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Inside News International's digital strategy – Q&A with Juliet Bauer

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Inside News International's digital strategy – Q&A with Juliet Bauer

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In February, News International CEO Rebekah Brooks announced that the number of subscribers to the new digital products for The Times and The Sunday Times increased by more than 60 percent since the last released figures in October 2010, fuelling a 3-percent increase year-on-year paid readership of The Times overall.

Juliet Kennard Bauer, Director of Product Development at News International.

Updated on June 30: The Times and The Sunday Times have now 101,036 current, monthly digital subscribers, an increase of 28 percent since the last official figures in February (79,000 digital subscribers). This includes subscribers to all digital channels: the websites, the iPad and the Kindle. In total there are more than 250,000 joint print/digital and digital-only subscribers to The Times and The Sunday Times at the end of June. These committed subscribers now represent almost half of The Times sale.

The Times is downloaded onto an average of 35,000 iPads every day, an increase of 40% in the 4 months since February. The average for The Sunday Times is 31,000, an increase of 41%. Digital and 7 day print subscribers all have access to the iPad edition and this figure also includes those who have subscribed directly through Apple

Juliet Kennard Bauer, Director of Product Development at News International, steered the company's project and tells WAN-IFRA Magazine candidly how she helped to deliver a new digital strategy for The Times and The Sunday Times.

WAN-IFRA: Can we update the February figures on the number of digital subscribers?

BAUER: We are proud of the number we released in February and July. When combining print and digital sales for The Times, we are now seeing that The Times is in growth in terms of its’ paying readership, by around 3 percent for the full year. In the long term, we need to sustain and increase revenues to invest in the future of the business, so if more people are willing to pay for our content, and if we can produce a better ad model, that’s very encouraging.

WAN-IFRA: The Times and The Sunday Times iPad apps are available as part of a digital subscription, £2 for a week. The Times iPad app is also available direct from iTunes at £9.99 for a month while The Sunday Times app is available direct from iTunes for £1.79 a week. Why did you price the iTunes offer higher?

BAUER: Our digital product is different from the iTunes iPad in several ways. It is a true subscription product with an ongoing commitment as opposed to in-app repurchasing every month. Second it is a direct relationship with us, which gives us many opportunities to add value for the customer. Third, we are not limited on the price points we can offer, as we are with Apple. The Apple route gives us a good opportunity to target a different group of customers, particularly those who are new-to-the-brand people and internationals who may initially not wish to commit to a direct subscription with us.

WAN-IFRA: Most newspapers adopt a softer approach and give free access to a few of their articles before they ask for payment. Why did you opt for such a radical approach?

BAUER: We did a lot of work analysing all the different models, we talked to our customers, and I personally sat in a lot of focus groups… Simplicity is really the most important thing to customers. They need to understand what is paid for and what is not. A lot of industry commentators (not customers) compared us to the Wall Street Journal. It’s important to remember they are a lot further down the line than us, both in terms of their subscription business and their digital model. We were introducing this model to a new audience in a market with very little comparable paid content. Right at the beginning customers told us: ‘If I’m paying I don’t want to feel that other people get this content for free.’ That was a very important factor for us and it has worked out well in terms of people understanding the model and thinking they are getting value. Over time, there will probably be different things we try in terms of sampling content. But the basic concept that all our content is paid-for will continue because it is a strong message and it works well with the customers. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for publishers to be honest. The answer to what sort of offer you should make to the customer is in the data you already have and how the user currently uses your products. The tricky thing for any company is to stick to the model you have chosen and not change continually. You should explain why you are doing it and bring customers on the journey.

Editor's note: On June 30, News International announced that the new iPhone and Android phone app launched for The Times would be free for a short period and it will later be included in the digital subscription package.

WAN-IFRA: How is it going now with the advertising revenue compared to when you had better traffic on the website?

BAUER: All our analyses suggested there was not a future in which traffic volume led to enough advertising revenue growth to sustain our business. Now we have new ad opportunities because we can be much more targeted to a premium audience and we can deliver much better conversion rates to the advertisers. We’re already in a position where total revenues from the digital products are higher than they were before, which is great news.

WAN-IFRA: Once people are beyond The Times paywall, do they behave differently compared to how people were using your website when it was free?

BAUER: I have been doing research on our audiences for 10 years, listening to the customers talk about the print and the online products, and I can tell that the attitude of our digital subscribers is different. What we see is a much stronger level of engagement with the digital product since we’ve gone paid-for. It’s both qualitative in terms of how they talk about the product and how well they know it and how often they are using it; And also quantitative in terms of their frequency and the time spent on the site which has tripled. We have interesting findings with the iPad app as well with the average time spent on each edition impressively high: Our customers are also using the same words they always used to describe their connection and experience when discussing the print newspaper.

We also have The Times advisory panel which is composed of a few hundred Times digital customers. That’s a continuous running panel which started before we began to

charge. It helped us a lot to understand what they like and how they feel about the subscription. We go back to them every week with different questions

WAN-IFRA: Did your findings about how the subscribers behave behind the paywall impact the way you structured the website?

BAUER: The behavior statistics and customer feedback we gather from the research absolutely impact what we do every day. But what drives subscription are the things right at the heart of the value our products offer and those that differentiate us: our unique columnists, our features, interviews, book serialisations all influence the will to subscribe., Some of our great well-known products like The Sunday Times Rich List, university guides and other specific reports have also driven digital subscriptions. The churn rate is quite low. When people make the effort to test and go though the trial period, we have a pretty good chance of having them stay and recommending the product to their friends. Our journalists also try to be good at responding to comments. That isn’t possible if you have 50 millions users. That direct relationship helps to make people feel valued.

WAN-IFRA: What is the number one tool to avoid churn?

BAUER: A combination of factors, not least making sure that it technically works and the customer experience is excellent. You should not underestimate the importance of helping people to log in easily. Make it as easy as possible, make sure that it works, make people feel valued with a richer customer experience (Times +) and the content will speak for itself

WAN-IFRA: If you become a subscriber you are automatically a member of Times + and entitled to special offers. Does it play an important part in the decision to subscribe?

BAUER: Times + was launched in 2009 and was traditionally a reward for print subscribers offering them exclusive events, offers and special competition. We get more than a million interactions a year with people entering our competitions, events, etc., and last year, 35,000 members came to an event. It was an obvious value driver so we included that in the offer to the digital subscribers. The way digital subscribers interact with Times + is different to newspaper subscribers, partly because we bring in a slightly different demographic with digital as you would expect. But it is the same logic of creating a product package that is tangibly valuable. Encouragingly, our digital subscribers who have engaged with Times + are significantly less likely to churn.

WAN-IFRA: Do you also consider Times + as a way to increase ARPU?

BAUER: Times + was primarily launched to improve retention. It is certainly an interesting brand ‘extension’ because you get to know your customers much better and you could use this in different ways. But we have to be careful. More than anywhere else we have to make sure with Times + that we protect that brand and that experience, because you could destroy the trust if you seem to have created that membership space only to get more

money out of your customers. Where there are services our customers want, and trust us to provide, we will.

WAN-IFRA: What are the best marketing channels to sell your digital subscription?

BAUER: The daily newspaper is a good window to encourage our audience to try the digital platform. And we also have a very large database of existing customers and prospects to whom we can talk to and that’s relatively efficient as well.

Search engines, Google of course, are still very important because that’s what a lot of people use to find a product, so we can’t ignore that. We use them in some ways, with certain search terms, and that’s an efficient channel to drive people to subscription

We look at other routes like corporate subscriptions, partnerships with wholesalers and with brands that match us. I’m currently working on finding new marketing channels for the next 18 months. It’s interesting because The Times as a brand is very well recognised. In a given year, 18 to 19 million people will have picked up a copy of The Times or The Sunday Times, so realistically a lot of the growth will come from a very wide customer base of people familiar with the brands. Then there are new options -- students or international for example.

WAN-IFRA: In terms of marketing actions, it sounds like business as usual…

BAUER: No, it is certainly not business as usual! We had to bring new skills to the team, with more digital background and learn quickly what works and does not work. We had to become a lot more sophisticated in understanding search and social media and how these different vehicles bring customers. It’s changing the way we do marketing. The Times is already well known within the demographics that we target and the one thing that we do have to recognise is that the challenge for the next years are how we introduce The Times to people new to the brand? But we will be able to do it because there’s going to be new digital devices that will come out and will appeal to new demographics… At the moment the market is dominated by the iPad, but things will change; Android will develop; Kindle sales are strong. Unfortunately it’s not up to us to include the device in our subscription offer. But there will be additional options.

WAN-IFRA: On the CRM side, was it complicated to incorporate the digital offer?

BAUER: If the only challenge was to make your website paid for, that’s very doable. More and more providers are offering that in a cost-effective way. But the link to our legacy system often causes the biggest headaches… To link up to your regular subscription system is complicated and it tends to be expensive… and that’s one of the likely reasons it reportedly cost The New York Times a lot. In the coming months and years however, I expect things to get easier with upcoming cloud-based opportunities. What was really a challenge is to meet the customer expectation in the digital sphere. They expect their subscription to start as soon as they have completed the transaction. In the print world they know it can take a few days. If a publisher is considering a paid-for approach, I would advise him to work with experts. And to have jolly good planning sessions at the beginning because the thing that always kills you in longer term projects is changing your mind too often. Flexibility will never be perfect, but building a perfectly flexible system for a business that you haven’t proven yet and where there is constant innovation in the market, that’s investing too much at the start.


Valérie Arnould


2011-06-29 16:57

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