Organisational structure

Welcome to our latest subs special, this time looking at all aspects of new subscriber acquisition. All of the insights and opinions come from leading suppliers to the publishing sector and from senior management at UK publishing companies.

By James Evelegh

Organisational structure

Our ‘new subscriber acquisition’ special feature consists of five separate sections:

Key stages

Key performance areas

Organisational structure

In a nutshell

Suppliers Spotlight

In this section:

How publishers can organise themselves better

What skill-sets are needed

Some common causes of under-performance


“We are first and foremost a subscription business, therefore our number one focus is on customer retention and new acquisitions, so the entire business puts the customer at the heart of what we do,” says Jo Adams, marketing director, New Scientist.

Company-wide approach needed

“More than ever before, with the high incidence of remote working, all departments need to get with the plan. Whether print or digital, the contribution editorial can play at all levels of onboarding new subscribers is significant,” says Mike Halstead, managing director, HH&S.

At DC Thomson Media, Graham McDougall, head of audience management, says: “It boils down to people working closely together. Getting really good at forward planning doesn’t hurt either and editorial need to feel comfortable engaging audience development and acquisition teams at the point that they have an idea rather than at the point they’re about to hit ‘publish’.”

Graham McDougall, head of audience management, DC Thomson Media

New Scientist’s Jo Adams: “Success must start with the company strategy. At New Scientist, marketing touches all areas of the business and we really do collaborate with everyone.”

“We have a head of campaign marketing who is responsible for new customer acquisition across multiple channels, and we employ channel specialists in digital and CRM marketing.”

“We also have a head of audience data and head of customer experience and the three of them work very closely together to execute our subscription strategy, working right across the business. For example, collaborating with editorial to develop newsletter journeys; with the tech team to improve customer experience and develop new ways of collecting data and with production to ensure excellent delivery service.”

For Jonathan Harris, founder & CEO, Sub(x), some of the problems publishers face are down to “internal team friction around execution, objectives and implementation, so removing friction is the key.”

Andrew Morris, director of client relations, Pelcro, says, “goals need to be set very clearly for everyone in the organisation, so that they can have something to rally around, and the KPIs need to be set so that it doesn’t matter whether we want to create a paywall or not, the discussion then becomes what’s going to allow us to achieve those KPIs, what’s going to allow us to increase those subscriptions?”

“And, it really just starts with alignment and being more focused on the data then any kind of personal incentives.”

“One framework methodology I recommend is OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) and that can be a great way of aligning incentives across different departments.”

And, whilst a company-wide approach is needed, the importance of the subscriptions function should be properly recognised. Anthony White, head of UK publisher development, Passendo, says: “In years gone by, subscriptions have frequently played second fiddle to ad sales. This dynamic is changing as subscriptions / recurring revenue is making up an increasingly important proportion of a publisher’s total revenue. Make sure this is recognised in the makeup of your senior management team and that subscriptions are well-represented at the top table.”

Aligning acquisition & retention

Dominic Young, CEO & founder, Axate, says, “acquisition and engagement are two sides of the same coin and should be looked at closely together.”

Julian Thorne, chief customer officer, Dennis

Julian Thorne, chief customer officer, Dennis, agrees: “In terms of organisational structure, the subscriber acquisition teams have to have very strong links with the retention teams, the brand teams and the editorial teams. They also need to properly understand the future recurring lifetime value revenue they are creating and ensure this is fully integrated with the wider company financial objectives. This means that the links between the finance teams and the subscriber acquisition teams also need to be strong and based on common and trusted data models.”

Angus Chenevix Trench, managing director,, adds: “Acquisition and retention do require different skill sets, but it’s important that your acquisition team has skin in the game when it comes to retention. It’s important for the people who are actually acquiring subscribers to be focused on acquiring subscribers that are going to provide the publisher with long term lifetime value.”

“There needs to be an eye to the retention strategy by the acquisition team and, to some extent, that’s being taken care of with the number of people subscribing on continuous payment.”

New thinking needed

“The classic split of subscription and advertising created a natural divide in the monetisation of the reader,” says Michael Mendoza, founder & chief innovation officer, Lineup Systems; “A balanced / combined approach should be used in the modern media business to focus on the total reader revenue – spread across both advertising and subscription.”

“For example, a low-value advertising reader should be presented with offers that maximise subscription revenue while those with high-value advertising monetisation potential could receive offers with low cost of entry for subscriptions to encourage consumption of the publisher’s content. There is a balance that needs to exist between the goals of these departments to focus on the overall goal of maximising total reader revenue for the business.”

For Markus Karlsson, CEO & founder, Affino, “the product mindset is key. Increasingly, this involves digital services, so making sure that the digital product team is well funded and has the business authority required is fundamental to making this work long term.”

And, asks David Coveney, director, interconnect, are publishers talking to the right people? “I see very little attempt to seek the opinion of people who are digital natives – people who grew up with the internet as an ever present force. They’re the ones that will shape the future. Engage with them.”


“Training and learning internally and externally is a KPI lead indicator for high performing acquisition marketing teams,” says Dennis’ Julian Thorne.

Jonathan Harris, founder & CEO, Sub(x)

According to Sub(x)’s Jonathan Harris, “these teams need simplified technology and processes that reduce the technical burden, improve decision-making, and boost their productivity. Teams with strong strategic and tactical insights and creative vision need to be at the heart of audience development teams.”

Recruitment challenges

The challenge of recruiting the staff you need can not be underestimated.

DC Thomson Media’s Graham McDougall says, “finding experienced performance marketeers is a real challenge, particularly in Scotland. These people are typically snapped up by ecommerce operations with much deeper pockets than publishers.”

Tracy Larner, head of subscriptions, William Reed Business Media, adds that publishers with “smaller multi-tasking teams need to ensure staff have multi-faceted skills. This can be quite difficult to find in any situation, but especially in the difficult recruitment market that we are experiencing currently.”

Data analysis skills

“Critical to the business of audience development is good data,” says’s Angus Chenevix Trench.

Jo Adams adds, “the ability to measure performance with timely reporting is essential so you need team members who are comfortable with analysis, able to interpret it and act upon it. And you need to resource it appropriately.”

“This is a discipline that needs a structured approach, but it sometimes falls when teams are either chasing targets or it is difficult to get to the data you need.”

“You must be able to work with the data you have, which isn’t always perfect and plan what you will need in future; roadmap how you are going to get there.”

“It’s clichéd, but if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”

Pelcro’s Andrew Morris says, “you want to have someone on the team that understands user acquisition and customer journeys. They will be very data oriented, able to look at the numbers and understand where users are converting.”

Julian Thorne says that the “challenge is to understand the comparative value of audiences to generate one-off ad revenue (typically programmatic) and subscriber lifetime value. This is like having to compare apples with pears but it has to be done and the good news is that it is not an either / or conundrum but an and / and opportunity.”

Composition of senior management

According to Affino’s Markus Karlsson, within publishing companies, “the biggest strengths tend to be on the content side and biggest weaknesses tend to be on the product development teams. In terms of skill sets, having the senior management team skilled on the digital and product side is fundamental to all future subscription and membership generation. Too frequently, the senior team is led by news, financial and sales professionals for whom the need to skill up on a digital and product mindset is paramount.”

Tech expertise

Andrew Morris says, “one thing that would make a huge difference would be having a technical person on the publishing team. There’s a lot of tools out there and we try to make everything as self-service as possible, but sometimes, publishers will want to implement things that are a little different and you don’t want to be limited by a vendor, by technology or your team’s knowledge. So, it can help move the needle quite a bit when you have someone that’s more technical on your team.”


  • “Lack of actionable analysis, difficulty accessing data, conflicting priorities and time and focus. Habit, doing the same thing over again and hoping for a different outcome.”
  • “Constraints in terms of both budget (spend, restrictive CPAs) and targets. Senior management lack of understanding and willingness to adopt LTV strategy for some channels.”

    “Inexperience in understanding the levers at your disposal and how to optimise them. We focus on volume, revenue and yield and juggle these constantly to deliver on our targets.” Jo Adams, marketing director, New Scientist

  • “Making dramatic changes and surprising customers with them. If you extend your offering and want to make it a premium product, fine. But don’t change everything else at the same time. One thing at a time, then you can measure the impact of each change individually.” David Coveney, director, interconnect
  • “Lack of planning, little comms testing, no KPI setting, combined with unrealistic expectations.” Mike Halstead, managing director, HH&S
  • “Expecting audience development teams to acquire the analytics capabilities needed to derive insights from data.” Jonathan Harris, founder & CEO, Sub(x)
  • “The single biggest cause for under performance is a lack of stamina for the continuous iteration required to develop membership services. The second most common one is to inadequately fund the continuous development and service delivery. The third is to treat the membership product development as a subsidiary function below the content, marketing and event functions. It should be at least at the same level in terms of leadership and budget, if not higher.” Markus Karlsson, CEO & founder, Affino
  • “Lack of back office joined up working. You need a back office system that takes out the legwork and automates everything giving your team time to focus on content and creativity. Also, a lack of flexibility – let people subscribe and unsubscribe easily.” Patrick Lidstone, managing director, The Engine Shed
  • “Poor leadership, lack of strategy, poor communication, teams that have been cut to shreds having to manage with responsibilities more and more horizontally and cross-function in publishers searching for efficiency savings.” Romano Sidoli, head of magazine relations, NewsTeam Group
  • “A focus exclusively on cost per acquisition with no concept of the wider cost per acquisition and lifetime value ratio.” Julian Thorne, chief customer officer, Dennis

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.