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Strategies for Gaining New Subscribers

Subscriptions, donations, and memberships are critical for many newsrooms’ business models. But what strategies work for gaining new subscribers?

Our researchers at the Center for Media Engagement (CME) tackled this question by experimentally testing different messages about subscribing to news. For this study, we collaborated with three newsrooms: a mid-size local newspaper in the Southwest, a small regional news magazine in the West, and a large local newspaper in the Southwest. The organizations tested strategies using Facebook, email, and newsletter advertisements.

CME researchers looked at four different elements of subscription appeals:

  1. The image shown with the subscription offer
  2. The content of the subscription message
  3. Whether the offer was for a free newsletter or paid content
  4. Whether the subscription ad appeared on Facebook or through direct email

So, what happened? When the subscription offer appeared on Facebook, an image of the newsroom’s logo, as opposed to other images, like a journalist working or a top story, reduced click-through. In email promotions, news consumers were more likely to subscribe when the ad emphasized what people could gain from a subscription (“Stay in touch with news from our city and the world”) as opposed to what they could lose (“Don’t lose touch with news from our city and the world”), in addition to the details of the subscription. And, as you might assume, free newsletter subscriptions gained more clicks than paid print/digital access. When we compared how much it cost to share the subscription message over Facebook to the number of subscriptions returned, there was little evidence that Facebook ads on their own attract enough subscribers to justify the price tag. Yet we only looked at a particular subset of messages and it is possible that Facebook advertising could be more effective with other messages – more testing can help to figure out if there are instances when Facebook ads are worth the cost. For now, we would urge publishers to be cautious and systematically test whether a paid Facebook subscription strategy is worth the expense.

What are the key takeaways? Use journalists doing their work or an image of a top story when soliciting subscribers via Facebook, as opposed to your logo. Use messages telling people what they gain from subscribing to the news in addition to the details of the offer when contacting people via email. And, most importantly, test, test, test your strategies. Some yield better returns than others, and knowing what appeals to your audience can be especially helpful.