscriber Plus.
“Our company has invested in technology and taken other actions to improve digital subscribers’ user experience,” Publisher Terry Kroeger said in a column to readers when Subscriber Plus launched. “Digital subscribers will enjoy faster loading web pages, fewer advertisements and special offers. ... Digital subscribers also will enjoy first access to all of The World-Herald’s content, including a handful of stories and photo galleries designated for subscribers only.”
Understatement: Football is important in Nebraska.
The state is home of perhaps the most passionate fans in the nation.
Nebraska has won five national championships, and the program is one of only 10 teams with more than 800 victories. Fans travel well. Red is the state’s most prominent color.
A shroud of sadness rolled over the state last fall from Omaha to Kimball, and from Chadron to Falls City when Nebraska ended its season with a 4-8 record, the worst performance in 56 years.
So when, in December, Nebraska hired former Husker national champion quarterback Scott Frost as head coach, interest was huge among Husker Nation. A savior had been found.
The World-Herald’s news staff jumped all over the story. And once Omaha’s readers were informed that they had to pay to read more – they offered up their credit cards.
The World-Herald doubled down on the program in early February as National Signing Day approached. Fans who wanted to know the full story of each recruit signed – or lost – by the Cornhuskers, had to establish a business relationship with Omaha.com.
Under the Subscriber Plus program, the World-Herald offers a first-month rate of 99 cents that converts to $9.95 a month on an auto-renewing basis. Omaha is signing up new digital subscribers at three to four times the rate in 2017. And in the early going, retention has been good.
Omaha’s newsroom is learning by studying data about reader interests and passions, and it’s looking for story ideas that will enhance the program.
The World-Herald soon will begin using data to better understand precisely where its new digital subscribers are coming from -- content, e-mail promotions or simply from hitting the subscribe button.
Omaha continues to grow overall site traffic despite the fact that select stories are now available only to paying subscribers.
Subscribers have a much better reading experience because the number of ads and third-party widgets have been greatly reduced for subscribers. Pages now load in 1.5 to 2 seconds for subscribers.
Another benefit for subscribers – they’re the only ones allowed to comment on stories on Omaha’s website. That move has reduced much of the venom that used to occur in the comments section.
In his column, Kroeger explained to readers the need to collect subscription revenue: “For most of our history, the cost of real, fact-based journalism has been paid primarily by area retailers and other businesses who want to share information about their products and services with a large, broadly based and well-informed public.
“But digital technology has squeezed the partnership between news organizations and advertisers. Locally owned businesses, from retail shops to car dealers to grocery stores, face unprecedented challenges from online shopping. Increasingly, local businesses face fierce competition from national chains and Internet-based giants such as Amazon.
“In this environment, our ability to produce great journalism hinges increasingly on subscriptions, on the decisions of tens of thousands of individuals who understand and appreciate The World-Herald’s value.”
Omaha’s efforts are similar to what papers around the world are adopting.
Earl Wilkinson, executive director of the International Newspaper Association (INMA), says the lessons of understanding the passions of readers are becoming increasingly clear.
“Media companies cannot succeed with digital subscriptions without being data-driven,” Wilkinson said at a recent INMA conference. “This is really Marketing 101. Product, price, place and promotion.”
“The big question to come out of all this: If 10 percent of your content drives 90 percent of your traffic, then how do you prioritize more of that 10 percent?”
Using data to identify passions is the key.
(Marc Wilson is founder and executive chairman of TownNews.com. He just published his second book, Kidnapped by Columbus.)