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Forget Subscribers: It’s All About Subscriptions

Forget Subscribers: It’s All About Subscriptions Keith Sibson

Digital publishers have long tried to replicate the ad-driven print business model online, but the overabundance of programmatic ad inventory has depleted CPMs for publishers who depend on ad revenue. Meanwhile, the walled gardens and shifting algorithms of distributed content platforms prevent publishers from amassing data, reaching readers, and forming the audience relationships necessary to stay afloat.

While the ad-driven model may work for aggregators who accumulate millions of clicks from cheaply-produced content, this poses a problem for premium publishers. How can publishers who devote endless time and resources to quality content generate enough revenue to remain profitable? 

The Value of the Email Relationship

For many publishers, email has shown itself to be an invaluable revenue generation tool. Its audience development and monetization potential brings high returns for publishers who prioritize email capture and list growth in their digital strategy. But while digital publishers focus on the number of subscribers on their email lists, they lose sight of an equally important metric: the total number of email subscriptions

Once readers hand over their email address, there is a big opportunity to further monetize these readers if publishers encourage them to subscribe to additional newsletters. Whereas social media algorithms make reaching readers a game of chance, an email relationship provides a direct connection to the reader and the right to market to this reader at any time. It makes sense to take advantage of this connection by encouraging multiple signups.

The more emails a reader receives, the more chances they have to engage with your content, which also means more opportunities to monetize the relationship. Each additional email subscription increases the likelihood that they will see a piece of content that entices them to click through to your site, where they can generate ad revenue. Even if readers don’t click through, they can generate revenue through in-email ads. Publishers can place native or programmatic ads within their emails, where they command higher CPMs and are less likely to fall prey to ad blockers. More opened emails mean more ad impressions. What really matters for monetization is not open rate or click rate, but total opens and total clicks.

Promoting Additional Newsletter Signups

With content personalization a hot topic, some publishers have attempted to provide personalized newsletters, but providing a variety of available newsletters across content verticals creates a sort of self-personalization. Publishers like The New York Times and The Washington Post offer upward of 50 newsletters, giving readers ample options. Audiences then indicate which topics they are most interested in, receiving a newsletter for as many interests as they want.

Publishers can maximize the value of their email subscribers by cross-promoting their newsletters in the inbox, thereby increasing the number of subscriptions. For instance, a tech news site with a daily news roundup email would likely have subscribers that are interested in receiving more specific newsletters about mobile devices or tech startups. These additional newsletters can be promoted within the daily roundup.

Newsletters can also be promoted on-site based on the type of content. A reader who clicks on a food-related article from a more general newsletter could be asked to sign up for a food-centric newsletter at the end of the article. Look at the available data to see which subscribers are reading articles about a certain category on your site, and use this information as the chance to promote new ways to connect.

From Email Subscriptions to Paid Subscriptions

Most importantly for premium publishers, increasing the number of total email subscriptions can play a role in increasing another subscription number: the number of paid subscriptions. Readers are more willing than ever to pay for premium digital content, and The New York Times has found that readers who subscribe to one of their email newsletters are twice as likely to become paid subscribers. Will additional total email subscriptions lead to more paid subscriptions? The additional reminders of the quality of content available to paid subscribers makes that a sure thing.

As premium publishers move toward paid content models, they must consider new ways to engage their audiences. Email subscribers are among publishers’ most loyal audiences, certainly more so than passing readers who click through once from social, never to return again. It’s these relationships that will generate the revenue necessary for publishers to thrive.

Keith has over a decade of experience driving product-led growth at companies large and small. Before joining PostUp, Keith served as VP of Revenue at SpareFoot.com, the leading consumer marketplace for the $22Bn self-storage industry. Prior to...

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