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New view of "reader loyalty" at the Houston Chronicle and other single-market newspapers

At the Houston Chronicle and other newspapers, recognition has grown that subscription growth is underpinned by "reader loyalty." Reader loyalty is different from customer loyalty (which would traditionally be measured by subscription renewals). Reader loyalty reflects higher usage of the publisher's site, and it's often connected to email newsletters. Finally, we are starting to see content being tuned to the loyal reader, instead of traffic. Whether or not this leads to greater profitability for local newspapers... remains to be seen. 

Digiday: In an era of loyalty, newspaper publishers focus on time spent and frequency, 2018-Feb-19 by Max Willens

At Hearst Newspapers’ two largest ad-supported sites, SF Gate and, the focus has shifted from unique visitors to growing the share of readers that visit at least 10 times per month. As of last summer, The Boston Globe now pays more attention to what kinds of stories convert subscribers and what that subscriber base reads, rather than focusing solely on top-line audience size.... 

At the Seattle Times, the pageview retains some importance for the ad side, but the newsroom is more focused on tying the activity to the outcome, said Sharon Chan, vp of innovation, product and development at the Seattle Times. Local politics and sports have driven the strong conversions in the past, so in spring 2017, editors worked with consumer marketing and ran tests – putting more content on the homepage, upping the frequency of their posts, adding or subtracting video – to figure out which increased subscriber conversion rates.

The Times recently updated an internal dashboard that shows which articles lead to the most digital subscription conversions. Now, the entire newsroom can access its contents, and the paper’s editors are encouraged to take responsibility for driving conversions with their coverage. The dashboard is the Times’s latest step in a major push to grow digital subscriptions, which increased 55 percent in 2017 to over 33,000. 

Last summer, the Hearst-owned SF Gate, an ad-supported complement to the San Francisco Chronicle’s paywalled site, began focusing less on pageviews than on growing the share of readers that visited the site 10 times per month because those people are 25 times more likely to become a subscriber than someone who doesn’t, Hearst Newspapers’ president of digital Rob Barrett said. Growing loyal readership also drove more pageviews overall. 

Twenty-First Digital founder Chowning said prioritizing loyalty has moved local publishers away from national news content that’s likely to get a lot of reach on Facebook and more toward content that clearly articulates the publisher’s value. The Seattle Times, for example, has concluded that it takes 25 times more visits from Facebook to convert a reader than it does to convert a reader visiting their site via its newsletters. “We’re not going to get away from Facebook,” Chan said. “But we want to do things smartly.”

Digiday: How Hearst Newspapers changes its paywall to drive reader loyalty, 2018-Mar-5 by Max Willens

The new paywall replaces a system where editors chose which content was paywalled and which wasn’t. Under the new system, first-time readers can consume as much content as they want, and the amount they consume dictates when they hit the paywall and if or when they are shown a subscription offer.

“The whole approach is: ‘I want to win your trust,’” said Esfand Pourmand, svp of revenue at Hearst Newspapers Digital.

The subscription offers that engaged readers receive will be framed differently (though the cost will be identical). For example, sports fans might get an offer oriented around staying up to date on a team they follow, while the out-of-towner would get one telling them that a subscription will keep them connected to the goings-on of the market. The audience segments, which the papers also use for lead-generation campaigns designed to grow newsletter subscribers, are revised on a monthly basis, based on how much content a paper’s readers have consumed.