The New York Times is often cited as one of subscription publishing’s leading success stories, and for good reason: It’s amassed over 9 million digital-only subscribers and says it’s on track to reach 15 million in the next five years.
The publisher’s chief growth and customer officer, Hannah Yang, provided some valuable insight into the tactics and approaches that are helping it drive subscriber and revenue growth at The International News Media Association’s World Congress conference in New York last week. They included:
1. Quality content is table stakes
NYT rarely credits intricate paywall or product innovations for its subscriber growth – at least publicly. Instead, its executives repeatedly attribute its success to its ability to offer high-quality, differentiated content on an ongoing basis.
Yang had a similar message, pointing to NYT’s content as the core driver of its subscription growth in recent years. Although major news events such as the Trump presidency and the Covid-19 pandemic gave its subscription efforts a boost, its ongoing investment in journalism enabled it to capitalize on those opportunities effectively as they arose. “So much of it is about our journalism, and I cannot take credit for any of that,” she said.
The company’s publisher A.G. Sulzberger said similar earlier in the day, stating: “I’m asked about our subscription strategy all the time. The secret of it is deceptively simple: It’s not about paywall rules or meter heights, it’s about having stuff that’s worth paying for.”
In addition to editorial contributions, however, Yang said the team NYT has installed on the product, technology and marketing side of its business is one of the key reasons it’s been able to grow its subscriber base as quickly as it has. “People matter most,” she said. “It’s not smart technology or even smart ideas. It’s the right people.”
2. Registration drives subscription
In addition to its journalism and its people, Yang highlighted NYT’s concerted registration push as another meaningful driver of its recent subscriber growth.
In order to establish relationships with as many people who visited the NYT site as possible, the publisher began requiring much of its audience to create free accounts in order to access any of its content. That decision to lock down content more tightly might have negatively impacted topline traffic, but it generated a valuable pool of first-party data and direct audience relationships.
“Requiring registration was a risky move as it’s a source of friction, but it was the smartest thing we did… We built up a big registration pool and that pool is driving a big part of our growth right now,” Yang said.
3. Nurturing early-tenure subscribers pays dividends
For most publishers, the hard work of selling subscription products begins after an initial conversion occurs. Pulling out a credit card to commit a few dollars is a strong signal a reader could be convinced to pay on an ongoing basis, but the hours, weeks and months following an initial purchase are crucial for promoting engagement and generating value perception.
It’s no different for The New York Times. The publisher has leaned heavily on promotional discounts and introductory offers to help it initiate new subscriptions in recent years, but Yang said paying particularly close attention to early-tenure subscribers has enabled it to turn casual trials into long-term paying relationships. Internally, the company considers early-tenure subscribers as a distinct “middle state” between non-paying anonymous or registered users and fully-fledged subscribers at the other end of the spectrum.
“A good analogy is getting engaged before getting married, and we put a lot of resources into making sure that initial period is as engaged as possible,” she said, adding, “We have evidence to show that if we invest in that segment of people who aren’t totally committed to us yet, there’s a good chance they’ll pay us full price or mid-price later.”
4. A smooth path to purchase boosts conversions
A simple but effective way to boost conversions, NYT found, is to ensure the path to purchasing a subscription is as easy and smooth as possible for new subscribers.
The company has slowly stripped away extraneous information from its landing pages to focus on simple messaging and single subscription offers, for example, but Yang said using single sign-on solutions and otherwise optimizing and minimizing the payment process has also yielded results.
“We really invested in making the transaction as smooth and painless as possible,” she said.
5. Balancing subscriber revenue and volume is increasingly important
A year ago, NYT’s “north star” metric for its subscription business was subscriber volume. Now, as many publishers reprioritize monetization over subscriber growth, Yang said her company’s goals are shifting too.
Although volume remains an important indicator of future revenue and the general appeal of a subscription product, the ability to generate revenue – and to grow revenue from existing subscribers – is an increasingly important factor as NYT’s subscription business evolves and matures.
“The relative importance of [average revenue per user] has gotten closer and closer to our [subscriber] volume goal,” Yang said. “It’s really hard to balance the two. We have to grow total lifetime value and ARPU and show that people will pay more over time, but that takes very different levers than the ones that just get people to give us their credit card [information.]