In addition to the archetypes, we identified six other notable insights related to how people think about news subscriptions. These findings are themes that emerged across the archetypes. They indicate areas of opportunity and useful problems to solve, and they can help to inform product development and content, distribution, marketing and revenue strategies for publishers.
Whether it was a free trial gone wrong, a difficult cancellation process or being inundated with unwanted correspondence, frustrating subscription experiences have a lasting effect and can make many customers — even current subscribers such as the Civically Committed—wary of future commitments because they feel overly obligated or “on the hook.”
“I prefer to make a donation, because you don’t get continual membership renewal things. They’re using all this paper and mailing instead of doing what I want them to do, why I supported them in the first place. That’s very maddening.”
— Connie, 60, Fairfax, Calif.
Opportunity: How might publishers create a subscription experience where news subscribers feel more in control of the relationship?
- Spell out exactly what subscribers are committing to (and not).
- Offer pay-as-you-go models.
- Audit all (email, online, mail, etc.) current subscription workflows to ensure clarity in the process and product offerings. Here is a Washington Post example.
- Make it as easy as possible for customers to have questions answered. If they need to contact customer service it should be clear with an 800 number, email, live chat, etc. Reps should be trained in both customer service and sales. The New York Times has an FAQ section at the bottom as well as a chat box that pops up after being idle on the page. The Boston Globe also has help center options on their page.
- Account and email preference centers should be comprehensive, easy to locate and representative of brand. Here is Harvard Business Review’s. Here is another example from MECLABS, a research company.
For many, habits related to news and information, trust and loyalty to particular outlets begin at home at a young age. Though previous research has shown that friends and family members can influence subscription decisions to the same product, we underestimate what a powerful driver family traditions (and the emotional connection to those traditions) can be to subscriptions later in life. This is a particularly important leverage point as publishers look to grow subscriptions among new and younger readers.
“I grew up with NPR. My dad and I used to listen to it on the way to middle school every morning.”
—Megan, 28, Seattle (who now contributes $100 a month to her local NPR station)
Opportunity: How might publishers build creative subscription and marketing strategies around family traditions (think about the Subaru car commercials)?
- Test bundles and discounts for families that could include various formats. These include adding digital access to a print subscription or adding that each print subscription comes with a certain number of digital subscriptions.
- Offer family discounts in which additional members of a family, beyond those granted digital access in one subscription, can begin to subscribe at a lower cost.
- Test messaging that underscores shared experiences where news/sports/arts/ has played a part in bringing family members around various topics and life events.
How are you special?
In today’s crowded, noisy news landscape, consumers are searching for what stands out above the fray—context, depth of coverage, relevance and a publication’s unique approach to coverage were mentioned as differentiating factors that make publications “special.” For many, news coverage, particularly political coverage, feels the same. A big question that factors into subscription decisions is, “What can this publication give me that I can’t get anywhere else?”
“I just think Harper’s [Magazine] is very special. I think the Atlantic is not very special. It’s kind of in the bracket of The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, Slate, etc. Most of the content coming out of those places are similar. Harper’s is on a whole other timeline and story view.”
—Ariel, 27, Oakland
Opportunity: How might your publication stand out in a bold way?
- Prioritize coverage around topics you can be excellent at that are passions for your audiences. Some newsrooms call these franchise topics and use them to build subject expertise where they can add depth and value. Here’s how one newsroom saw franchise content driving engagement and here’s how another planned to cover things differently based on audience passions.
- As you begin to identify the franchises you want to build coverage around,use that as an opportunity to listen to what the community wants to learn or is already saying about those topics.
- Once you have prioritized your coverage and made changes to the way you cover key franchise subject areas, market your areas of expertise and points of differentiation
- Identify and surface attributes that make your publication unique and pull in through the messaging throughout the subscription workflow. An example from The Wall Street Journal. And one from the Washington Post. There is a popover ad that reinforces the value proposition with text “Award-winning content, top political coverage, best sports and local news.”
The audience for local news, especially in the digital realm, is much more complex than the geographic bounds by which many publishers define their coverage. What it comes down to is a consumer’s scope of relevance, and one person might have multiple “local” identities depending on where they live, work and play. Your local audience might also include news consumers who don’t live in the area but have some type of meaningful connection to it. In some places, “local” might mean the immediate town or neighborhood in which someone lives, but not other nearby areas.
“Most of the local TV news is done in Seattle. That doesn’t have anything to do with me here.”
—Gaii, 76, Burlington, Wa.
Opportunity: How might publishers rethink what local coverage means to their audiences?
- Find ways to identify former residents or those with strong ties who live elsewhere (think about high school and college graduates or sports fans who no longer live in the area).
- Pin your overall content strategy to themes that are more precise than just “local news.” Choose to celebrate the history, culture and uniqueness of your local area, in a way that people not living in the market will still connect to. Think about the aspects of your community that make people who have moved away remain attached, and obsess about those things in your coverage. One simple tactical step is to use your analytics to see what content is more popular among the readers who visit your site often but are not currently located in your market.
- Ensure your coverage matches the ethnographic makeup of your communities. Start by studying the deep data provided by the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Fact-Finder. Examine your news organization’s demographic marketing and advertising data Audiences want to see an accurate representation of their communities in your coverage. (Consider partnering with local ethnic media to broaden your reach into communities.)
News audiences, regardless of political affiliation, are highly sensitive to and perceive a great deal of bias in the media, especially since the 2016 election. Many interviewees spoke about being upset about perceived bias, even if the bias reflected their own views. This is particularly important because it contradicts the assumption that most news consumers only want coverage that matches their views. One of the interviewees recently unsubscribed from her local newspaper because of its perceived bias.
“I used to have a lot more faith in the media until this last election. I’m not a Trump fan, whatsoever. But I feel like the media as a whole was definitely behind Hillary Clinton. I did lose some faith. It seems like it’s more one-sided now.”
— Jake, 35, fifth-generation farmer in Central Illinois who describes himself as Libertarian
Opportunity: How might publishers allow for more feedback from readers about how their coverage is perceived?
- In local publications, much of the content about national politics comes from syndicated wire services. The local journalists may feel less responsible for what their publication picks up from the Associated Press, Reuters or Washington Post News Service. But many readers don’t make that distinction. Be cognizant of any bias and tone issues in the wire copy you choose to associate with.
- Explain and clearly label news versus opinion content. As we have previously detailed, “One possible explanation for declining trust in news organizations is blurry lines between news and opinion. If someone doesn’t like a commentator’s stance on particular issues, that could color how they look at everything else that news organization does.” Our earlier research shows that 32% of Americans find it difficult to distinguish news from opinion in the media. Here is more guidance and examples on how to label articles better.
- Learn how to listen to your audiences. There are now numerous tools out there for this. You can do this informally on social networks. Create reader advisory panels to get regular feedback from your communities. Conduct audience research and hold focus groups. The Listening Post Collective has some strategies to help with hosting community conversations around difficult topics. The Coral Project offers guides for engaging with communities, including case studies from successful newsroom engagement projects. Hearken helps newsrooms include audiences in the reporting process, rather than ask for feedback after the fact.
- The Trusting News Project, supported by the Reynolds Journalism Institute, and the Trust Project at Santa Clara University both help conduct experiments in newsrooms to increase trust in news and have released some results.
- Ask for specific feedback in a visible place in stories, in a social post, when meeting with a source, at an event, etc. Provide easy, clear ways to reach people in the newsroom who will respond to readers. And respond to constructive feedback to encourage additional people to continue the conversation.
Modes of consumption
Despite their described primary orientation (print or digital) most news consumers consume information through multiple modes, depending on their routine, lifestyle and moods. Audio, for example, is a growing mode of consumption for those who want to multitask, something to which publishers should pay close attention. Media consumption habits also can change based on life circumstances and sometimes goes against previously stated preferences.
“I was very against digital before, but when I was traveling back and forth between L.A. and Detroit, it was just so much easier to have all my books in one place. Now I’m pretty much everything online or on my iPad. I just don’t see the need for print any more.”
—Emiliana, 46, Detroit
Opportunity: How might publishers design digital experiences that take subscribers through the course of their day?
- Use data to identify stories that work in audio vs. visual vs. print. You can use that data to then have newsrooms build stories to fit the way audiences engage with them. API’s Metrics for News program can help publishers with this.
- Understand what stories work best on different platforms or types of media. Some stories work best in Facebook, others on Twitter, others on Instagram.
- Consider multiple audiences and experiment with how you serve them. What you offer a commuter might be different from a sports fan.
- Use your data to see when you publish content and when people are accessing it. Reorganizing your newsroom or workflows can help you match up coverage to when audiences want it. BetterNews.org provides guidance on thinking about and using analytics to improve your journalism.
- Experiment with different types of storytelling and use data to track their success. You might find different types of storytelling work better with specific audience segments and you can use this to create custom experiences. BetterNews.org offers resources on how to think about multiple story formats and specific case studies on how others have found success with alternative story forms.
- Mobile first is a common strategy now. What would a mobile-only experience look like for your newsroom? Here’s an example from the Washington Post of mobile-first storytelling.