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How The Baltimore Sun is growing digital subscriptions

August 28th, 2019

Editor’s note: Throughout the month of August, the GNI Subscriptions Lab hosted workshops with 10 U.S. and Canadian news publishers, including The Baltimore Sun, to explore new opportunities for digital subscriptions growth. Last week, we co-published a report with the Local Media Association (LMA) and FTI Consulting to share what we’ve learned.  

Just today, as I write this post, we at The Baltimore Sun launched a new tactic: Some non-subscribers will be prominently asked to enroll in a free newsletter before reading their first free article of the month. The test was born out of the GNI Subscriptions Lab. Here’s how we used data and collaboration to come up with the idea.

Our digital subscriptions team at Tribune Publishing is always seeking new ideas to boost subscriber relationships and digital revenue to help fund our journalism. In this pursuit, we have attended conferences, participated in webinars and devoured research papers on the topic. So, when the Google News Initiative, FTI Consulting and LMA started the GNI Subscriptions Lab earlier this year to help news publishers accelerate their approaches to digital subscriptions, we eagerly joined with one of our storied brands, The Baltimore Sun.

Job one in the Lab was measuring the health of our digital subscriptions business. We deployed our data analysts to collect 27 months of observations across 300 variables that contribute to our subscriptions model. After compiling our insights across the entire Lab, we had over 80,000 data points to compare and contrast with our fellow participants.

This is where the power of the Lab first emerged. We focused on 10 of the most critical performance metrics for a digital subscriptions business, such as visits per unique reader, engagement with the paywall (Meter Stop Rate) and effectiveness in monetizing subscribers (Average Revenue Per Unit). We saw which news organizations had best-in-class metrics, and heard directly from those participants about how they achieved success.

For example, The Baltimore Sun had one of the highest paywall conversion rates in the group. My team shared how our promotional calendar for subscriptions is thoughtfully constructed; we focus our best offers at the end of each month, which is when most readers finish their monthly free-article allotments and hit our paywall. Conversely, comparing our metrics to our fellow publishers, we saw that we should work to increase the number of times each unique reader visits our site. So, we are now prioritizing desktop alerts as an immediate, peer-recommended method for growing visitor frequency.

With this aerial view of where we’ve been and, more importantly, where we need to go next, The Baltimore Sun is focused on projects to improve soft spots in our subscriptions metrics.

We selected email capture as our first bulls-eye. We have email addresses for about two percent of our unique users, which is below the Lab’s target level of five percent. After brainstorming with the group about how we could improve that metric, we developed our first experiment: a free newsletter offer for some readers before their first metered article. Our goal is to generate more email-sourced subscribers and drive greater newsletter engagement through this approach.

In the coming weeks and months, we look forward to furthering collaboration among expert organizers and supportive peer-participants in the Subscriptions Lab. As our expectations rise and new challenges emerge, we must seek (or create!) cooperative environments like this to learn and thrive together as an industry.