Inside the Digital Subscriptions Accelerator: How the San Francisco Chronicle Increased Digital Subscriptions

Earlier this year, 14 metro news publishers participated in The Facebook Journalism Project: Local News Subscriptions Accelerator. After attending, the San Francisco Chronicle initiated some actionable changes to how it acquired digital subscribers.

The changes spanned the Chronicle‘s marketing funnel:

These changes, plus the Chronicle team working with their Accelerator coach Yasmin Namini, new technology partners and the broader shift to digital subscriptions paid off this year with significant increases in digital subscription starts.

The webinars, the mentoring from Yasmin Namini [an Accelerator coach] and the face-to-face meetings in New York, Austin, and out in Menlo Park — all of that combined was very useful to myself and my team member Matt Dickow who is deploying our marketing campaigns from day to day.
John Rockwell Senior Director, Consumer Marketing The San Francisco Chronicle

Here are some of the ways the Chronicle increased digital subscriptions.

Top of the Funnel: Increase Awareness

To drive subscription sales, the Chronicle first needed to harvest potential subscribers at the top of its funnel. Here are two ways they tweaked their top-of-the-funnel process.

Reach High-Priority Users Across a Variety of Campaigns

“We left the Accelerator session and realized we needed to expand the types of marketing campaigns we target to our high-priority readers” he said. “We asked ourselves: Are we being smart enough about how we’re using Google Ads and Facebook to reach the readers that are most likely to subscribe?”

Before the Accelerator, the Chronicle primarily ran online direct marketing campaigns. After the Accelerator,  the Chronicle launched brand awareness, lead generation, and direct marketing campaigns (among others).

Rockwell and team were able to use the Facebook Pixel in marketing campaigns to target a variety of audiences, including:

The Chronicle then set out to better serve those high-priority users on its website.

“Using Blueconic and Sailthru we feel like we’ve done a good job of creating usable personas. We’ve been building data around our site-users for four years,” Rockwell said. “We’ve looked at our user personas and compared the most active subscribers against the prospects. What content do they look at? When? Who are they? Where are they located?”

The result is a marketing funnel with a variety of campaigns connecting the right users with the right content on-site, improving subscriptions as a result.

Takeaway: Understand who your most important readers are, and focus on campaigns that reach them. Learn more about understanding your high-priority users here.

Launch Brand Awareness Campaigns

“It’s easy to assume everyone in your market knows you,” Rockwell said. “We can’t assume that anymore.”

Rockwell and team wanted to target users who didn’t yet know about the Chronicle. Doing so would grow the number of potential subscribers that the Chronicle could market to.

So the team launched new brand awareness campaigns with tools like Facebook Pixel and Google Ads shortly after the Accelerator program. For example, instead of only running campaigns saying “Here’s what the Chronicle is,” they launched campaigns that instead introduced users to content they may be interested in.

“People live and breathe sports in this region,” he said, referencing one example. “We know that the level of interest in sports in our market is super important. And we have one of the best local sports news teams out there. Why not run a brand awareness campaign introducing users to our great coverage?”

These brand awareness campaigns brought potential subscribers into the Chronicle‘s marketing funnel that, otherwise, might not have become readers.

These brand awareness campaigns are in addition to campaigns promoting the Chronicle itself.

Takeaway: There’s a plethora of high-priority users that haven’t discovered your publication yet. Create campaigns that introduce yourself and offer content speaking to the users’ interests.

Middle of the Funnel: Drive Newsletter Sign Ups

Once potential subscribers had visited the Chronicle’s site, newsletter signups enticed them to continue engaging with Chronicle content. That repeated newsletter engagement helped bring users from the top of the funnel through the middle.

Simplify Newsletter Sign Ups

“We left the first meeting in New York excited to take advantage of a very simple suggestion,” Rockwell said. “Under the first story you read on our site, you’ll see a call to sign up for a newsletter. It was simple and actionable.”

Newsletter sign ups on the Chronicle site are a key component of their marketing funnel. The Chronicle’s suite of newsletters drive users to click into more stories — speeding up the user’s arrival at a metered paywall and enticing the user to subscribe for full access.

By the time the Chronicle attended the third in-person Accelerator session, the team had deployed the newsletter sign up and was driving new subscribers.

The Chronicle’s update to its newsletter sign-ups had another immediate impact: Internal buy in on the Chronicle‘s subscriptions strategy.

“The meter became more real to stakeholders within the company. And the newsroom liked that we were getting people to buy a subscription by building engagement with their content.”

Takeaway: Simple tweaks to your website can go a long way to converting users. Learn more about the 3 primary areas of on-site marketing to drive subscriptions.

Newsletter Audience Optimization

After the Accelerator, Rockwell said, “we started changing the model on our newsletters a bit. We got more aggressive about refining and optimizing newsletter audiences.” Newsletters had been blasting everyone on the list. The team changed its approach by no longer sending to “un-engaged” users.

“We want to get readers opted into the right newsletter,” Rockwell said. “Then we can deliver them the right content — the content that gets them to stay, to be engaged, and to pay for more.”

The Chronicle is using a mix of curated, and personalized content in newsletters to improve engagement. Additionally, they are experimenting with dynamic content based on users’ subscription status and other dimensions. And to provide even more value to users, they began using a mix of story links and long-form “briefing” style messages.

Because the Chronicle provides such a wide variety of newsletters, users are able to receive what they care about.

Takeaway: Newsletters are not one-size-fits-all. Measure users’ engagement and status in your funnel, and segment newsletter content accordingly. Here are 10 more email marketing tips.

Bottom of the Funnel: Converting Readers to Subscribers

The bottom of the funnel is the final step in converting readers to subscribers. The Chronicle initiated one new bottom-of-the-funnel initiative that Rockwell calls “one of the best things we’ve ever done.”

Longer-Tail Sales

The idea came out of the Accelerator’s second in-person session in Austin: Hold longer topical or timely sales on digital subscriptions.

“We’d been doing sales for three or four days over a holiday, like over Labor Day weekend. We wanted to layer onto that,” said Rockwell.

For example,  the Chronicle had been running subscription sales over holiday weekends. During the recent California primaries and NBA finals they lengthened the sale and shifted its focus.

“We knew audiences would be craving sports and political coverage during this time. So we created the longer sale environment to harvest that interest,” said Rockwell.

To complement the sale, the Chronicle also changed the site’s newsletter sign ups to match the campaign. When the sale focused on the California primaries, for example, the newsletter sign ups drove to the Chronicle’s Political Punch newsletter.

The two-week campaign generated significant increases in newsletter sign-ups and new subscription starts.

Takeaway: Don’t be afraid to test, learn, and iterate in how you drive subscriptions. Need some ideas? Here are 8 alternate ways to acquire digital subscribers.

The Accelerator Program

The Facebook Journalism Project’s Accelerator Program helps news publishers build sustainable businesses. Funded and organized by the Facebook Journalism Project (FJP), each Accelerator includes a three-month period of hands-on workshops led by news industry veterans, grants administered by non-profit journalism organizations, and regular reports on best business practices. The Accelerator’s executive director is Tim Griggs, an independent consultant/advisor and former New York Times and Texas Tribune executive.

For monthly updates on the Accelerator Program, sign up for the FJP newsletter.



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