Publishers are facing a transformation in the way that their products are consumed and the business models that have defined the sector for hundreds of years: subscription and advertising as the primary source of revenue from which profits are generated.

Digital has generated opportunities to curate far more content at a fraction of the cost of print and to diversify content into video, podcasts, webinars for example.  These opportunities are currently however outweighed by the threat to traditional income streams as quality ‘free to read/free to air’ content is readily available and digital advertising real estate is increasingly losing its perceived value, as advertisers question its validity and potency.

Publisher responses have been to choose a position on a continuum that defines the level of access to content.  These range from all content for free and rely on advertising, events and other activities to generate revenue to cover the cost of creating and curating the content, to putting all content behind a tightly locked paywall.

To date, publishers who have succeeded with a total lock-out strategy have been those with specialised or very highly regarded content that is unavailable elsewhere.  Many generalist publishers have opted for free or mostly free content online and are looking for other ways of generating revenues – some of these are struggling financially as a result.  The Economist, with its print circulation of c1.1m has a highly regarded brand and a track record of some 170 years in quality journalism and analysis and as a result they have adopted a paywall strategy.  In this, unlike say the Financial Times, they offer limited access to free content and look to convert this initial, high-level interest into an annual subscription.

The challenge for The Economist, as with every other publisher who has set up a paywall, was to maximise the impact of their sales engagement as readers met the paywall and persuade more of them that the quality of the content and the other parts of the proposition was worth the money.

Prior to working with Good Growth, The Economist had performed a great deal of testing and optimisation work aimed at increasing subscriptions with support providers. Whilst there was considerable testing activity, the outcomes were sometimes marginal and the testing was not always focused on the right areas to achieve the best possible uplift in conversion rates.

The initial objective for The Economist was to improve the conversion rate of their online acquisition of new subscribers and their renewal order process. In the initial phase of the programme we collected data from web analytics, heat mapping, surveys and through listening and watching both potential subscribers and existing customers looking to renew, navigate through the website.  The objective of this was to achieve a greater understanding of how customers interacted with the proposition and to identify key issues with the customer journeys. The outcomes were a series of hypotheses that described the issues faced by potential subscribers in the buying journey.

Senior Marketing Director, Paul Cooper, believes the value from this process came not just from the quality of the data and analysis but also from the way in which the organisations worked together as a single team. Good Growth brought their skills and knowledge of how to listen to the customer voice and how to combine this with data and create powerful insight platforms and the process enabled The Economist to be more effective as an organisation by blending the knowledge and expertise of the team to respond to the concerns of subscribers and potential subscribers.  The outcome he comments was that Good Growth ensured that we weren’t testing for the sake of testing and that there was a more robust strategy underpinning the work.  The way they combined the insight data and linked this directly through to an analysis of business strategy execution was very difficult to find elsewhere.”

What transformed performance was the quality of the insight about the potential subscriber and the subscriber looking to renew.  This was generated by adoption of the ‘Customer to Action®’ process which puts as much emphasis on qualitative analysis that seeks to understand the ‘why’ customers behave as they do, as on the qualitative that describes what they do.

Paul Cooper explains that “data has always been important to The Economist and as a result, this approach hasn’t required much internal change but broadened the bandwidth of the internal team.  This has enabled us to adopt new ways of working whilst disruption in the company has been minimal.  As a result, we have been able to influence changes that complement the company’s objectives and deliver improved performance.”

The Good Growth ‘Customer to Action®’ process not only delivers e-commerce improvement but also delivers an organisation. We assisted The Economist in ensuring that where multiple teams were involved, they were engaged effectively through the data. This enabled us to facilitate in a neutral way, in order to provide an objective “third-party” view on the data and the impact of suggested organisation responses.  This particularly impacted the ability to run bolder tests that at times challenged current organisational assumptions.  Paul’s belief is that this helped us to test and improve the paywall and online purchase experience in order to improve conversion rates.

The continuing success of the testing activity and particularly its data-driven process led to an extension of the approach into The Economist’s weekly newsletters. Here the challenge was to optimise the impact of the communication for both content engagement and generating interest in subscribing. We worked with the team to test the introduction of a new format of email newsletter aimed at increasing engagement online. To do this we built a reporting infrastructure that captured and recorded the key performance indicators agreed for the newsletters. Interestingly, these measures of success vary depending upon the stakeholder group within the organisation. For the editorial team, the priority for the newsletter was to reach a wider audience with their content and drive engagement. For the circulation team the ultimate goal was to drive new subscriptions and drive engagement amongst existing subscribers to improve renewal rates. Our role was to help the business find the optimum solution that served both needs effectively. By testing the impact of the new format to a control sample we were able to establish that users wanted to engage with The Economist newsletters and the proposition met their needs. The question for publishers like The Economist is to be clear on the role of such email newsletters and how success should be measured.

What is Paul Cooper’s summing up of the experience?  He is positive about the process, the insistence on rigorous data based hypotheses to define testing strategy and the close alignment to commercial goals and strategic priorities.  The key for him, however, was the ability to place the voice of the customer in the heart of decisions about not just engaging readers, but retaining them for the long-term as committed supporters of the brand.  In his words: “working with Good Growth has helped the Circulation department at The Economist to articulate their priorities to the wider business and has demonstrated the importance of the customer voice.