In this week’s Briefing:
- 🔴 CNN is mulling new digital subscription products and may borrow strategies from The New York Times under incoming CEO Mark Thompson.
- 💰 Amazon executives employed intentionally deceptive subscription tactics, the FTC said in an amended lawsuit against the tech giant.
- 🍞 The Washington Post is offering a free six-month subscription to members of Panera Bread’s “Unlimited Sip Club” beverage subscription.
- 🇪🇺 The Guardian hopes to attract more paying supporters outside of the U.K. with the launch of a new Europe digital edition.
CNN mulls new digital subscription products
CNN’s last foray into digital subscription products – CNN+ – was killed off after just a month in 2022. But the news giant still intends to monetize a portion of its 149 million web visitors via subscriptions under the direction of incoming CEO Mark Thompson, CNBC reports.
One idea being discussed is to build several subscription products that would serve different segments of CNN.com’s broader audience while keeping its core news output free to access. Paying subscribers could unlock on-demand or live CNN programming on specific subjects, for example, or gain access to particular pieces of in-depth journalism and other benefits.
Bleacher Report might also be integrated with CNN.com, just as NYT has done with The Athletic – the sports publisher it acquired last year for $550 million – and readers who want broad access could be offered an all-access bundle.
As Toolkits has noted previously, news publishers are increasingly moving away from broad catch-all subscriptions, opting instead to offer multiple subscription products designed to service the needs of more targeted and granular segments of their audiences.
Publishers such as The New York Times have spearheaded this strategy. News, cooking, crosswords and sports were once features of a broader “product” known as a newspaper. But as it’s shifted to digital, NYT has succeeded in repositioning each of those features as distinct products in consumers’ minds.
It stands to reason that Thompson, who starts at CNN on Oct. 9, will explore similar subscription approaches to the ones he employed in his prior role as NYT CEO. Under his leadership, NYT’s digital subscriber base grew from under 1 million to about 7 million subscribers when he left the company in September 2020.
Amazon execs intentionally deceived Prime subscribers, FTC says
Amazon executives were “okay” with people being signed up for Amazon Prime membership without their knowledge, the Federal Trade Commission said in an amended lawsuit on Wednesday.
The FTC’s original suit, filed in June, alleged Amazon’s manipulation of checkout buttons to trick millions of consumers into enrolling for Prime subscriptions. The Commission added new details to back up its claims on Wednesday, including internal messages and the names of three senior Amazon leaders who allegedly “played a key role”: Neil Lindsay, Russell Grandinetti, and Jamil Ghani.
The amended complaint alleges that Amazon intentionally employed deceptive tactics, making it easy for customers to enroll in Prime unintentionally. According to the FTC, Amazon employees raised concerns about these tactics with company leadership as early as 2016, but no action was taken.
Amazon designers questioned Lindsay about the company’s utilization of dark patterns in its user interface, for example, which purportedly aimed to deceive customers into subscribing to Prime. The lawsuit contends that Lindsay stated Amazon’s approval of these practices, stating that Amazon was “okay” with their use, and that “even if consumers become Prime members unknowingly, they will realize the program’s value and choose to remain members.”
Subscription businesses in the U.S. are facing growing scrutiny from the FTC around their signup cancellation practices. The commission proposed a formal “click to cancel” provision earlier this year that would require companies to offer more straightforward self-service cancellation mechanisms.
User-experience experts say large technology companies have become particularly adept at making it easy to sign up for recurring payments while intentionally making them challenging to cancel, but some publishers and media companies are no strangers to aggressive acquisition and retention practices, often forcing subscribers to call or chat with representatives to disable auto-renewing payments.
The Washington Post offers free subscriptions to Panera customers
The Washington Post is offering a free six-month subscription to members of Panera Bread’s “Unlimited Sip Club” beverage subscription. Current Sip Club members and those who sign up by November 30 are eligible for The Washington Post offer so long as they are not already Washington Post subscribers, the companies said.
The Post has experimented with a number of cross-promotions and subscription-focused partnerships with non-media entities over the past year. In May it offered new subscribers a $5 rebate when they paid with Venmo, for example. And earlier in the year it partnered with meditation and mindfulness company Headspace to offer first-time subscribers who paid $70 for a one-year all-access digital subscription to The Washington Post a separate 12-month subscription to Headspace’s service.
Publishers are increasingly experimenting with joint promotions and “bundle” offers with third-party services as they hunt for new ways to attract and retain subscribers. The Wall Street Journal partnered with Apple to offer a free year of digital access to new Apple Card customers, for example, and The Economist partnered with Indian business and finance publication Mint to offer readers access to both publications through a single subscription offer.
As they look for more creative and cost-effective ways to unlock high-quality subscribers, we expect publishers to continue teaming up with non-media companies to cross-promote their products.
The Guardian launches European edition
The Guardian has launched a new digital edition targeted specifically at readers across Europe (but outside of the U.K.), and hopes to expand its base of paying supporters in the process. The European offering will be the fifth digital edition of the Guardian, following its existing U.K., US, Australia, and international editions.
Editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner, said Guardian Europe would be a site that “showcases original, independent journalism and highlights the issues that matter to them”. She also asked European readers directly for their financial support, stating, “Your money will underwrite journalism that reports on the lives of hundreds of millions of people… finding out what animates us, what divides us, what is holding us back and what we have overcome. We are proud that some 180,000 readers across continental Europe have already funded our journalism.”
In lieu of paywalling its content, The Guardian has to date asked its website audience to support its work via donations. It has tested paywalled content within its mobile app, however, as it aims to reorient its business more firmly around reader revenue in the years ahead.
Also worth noting:
- Benchmarking data from 100 subscription businesses: Exclusive data, insights and trends gleaned from a survey of over 100 US and UK subscription executives. Download the report for predictions from thought leaders in media and publishing and exclusive analysis from Minna and FT Strategies. [Sponsored]
- The Independent is upping its investment in subscriber-only content and seeing “amazing results,” according to new chief executive, Christian Broughton.
- NPR is asking website visitors for donations to help fund its journalism without the need for a paywall.
- The Financial Times launched an app version of the FT Digital Edition, a digital replica of the print newspaper. The FT Digital Edition, previously known as the ePaper, allows subscribers to skim through curated content published in the print edition of the FT.
- Elon Musk says that X (the artist formerly known as Twitter) is exploring charging all of its users “a small monthly payment” to use the service.
- The Platformer’s Casey Newton summarized the lessons he’s learned in year three of operating his subscription-based Substack newsletter. The key takeaway: he’s planning to introduce advertising in his newsletters to help bolster subscription revenue.