This article was written by Carolyn Morgan, a digital strategist and consultant for media & publishing businesses.
A direct relationship with readers through subscriptions provides far greater insight and security of revenues for publishers than free to air websites, especially as ad blockers proliferate. Plus there is the opportunity to renew subscribers or sell them other services. But in many niche markets the absolute size of the audience is limited: so the focus has to be on growing average revenue per subscriber over the long term, or ARPU, borrowing a phrase more familiar in the telecom sector.
Subscribers are likely to be your most enthusiastic customers, and with a strong database you can build up plenty of data to profile and segment them, and gather intelligence about the purchases they make. It’s not just about growing direct subscriptions revenue for your core publication, but also building advertising, merchandise sales and event tickets generated from the subscriber base.
Here are ten ideas to get you thinking differently about the potential of your subscriber list to grow your overall revenue. Some of the publishers featured are B2C, but the principles I believe can equally well be applied to B2B markets.
1. Offer digital upgrades
If you have an existing print subscription base, think about how you can upgrade subscribers to a bundle including a digital edition and maybe some added value. Dennis Publishing has implemented this very successfully on titles from The Week to Digital SLR. What’s crucial is not to be too greedy – make the upgrade a small extra cost, compared to the print subscription rate, even if the digital-only subscription is close to the print rate. If your digital edition is more than a simple replica, this will make a stronger proposition. And if you can add exclusive goodies for digital subscribers, so much the better. MotorSport includes Formula 1 Grand Prix Reviews and a monthly photo gallery for its digital subscribers and has seen digital revenues grow 39% year on year. B2B publishers can offer research reports or surveys as added value for a digital subscription upgrade.
2. Create a premier tier
Some subscribers can be persuaded to upgrade to premium packages with access to additional content and privileges. Singletrack, an independent publisher in the mountain biking market, offers three tiers, from £14.99 to £34.99. They bundle print and digital editions and also offer other benefits including exclusive content, back issues, shop discounts and Premier members card. Other publishers add value by allowing premier subscribers to contact editorial teams or meet them at exclusive events. In B2B markets, opportunities to network with other premier members can be a strong incentive.
3. Add premium products
A more radical approach is to add a completely separate premium-priced product and market to the subscriber database. The best examples of this are in B2B, where publishers identified a small group of buyers involved in high-value transactions. EMAP title Health Service Journal developed HSJ Intelligence, building on editorial insight, gathering together public and proprietary data, and creating an easy to use digital interface to provide a service for suppliers to profile NHS trusts. This was a big investment, but they sold £100k of subscriptions in their first month.
4. Package discounts
Subscribers are a powerful audience of buyers. If you can negotiate discounts from key advertisers you can add value for subscribers – and potentially attract more advertising revenues too. Singletrack includes a discount card at specialist bike retailers for its premier subscribers. Student Beans, a website for students, has built an app allowing students to prove their ID and claim discounts from 7000 retailers nationally. The app is free but they have used it to attract new advertising clients for their website. So while this doesn’t directly grow subscriber revenue it is a useful retention incentive and can drive new ad revenues for the publication. Professional publishers can offer their subscribers special rates on legal services or specialist insurance.
5. Sell holidays
Many titles sell reader holidays, but there are big rewards from investing seriously in data and marketing: Immediate Media have generated £4m of sales for their travel partners in their first year of Radio Times Travel. Immediate selected a small group of travel partners and have created bespoke packages linked to editorial content on popular TV programmes. Crucial to this has been editorial buy-in and a sophisticated database, plus an expanded data and analytics team. By carefully segmenting their database and targeting emails they have seen impressive levels of bookings. Whilst it may not be appropriate for B2B media to sell holidays, they can take a similarly focused approach to marketing training, courses and niche conferences.
6. Sell merchandise
Immediate Media are also developing merchandise sales around their niche sports magazines like 220 Triathlon, using the database to segment readers as beginners, intermediate, experienced, and selling training aids and kit. The challenge with physical merchandise is of course stock. Songlines has focussed on music, creating its own compilation and awards albums and selling them via Amazon and iTunes. B2B publishers can market related books, courses, training and software packages to their audience.
7. Sell tickets
Reviews-based magazines can take a commission on ticket sales for third party events: a trusted brand can drive footfall. Ticket sales involve no stock and are easy to track online. The best example is Time Out – which has moved from a paid-for publishing model to 100% free digital only with direct transactions. They have concentrated on user content and social media to market their events content. By encouraging readers to post their own reviews they have built up to 15,000 pieces of UGC a week. Social media now drives 25% of traffic. By collecting email addresses Time Out can make direct, relevant offers to their audience. B2B publishers can partner with existing event organisers to co-market their events.
8. Launch own events
Magazine publishers have many skills that transfer to live events. Brand trust, strong subscriber database, editorial contacts & insight plus advertiser relationships.
Future launched the Photography Show at the NEC and attracted an audience of 30,000 over 4 days with just an 8 month lead time. As well as using print magazines and photo radar websites, Future persuaded sponsors like Canon and Nikon to co-market the event. Exhibitors were happy, with Future achieving an 86% rebook rate on site.
Events need specialist logistical skills, but can be developed, marketed and sold alongside core publishing assets. If the risk seems too great, then partnering with an existing event organiser is a smart option. Smaller scale events, such as the Stylist Network evening events for entrepreneurial women, can be highly lucrative. Most B2B publishers have a portfolio of conferences, awards nights, breakfast briefings and networking events, all marketed to their subscriber base.
9. Sell training and skills
Many B2B publishers have branched out into training. Econsultancy is a strong exponent of this with their wide range of digital marketing training courses. The business started as a free blog, developed a subscription package, and now its biggest revenue earner is training courses. But training doesn’t have to be face to face. Professional publishers like TES are experimenting with online, on-demand training courses for teachers, with prices starting at £80
In the consumer/prosumer field a great example is Guardian Masterclasses – who provide training courses for both vocational skills such as journalism and data visualisation plus personal skills like creative writing and photography. Their strong online presence and large reader database provide a powerful marketing channel – and their brand implies quality and authority in the key areas. Plus it’s easy to source trainers and experts from the editorial team’s contacts.
And the next step on is consultancy and advice. Wired magazine now offer a business consultancy service for companies who want to hear more about what they have learnt about innovation. Many B2B publishers providing a premium, data-driven subscription service offer individual consultancy and interpretation for an additional fee.
10. Promotional platform for professionals
In many specialist markets some groups are keen to promote their services to the wider audience, and there are opportunities to create more sophisticated digital versions of the traditional supplier directory.
The Lawyer from Centaur traditionally relied on advertising revenue, paid-for reports and events, as both print and web were free to readers (legal firms).
In 2013 Centaur launched Acumen, providing an online content publishing platform which allowed law firms to promote themselves and generate new business leads, powered by The Lawyer’s high traffic volumes. Each law firm participating can set up a content hub, which draws in relevant news articles from The Lawyer plus their own content including legal briefings. In its first year the service has generated over 16,000 leads for law firms – and has created a significant new revenue stream for Centaur.
What skills and resources do you need?
To develop a range of premium paid services for subscribers the first step is to create a sophisticated database, allowing smart segmentation. This needs to be backed up with good analytics and well-planned email marketing, which could mean hiring in new skills.
The publishers listed here have all collaborated closely with their editorial team to share their insights and use their contacts to develop new services and create content that signposts them to subscribers. It’s increasingly important to have flexible tech development resource, to create microsites and also manage multiple tiers of subscriptions.
Once customers are buying a suite of different products and services it is essential to work closely with your fulfilment bureau to track all transactions and create a single customer view. And selling third party products involves developing partnerships and negotiating contracts.
Finally, in the search for new products and services to sell to your subscribers, I’d advise keeping an open mind, and looking for inspiration outside your market sector. B2C magazines can learn a lot from B2B publishers who have always focussed on maximising revenue from a small group of subscribers.
About the author
Carolyn Morgan has launched, acquired, grown and sold specialist media businesses in print, digital and live events. Carolyn was a co-founder of the Specialist Media Show, and curated the conference programme from 2010 to 2013, when it was sold to SIIA. She regularly speaks and writes about digital publishing strategy, and advises individual publishers on the most effective way to grow their digital revenues.
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