Chapter 2

How The Pilot used reader data to boost digital subscriptions

The Pilot is a 100-year-old newspaper that covers Moore County, North Carolina, and publishes biweekly. As of August 2020, it had a print circulation of 10,000, while ThePilot.com attracted 155,000 unique visitors and its daily email newsletter had 21,000 subscribers.

Goal

After “several years of minimal subscription sales,” The Pilot wants to increase and retain digital subscribers.

Key learnings

  • News outlets that have a strong track record of serving and connecting with local residents must not underestimate the strength of their position in their respective communities.
  • Value your journalism and ask users to pay a reasonable price for it.
  • It’s not necessary to immediately transform your entire print-subscriber base into digital subscribers, but you should get a foothold in the market to grow.

Strengths

Given its longstanding presence in Moore County, The Pilot has strong ties to its community — so much so that the newspaper’s old-school approach to engaging local residents can still serve as a modern playbook for how media outlets today can effectively engage their audiences and maintain sustainability through the years (not to mention during a crisis like COVID-19). In one century, The Pilot only has had six publishers, compared with a neighboring newspaper that had six in just two years. Current publisher David Woronoff is celebrating his 24th anniversary at The Pilot, while his two predecessors immediately before him stayed for 28 years each.

“That kind of longevity, I believe, makes for a better newspaper. I think the more accessible we are to our community, the more accountable we are. The more accountable we are, the better journalism we produce,” Woronoff said. “We’ve been named the best community newspaper in America five times in the last 20 years. You don’t get that by accident.”

Woronoff added that everyone at the company, from the ad department to the accounting department, are expected to be out connecting with their fellow residents. The Pilot’s long-term success, according to the publisher, is due to this authenticity and accessibility.

“Every member of our staff is deputized to be out in the community. We all live here,” Woronoff explained. “It’s a small town. So, you know, people come up to me at the grocery store, they call me, they text me, they email me, they stop me on the street. If we aren’t doing our jobs, they’re not going to be shy and let me know.”

“If people feel comfortable calling you and talking to you, you’re going to get more news. And the more news you get, the more people will call.”

Challenges

Despite The Pilot’s strong readership and connection to its community, however, the newspaper struggled with digital subscriptions simply because it lacked the tech infrastructure to support a digital subscriber strategy. Part of this strategy includes segmenting a publication’s overall audience into smaller groups, so The Pilot can better identify and serve a particular group’s needs; that also incentivizes audience members to pay for news coverage because it’s tailored to them.

Before API consultant Steve Yaeger came on board, The Pilot’s staffers still saw their audience as an amorphous mass of Moore County residents.

“We’re an old-school community newspaper,” Woronoff said, adding that Moore County is largely a community of retirees and young veterans. “Bottom line, we don’t know that much about our readers.… We know precious little about them.”

“Every newspaper in America has got that problem.”

He said his team did have access to analytics platforms that provided basic data on unique visitors, page views, sessions and more, but they “just didn’t spend a lot of time looking at it.”

Consultant’s recommendations

  • Analyze data about The Pilot’s subscribers and segment them according to shared attributes.
  • Identify differences between print and digital audience segments to determine the growth of The Pilot’s print versus digital readership over time.
  • Walk through the digital subscriber journey for another publication (in this case, the case study was The Star Tribune, as Yaeger is the Minnesota-based newspaper’s senior VP of circulation and chief marketing officer).
  • Assign a staffer to focus completely on subscriber acquisition, ensuring that print and digital strategies complement each other.
  • Replace existing meter and payment technology.
  • Other recommendations:
    • Remove “day pass” option for digital subscribers.
    • Shorten email newsletters to drive more engagement to ThePilot.com.
    • Increase frequency of email newsletter from twice weekly to every weekday.

What they looked like in practice

Yaeger requested subscriber data, and plotted every digital and print subscriber onto a map of Moore County. He then used a visualization tool to analyze the data and break down The Pilot’s audiences into 70 different categories. Finally, Yaeger compared and contrasted the outlet’s print segments versus its digital segments.

Before Yaeger’s analysis, Woronoff said, “We thought they were one and the same.”

“Based on where the location was, he had zip code, census data comparing the two,” the publisher continued. “Average digital subscribers in [their] early 40s; average print subscriber was in his mid- to late-60s. It sort of totally surprised us.”

“That’s, again, the technology issue. We didn’t have any way of knowing and just assumed: If you read us online, you read us in print.”

Before The Pilot can build on its progress, the outlet has to refresh its tech infrastructure, according to Woronoff. In addition to developing new websites for desktop and mobile, the publisher wants to install a dynamic paywall and enable recurring payments for subscribers. Currently, The Pilot does have some technology, including a paywall and the ability to accept digital subscriptions; but Woronoff says the payment process is “not very elegant or frictionless,” so they’re upgrading those systems.

He adds that the publication gained 300 digital subscribers from March to April as a result of marketing “the old-fashioned way.” Leading up to this boost, The Pilot promoted digital subscriptions on its website’s homepage, in its nightly Facebook Live broadcast and in its five-day-a-week newsletter.

Results

  • The Pilot’s readership tripled during the pandemic.
  • Digital subscribers increased from 100 to 400 (+300) during a six-week period from mid-March to end of April, and has hovered around that number throughout the pandemic.
  • The Pilot’s daily email newsletter, which has focused on coronavirus news since March, now has an open rate of 57 percent (up from around 30 percent).
  • The Pilot’s daily Facebook live newscast, which summarizes what’s happening in Moore County every evening, attracts several thousand views, on average.