By Joseph Lichterman, Senior Business Associate, The Lenfest Institute

Executives from 14 U.S. metro news publishers gathered at Facebook New York on March 28th and 29th to learn and share best practices for building and growing digital subscriptions, as part of the 3-month Facebook Journalism Project: Local News Subscription Accelerator. The first two days focused on foundations like developing performance benchmarks and changing company culture to embrace a customer-revenue model as well as optimizing existing marketing channels.

There’s limited real estate on news organizations’ websites, and there are lots of demands on that space. Calls to action can appear in multiple places on your site, but between the newsroom, advertising, marketing and more, there are competing priorities for how to best utilize those areas to drive digital subscriptions.

Jason Sylva, a former marketing executive at The Financial Times and The New York Times, spoke to participants in the Local News Subscriptions Accelerator and shared some tips for balancing the competing needs while effectively messaging your value proposition to potential subscribers.

There are primarily three types of areas available on your site to market subscriptions, Sylva said:

1. Owned: These are places on the site that are exclusively used for marketing digital subscriptions such as the messaging that pops up when a reader reaches the meter limit or other messaging for how many free stories they have left to read.

The owned interfaces are the most visible and most effective messages for converting subscribers and they should give readers choices and also make clear what you’re selling.

For instance, The New York Times changed its highest level subscription tier from “premium” to “home delivery.” The change in terminology more clearly explained what the Times was offering readers.

The user experience is just as important as the messaging and it’s critical that these interfaces load quickly and are simple to use.

2. Shared: Your external advertising slots are shared real estate, and it’s a constant struggle to figure out how much of that inventory should be dedicated to internal campaigns to promote digital subscriptions.

When it comes to marketing subscriptions in display advertising slots, there’s a lot of competition for user attention. As a result, you need a sharp, coherent message that clearly explains what you’re offering your users.

The easiest way to divvy up the inventory is by choosing a percentage, say 90 percent of the slots could be for ads and 10 percent could go toward marketing. But that’s not the best way, Sylva said.

Instead, it makes more sense to use propensity modeling to target users who are most likely to subscribe. The messaging you show readers could vary based on their location, the meter count, the content they’re reading, and more.

By leveraging as much data as you can, you can most effectively use your platform to market to potential readers.

3. Borrowed: This is space that’s within an article or the newshole that’s used for a call to action to promote subscriptions. There are limitations to the amount of targeting you can do with this type of marketing because the calls to action are often created through the editorial content management system, but the tradeoff is that they are in high-profile locations on your site.

For instance, practically every ESPN The Magazine story that’s posted on ESPN’s website has a short note at the top of the article reminding readers to subscribe:


The New York Times also often has modules on its homepage encouraging readers to subscribe:

 

These types of editorial-oriented promotions should be focused on the mission of the organization and the importance of good journalism, Sylva said. The owned and shared spaces, meanwhile, are better places to focus on pricing promotions and the cost of subscriptions.

“It should be a subtle reminder to support the work you enjoy,” Sylva said, referring to the borrowed space.

Your own website is the most powerful platform you have for converting digital subscribers, and by taking advantage of the different spaces on your owned and operated platform you can more effectively reach those potential customers.

The Facebook Journalism Project: Local News Subscriptions Accelerator is a pilot program designed to help news publishers build their digital subscription revenues. Funded and organized by The Facebook Journalism Project, the 3-month program includes hands-on workshops led by news industry veteran Tim Griggs, a grantmaking program organized by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, and regular reports on best practices authored by both The Lenfest Institute and the Facebook Journalism Project.

Former Financial Times and New York Times executive Jason Sylva shares how news publishers can optimize their websites to drive digital subscriptions.