What will readers pay for? Finding your unique selling point

Media organisations across the world are in a battle for survival. Advertising revenues have been in a freefall for years as audiences shift to digital platforms, where Google and Facebook now dominate.

Covid-19 accelerated what was already a steady move towards paid-content initiatives from news publishers looking to generate more dependable and consistent income. 

The World Association of News Publishers’ (WAN-IFRA) Women in News programme, and our team of industry experts, is working with media partners to help them navigate this process of building toward stability in the transition to digital.

In the first of a two-part interview, we speak to one of our strategic advisors and coaches, Lyndsey Jones, for her thoughts on reader revenue prospects for African media. Jones is the author of the forthcoming business education book, ‘Going Digital’, to be published by Pearson in early 2022, and a former executive editor of the ‘Financial Times’.

1. You’ve been running sessions with Women in News Advisory Partners in the countries in Africa where the organisation is active (Botswana, Malawi, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe). What has stood out for you on the preparedness of news organisations when it comes to rolling out reader revenue strategies?
Those groups that were already on the road to digital transformation definitely had an advantage during the pandemic, which has accelerated the pace of change. 

They were already ahead in their preparedness to adapt more quickly to the operational challenges of Covid-19. For example, they might have had more advanced technology in place or used data analytics in the newsroom to interpret what their audiences wanted.

Revenue diversification is also a key theme. The drive to some form of paywall is paramount for many organisations. Companies are also tending to look at other areas of the business, such as native advertising, sponsored content, the development of videos and podcasts, and virtual events – until the real-life ones return.  

2. What do you think are the most critical elements news publishers need to have in place when considering a reader revenue model?
Understand your unique selling point and why your readers will pay for your content. 

Local languages can be a competitive advantage, for example, because few people speak them outside of specific markets. Among Chartbeat’s media clients worldwide, those in Europe and Africa tended to have more loyal readers, and local languages may have played a part in this.

You also need to ask yourself questions such as are readers getting value for money? Is your site worth paying for? And do they read the journalism? The latter one can be particularly challenging. Where stories are getting low page views and few – or no – comments, you need to analyse why this is happening. 

Spot the patterns – are the stories usually incremental or have you covered too much of the same subject? And take action. Evolve your content strategy quickly. 

3. What are the key factors that make a reader revenue model successful? What have you seen working?

Three key factors stand out for me: 

a) Focus on your core content. What makes your readers or listeners come back to you? What are they looking for? Is it news they can use? It could be analyses, opinions and background explanations on why a story is important to them. Perhaps they can use the information to perform better in their jobs.

b) Understand your core audience. Loyal readers, the ones who form habits around your content and visit your site regularly, are very likely to be the ones who will subscribe and create the most value for your company. Analyse their user behaviour and consider the usage patterns. It is key to understand what they want, and give it to them. Metrics matter because we tend to improve things we can measure. Editorial analytics plays a crucial role in this – and most journalists now will need to understand how to interpret the data. c) Aim to break down silos. Editorial and commercial teams must collaborate to achieve the same business goal: reader revenue. At the Financial Times, the ‘North star’ was the “march to a million” subscribers.  The metrics were critical – recency, frequency and volume became common language between editorial and commercial teams, aligning the departments to business goals. This aim was well understood and teams could align what they did in the business to help to achieve it.

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