A reader might pay for a subscription to read, or donate money to help a newsroom hire a reporter. They might join a publisher’s membership program, and meet a community of people who care about local journalism. This is reader revenue, and it’s an important business model for news publishers. In each example, a news organization makes money directly from paying readers.
Reader revenue was the focus of a recent session hosted by the Facebook Accelerator Program, the Facebook Journalism Project’s business training program for news publishers. From April to June, 14 German-language news organizations participated in the Reader Revenue Accelerator course. They represented regions throughout Germany and one in Austria, with paid circulations ranging from under 50,000 to more than 250,000. They were (in alphabetical order): Augsburger Allgemeine, Der neue Tag, DuMont, Frankfurter Rundschau, Hamburger Abendblatt, InFranken, Lensing Media, Main-Echo, Main-Post, Nürnberger Nachrichten, Rheinische Post, Ruhr Nachrichten, Straubinger Tagblatt, and Stuttgarter Zeitung.
Just like every Accelerator, the first three months included three in-person gatherings, 1-on-1 work with dedicated coaches and Slack discussions. In June, when the training period ended, each newsroom received a €50,000 grant to implement lessons learned from the program. The grants were funded by the Facebook Journalism Project and administered by the International Center for Journalists, which partnered with Facebook to host the program. Programming and coaching for the program are led by Tim Griggs, an independent consultant and advisor, formerly of The New York Times and The Texas Tribune. The Germany Accelerator was led by Yasmin Namini, a digital media consultant and former New York Times chief consumer officer and senior vice president. Coaches were Ray Pearce, a digital news media consultant, and Lynne Brennen, a marketing leader and partner at Red Root Marketing.
Here’s what five participants accomplished in their first three months with the Reader Revenue Accelerator. Early next year, we’ll share how all 14 German publishers used their grants to make more reader revenue over a period of six months.
Build future subscribers with a freemium model: At the Rheinische Post, 38,000 readers registered in the first three weeks of a new, “freemium” subscription offering.
In the city of Düsseldorf, the Rheinische Post is a major daily regional newspaper with RP Online as its digital site. Using lessons from the Reader Revenue Accelerator, the Rheinische Post launched RP+, which invites readers to share their email address in order to read select articles (the site’s “RP+” collection).
“We thought it might be nice to have 1,000 registrations by the end of the first week. We had 2,500 at the end of the first day,” said Julia Morein, head of product management at RP Digital.
To get everyone “on the bus” with the new subscription model (a key lesson from the Accelerator program), editors published an article on RP Online and the employee intranet to explain the purpose of RP+: obtain readers’ emails, encouraging them to read RP+ on a regular basis, and later ask them to pay for subscriptions. The newspaper’s leaders also hosted a big in-house event that was screened on YouTube live, offering a space for people to ask questions. After RP+ launched, they created Slack channels where RP+ data is shared daily, and where editors and writers suggest articles that can be RP+ stories. The RP+ chat room now gets 30-50 recommendations from staff every day.
Looking ahead, the Rheinische Post is aiming to get 10,000 paying subscribers in the next year.
Simplify the subscription process: Main-Echo grew from 1,700 newsletter subscribers at the beginning of the Accelerator to 7,000 at the program’s end.
As a “north star” during the Accelerator, Main-Echo focused on getting more people to download its news app and sign up for unlimited access to its website. The team brought downloads back to life by promoting the news app in digital campaigns on Facebook and Google Ads. They also built a new subscription page where readers share their email addresses and choose between just two payment plans.
“We learned to keep it simple and easy,” said Frank Unkelbach, Main-Echo’s head of digital management. “These messages and tools have helped us in our core business.”
Use your most loyal readers as a performance metric: DuMont started tracking the reading habits of “Priority Visitors” to understand their most loyal readers better.
DuMont is one of the largest publishers in Germany and has several regional publications. During the Accelerator, DuMont revamped its newsletter strategy at a few different brands. To help curate content for those newsletters, they introduced a new key performance indicator called “Priority Visitors” — readers who have 1) visited a brand’s website at least once a month from its distribution area, and 2) visited the site at least five times a month.
By separating priority visitors, who are most likely to read and subscribe, the new metric “definitely helps identify topics that are of interest for our loyal users,” said Julia Grass, head of content development for Berliner Zeitung, one of DuMont’s brands. “Now we know what’s possible and what we can improve.”
Looking ahead, the team is focusing on local news, raising brand awareness by having editors-in-chief personally write newsletters, and using more frequent newsletters to drive more priority visitors.
Testing can pay off: In a four-week A/B test, Lensing Media acquired more than 200 new paid subscriptions with a retention rate over 50%.
The Accelerator helped Lensing Media focus on the customer journey, making it easier for readers to subscribe without getting lost or frustrated. During a series of A/B tests, they experimented with the color and wording of their subscribe button, and tried out different pricing and subscription offers.
Going forward, after successfully increasing the number of conversions every week, they focused on turning these subscribers into loyal readers through a series of engagement campaigns.
The power of newsletters: Mediengruppe Straubinger Tagblatt/Landshuter Zeitung created a new content-driven newsletter and added a sign-up button to their site, IDOWA.DE. Their newsletter reach grew to more than 20,000 subscribers.
Mediengruppe Straubinger Tagblatt/Landshuter Zeitung, which publishes various digital channels and brands, saw an explosive growth in email subscriptions after piloting a new newsletter and adding a newsletter sign-up button to their website’s header. Readers can now easily subscribe right at the top of any webpage. The newsletter was redesigned to help promote their premium digital brand, IDOWA.PLUS. To encourage people to sign up for IDOWA.PLUS, the team created three beautifully designed subscription overlays with striking photos and bold white text. They implemented tracking of the subscription overlays and started monitoring and analyzing testing data over a period of several weeks.
“The coaches did a great job showing us powerful ways to gain and retain subscribers,” said Andreas Seidl, managing editor for the IDOWA brands. “In addition, the exchange with the other teams and the work with the whole community at the Accelerator were a massive source of inspiration for us.”
*Results are provided by the publishers.
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.