Industry Insight

In Reader Revenue Model, It’s All About Who You Know

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For news organizations betting the future on consumer revenue, there might not be a more important key performance indicator than “known readers.”

Publishers who’ve had success in getting readers to pay for digital subscriptions have figured out that your chance of conversion can differ widely depending on the type of visitor to your site. Someone who gets to an article via a click from Facebook is less likely to subscribe than someone who typed in the URL of your homepage, seeking out your site directly. Someone who has signed up for one of your newsletters and is getting to an article that way is far more likely to hit the subscribe button than an out-of-state reader who found you from a Google search.

Identifying local people who are engaged in the communities you cover and have an appetite to consistently follow your journalism, and being able to reach them with messages about your work and offers to subscribe, is what it’s all about. Email was always one of the best ways. Now it’s even more clearly important as Google and other platforms move to eliminate third-party cookies and the ability to track otherwise-anonymous users.

How does a news organization used to tracking page views, unique visitors and ad impressions in the hundreds of thousands or millions scale the kind of engagement and outreach work needed to know the email addresses, and hopefully a lot more, of individual readers? There’s a mindset shift required, skill sets missing and likely the wrong technology in place to pull it off.

The issue is even more pronounced for commercial television and radio stations that saw a massive drop-off in ad revenue following the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. and are still in denial about the cord-cutting meteor that’s approaching. Although apples and oranges from the online experience, most newspapers at least have a tradition of print subscriber relationships to build upon. Broadcasters have a longer way to go in identifying their audience and coming up with a consumer revenue strategy.

A helpful exercise for news organizations would be to reimagine audience development and KPIs if advertising were not part of the equation. What would you do differently if anonymous readers weren’t monetizable? (And one could argue that they’re barely monetizable now and becoming less so.)

Maybe you wouldn’t spend time and money on content that attracts non-local readership, or effort on social channels and platforms that attract mostly a one-time, non-loyal audience. Five hundred emails might be more valuable than 500,000 page views. Requiring email registration and/or log-in to see even non-paywalled articles might become the norm.

Another helpful exercise: Placing a dollar value on a “known” reader. If a digital subscriber or paying member to your news organization sticks around for an average of five years, what’s that worth? And if 2 percent of known readers end up converting to subscribers or paid members…you can do the math.

Now go back to the question of advertising. If identifying a reader and obtaining their email address is worth $100, for example, and the array of popup ads, Google surveys and Taboola clickbait you assault and chase them away with is worth only $15, it’s time to rethink everything about user experience and revenue mix. When Jim Brady launched the Billy Penn local online news site in Philadelphia, he talked about monetizing readers “over their lifetime of interaction” with the site. Is the goal to get them coming back, share an email address, trust you, trust your advertisers, or is it to assault them with every conceivable ad impression on that single visit, assuming (probably correctly) that they’ll never return? 

The potential of that lifetime relationship with readers goes beyond basic digital subscription or membership revenue. And an email address is only the very first step in “knowing” who your readers are. Knowing where they live, what they do for a living, their income level, reading habits, issues they’re passionate about can be used to develop revenue around events, educational services and affiliate marketing. If, like a growing number of for-profit news organizations, you want to turn to philanthropy at some point to support your journalism, you’ll know who to ask for support. And as third-party cookies decline, having detailed information about your readers will help bolster your advertising relationships, too.

Matt DeRienzo is editor-in-chief of the Center for Public Integrity. He has worked in journalism as a reporter, editor, publisher, corporate director of news for 25 years, including as vice president of news and digital content at Hearst's Connecticut newspapers, and as the first full-time executive director of LION Publishers.

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