Breaking the Paid Digital News Subscription Code

Old NewsPrint media publishers still can’t find their footing, 23 years after the first newspapers went online. The slippery, fluid Internet keeps them reaching for the elusive security of a strategy where print + digital = profit. There exist two mainstream ways digital news can find a sustainable profit: through ad sales, or through paid digital subscriptions. Paid digital subscriptions should not be a choice for news sources that charge for their print editions; they should be the standard. Successful and long-term sustainable paid digital news subscriptions require two things, simultaneously: omnipresence and strategic audience profiles.


There’s not much sense in offering a free, easy-anywhere-access version of the same valuable news content online, then wondering why ever-busy humans don’t take the time to find a physical establishment that sells the news source in print and then pay for it. The content present on both online and print versions of a news establishment is worth paying for because it’s researched and reported–theoretically in an ethical and objective, watchdog way–by professional journalists who have learned their craft while earning a Bachelor’s Degree, sometimes honing it further earning a Master’s Degree, at paid and unpaid internships, and by keeping up with the latest in news reporting technology and standards on their own time. But, if there’s one thing we know about the Internet, we know people have a sense of entitlement, now, since content on it has been free for so long. Look to TV, movies and music for examples: with each new paywall, a new illegal download–albeit free–site popped up. So, all major newspapers and news establishments that charge for their print versions, must all begin to charge for their digital versions. No exceptions. It won’t work unless it’s omnipresent, because, if humans can find news for free on another site, they are less likely to pay for it on your site. And, yes, this would mean the end of aggregates that republish other sources’ stories. Instead, other sites could link to the full story on its original site, where a paid subscription is required.

Audience Profiles

It’s not enough for news sources to create a paywall between readers and their content. Long-term success requires a curation of sorts, based on in-depth research into a news-market’s readers. News enterprises, find a great agency to take the time to profile your audience: What does your audience care about to the point they’d be happy to pay to have access to that type of information on the web and on apps? Do this before you roll out your paywall, if you haven’t already. It works post-paywall, too. Now, when that subject-worth-paying-for has been identified, the agency you’ve hired should create a digital marketing plan tailored to your audience, that outlines the access to info they care about that they’ll receive upon paying for a digital subscription. The idea is to call out the specific content and perks related to your audience’s main interest, attract them to the digital subscription, even though the access isn’t different than what’s already granted to paid subscribers. The team at eROI implemented this strategy for The Baltimore Sun after the Tribune Company selected the Baltimore paper as a mid-market test to identify a successful paid digital subscription model. Through extensive interviews and research, eROI outlined main topics Baltimore residents care about, including: Super Bowl XLVII Champions, The Baltimore Ravens. So, eROI created a multi-channel campaign to kickoff at the beginning of the NFL season in 2012, and within the first week of the campaign, digital subscriptions had increased over 50% from the same week the previous year. Going forward, eROI will create additional marketing campaigns aimed to increase digital subscriptions to The Baltimore Sun by narrowing the focus to other topics of interest. eROI will also spend additional time at the beginning of each campaign to strategize how to improve online registration to increase the number of conversions to paid digital subscriptions by making the process the most appealing and simple. I think this approach is incredibly smart, but it really rests on tried and true wisdom: measure twice, cut once. Spend the extra time in the beginning for strategy and audience profiles, and the digital subscription conversions will increase exponentially.

Moment of Silence

Let’s pay respect to the fall and decline of publishing giants in the last year, and the hundreds of writers, editors, photographers, marketers, and other professionals, who find themselves jobless as a result. If we take time to strategically analyze each audience and tailor a paid subscription plan for the news and perks the respective demographic truly cares about, we may find ourselves having access to more robust news coverage since more professional journalists will be paid; feeling the difference in the public sector when the press has its balance of power, rather than the imbalance caused by a thin news staff; and attending less publishing funerals by this time next year, meaning through strategic marketing, the print publishing industry will finally have found its secure place to stand in the digital world.

Time, Inc.

  • In January 2013, Time, Inc. reduces global staff  by about 500 employees. The company publishes print media including TIME Magazine, People Magazine and Sports Illustrated.
  • In February 2013, reports show Time, Inc.  parent company Time Warner is looking into selling Time, Inc. to Meredith Corp., a move that would likely result in more layoffs and high-level shakeups.


The New York Times

Reader’s Digest

And So Many More.


About eROI

eROI crafts compelling digital experiences across email, web, and social channels. Our work has been consistently successful in driving revenue and exceeding goals for our partners.

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