The National – building a subs future

More and more newspapers are exploring digital subscriptions, writes James Evelegh. One such is The National in Wales…

By James Evelegh

The National – building a subs future
Gavin Thompson.

On St David’s Day 2021, Newsquest launched The National, a Welsh title focusing on politics and culture. The title filled a gap in the market, Newsquest believed, left by a lack of Welsh perspective in London-based national media. That gap had widened during the pandemic when the devolved nations had different covid rules, the nuances of which were often left unexplored.

The new title, with Gavin Thompson as editor-in-chief, has a small team of journalists who create original content based on three content pillars (Welsh culture and identity, politics / devolution and social justice), supplemented with stories curated from Newsquest’s other Welsh titles, like the South Wales Argus.

Although it launched with a print weekly, the brand was always conceived as a digital news brand, and the print element was dropped in November, because the strong gravitational pull of having to meet weekly print deadlines was skewing the team’s priorities.

Aside from its editorial mission, what marked The National out was the ambition to be primarily subscription-financed. As such, Gavin sees the experiment as having implications for the wider Newsquest group.

As a rule of thumb, says Gavin, 500 subs pays for one journalist. Therefore 2,000 subs equates to four journalists and so on and so forth. Newsquest hasn’t published the number of subs yet, but keen eyed observers should be able to work it out, based on editorial headcount.

So, what makes for digital subs success? One of the early lessons, said Gavin, was that brand awareness and reach were vital. Slapping on a hard paywall and not letting people sample your content makes it virtually impossible for a new title to achieve a critical mass of paying subscribers.

Assuming a viable market, not a guarantee in a small country like Wales, how can The National – indeed any news brand – build a sustainable subs future? Here are seven things publishers need to get right:

1. Create compelling, unique content not freely available elsewhere.

Crucially, enough of the content needs to be behind a paywall so that people know they need to pay to access it, but not so much that prospective subscribers don’t get a chance to sample the goodies. Putting that line in the right place and making it operate logically and transparently is key, along with continuing to invest in the content people are prepared to pay for.

2. Create an emotional bond with your audience.

According to Ben Monnie, director, global partnerships at Google News Initiative, “something the industry has broadly realised is that there is an emotional attachment to subscriptions that ties deeply to the unique and differentiated approach of journalism, which is holding power to account.”

In their current marketing, The National says it offers, “Original, quality journalism from an unapologetically Welsh perspective” and they are upfront about the fact that “we are funded by your support”.

3. Good clean UX.

If the site experience is a poor one, then no matter how good the content, you will struggle. It’s like asking your print subscribers to read their newspaper on a roller coaster. Page load times, layout and on-site performance and navigation all need to be carefully thought through and optimised.

4. Frictionless conversion journey.

The journey to becoming a subscriber needs to be pain-free, logical, robust and work as advertised. There are multiple touch points before payment is made and all need to be thoroughly road tested, because people’s patience with poorly designed sign-up processes is paper-thin. 5. Subs marketing expertise.

It’s not enough to put a price on something and hope for the best. For subs success, you need to bring specialist subs marketing expertise to bear. Every aspect of the acquisition and retention process needs to be monitored and measured, enhancements made and tested; a continual programme of process refinement and optimisation needs to be implemented. Monitoring subscriber engagement levels and spotting cohorts likely to churn is a key part of this.

6. Make growing subs part of everyone’s job.

Penny Riordan, director at the Local Media Association, tells how, “at the Record-Journal in Meriden, Connecticut, Publisher Liz White knew the company had to get everyone focused on digital subscriptions, so it formed a #factsarentfree team. This team worked across departments to make growing digital subscriptions a little bit of everyone’s job. The newspaper has seen a 57% growth year-over-year in digital subscriptions.”

7. Make the subscription about more than just access to content.

It’s got to be ‘content-plus’. Subscribers need to feel they are getting exceptional and extra value. The ways to do this are countless and only limited by a publisher’s imagination, but typical added value items include: subscriber-only newsletters, events, meet-ups, reward schemes, discounts.

A successful subs programme is a company-wide endeavour. I wish The National well and must make a note to call Gavin next year to check on headcount.

Useful further reading

You can hear Gavin Thompson being interviewed by James Evelegh on a recent episode of The InPublishing Podcast, which was sponsored by Air Business, a leading supplier of distribution and subscription management services.

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