Publishers Evolve Marketing to Keep Subscribers Brought in During Pandemic

They're ramping up efforts to retain new paying customers

Publishers are honing their marketing strategies to retain new subscribers. - Credit by Illustration: Adweek; Sources: iStock
Headshot of Sara Jerde

Key insights:

Digital and print media companies wondering how best to keep new subscribers who signed up during the pandemic will need to prove to readers that their publication is invaluable after the crisis.

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to an uptick in subscribers at a variety of news organizations, including those that have long-established paywalls like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, as well as newly created ones like at The Atlantic.

Until coronavirus took hold, publishers had been advertising why their reporting matters and is worth paying for. Now, according to experts, they’ll need to focus on fine tuning the data provided by the new cohort of subscribers to better serve their needs.

As publishers focus on retaining these subscribers, they should determine how to show that the “uniqueness” of their Covid-19 and crisis coverage that first attracted those subscribers will apply to other reporting from the newsroom, according to Jaime Spencer, executive vice president and head of local media at market research firm Magid. “You’re not paying for coverage of this story—you’re paying for our coverage. It just happens to be about this story,” he added.

Reacting to the pandemic: advertising on social

As publishers’ traffic increased in March, when the coronavirus began its advance across the U.S, many news sites dropped their paywalls and began to increase ad spend to promote their subscription offerings.

Between consumers’ need for vital information and the additional brand marketing, it worked. The Journal has grown to over 3 million total subscribers, and the Times attracted 587,000 net new subscriptions during the first quarter and now has over 6 million total subscribers.

Media organizations boosted their marketing across channels, but especially on social media.

The Atlantic tripled its daily Facebook ad spend. The tactic only accounted for a small percentage of subscription growth, but it’s a social media campaign that “has continued to be profitable,” said Sam Rosen, svp of growth at The Atlantic. “Increasing paid marketing has been helpful,” he added. The Atlantic grew its subscription base by 90,000 within two months, and has reached over 200,000 subscriptions since the paywall’s launch in September.

The Post also increased its ad spend—as it usually does when there’s an uptick in traffic—to promote a discounted annual subscription rate ($29 instead of $100) that launched in February. The news publisher extended the rate to convert any new visitors who might be reading the site’s pandemic-related journalism. The Post has attracted “an increase in subscriptions,” but declined to provide exact figures.

The Washington Post kept a special running during the pandemic.

“This is a particularly critical moment,” said Miki King, CMO of the Post, adding that the newspaper has “no interest in exploiting” the opportunity by reverting back to the standard price.

USA Today also doubled down on brand marketing investments, including a paid social campaign for Memorial Day in which the publisher increased its year-over-year spend by 65%. The move attracted 262% more subscribers than the same campaign last year.

Messaging around Covid-19

Before the pandemic, marketing efforts achieved a certain panache: Celebrities touted the importance of their reporting (the Journal); some led to award-winning work and prestige within the advertising community (agency Droga5’s work for the Times); others gave out-of-home advertising a trial run (The Atlantic); and have even gone up against the White House by advocating for free speech (The Washington Post’s tagline “Democracy Dies in Darkness”).

Since the pandemic took hold, as newsrooms created new products at unprecedented speed and sales teams addressed brand safety concerns, marketing teams have had to weigh how to address the crisis in their messaging.

The Atlantic focused its ads around two messages: one that highlights fact-checking (a campaign that began before the pandemic and is the publisher’s most engaged ad campaign), and another centered on the organization’s “vital” reporting. The marketing intentionally hasn’t mentioned Covid-19. “We wanted to speak to the broader moment we were in,” Rosen said.

The Atlantic advertised its fact-checking capabilities.

The Times focused on myths associated with the virus in a new ad as part of its “The Truth Is Worth It” campaign, including putting a spotlight on misinformation from the White House.

The New York Times addressed Covid-19 myths in an ad.
The New York Times

The Journal has already narrowed its focus on combining its “factual quality reporting with utility,” said the paper’s CMO and evp, Suzi Watford.

The Wall Street Journal put an emphasis on "trusted facts" in its ad.

“It goes back to any marketing lesson: It’s not just the messaging, but what is the value you’re delivering to consumers?” asked Joseph Goodman, associate professor of marketing at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business.

Brand marketing moving forward

As most marketers will agree, demonstrating value starts with the content, which should be unique enough to sustain growing readership—especially as new subscribers are helping to make up for financial losses sustained during the pandemic. While analysts are quick to point out that readers cannot (yet) be depended upon to make up all pandemic-related revenue losses, or even move the media industry further from relying on advertising, they could become a bigger part of the pie.

“Reader support is our vehicle for how we want to build The Atlantic going into the future. We’re stepping on the gas with all of our strategies and tactics,” Rosen said.

Media organizations should consider touting their newsroom’s expertise and what they hope to accomplish with that journalism in their marketing.

“My message would be: ‘We are totally committed to freedom of speech and expression, and you can trust you can get the truth from us,’” said John Pavlik, professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University.

For the Journal, it comes down to “reinforcing the fact that we’re here for people, that we have this trusted, valuable journalism, and that we’ve been through and covered a lot in our 150 years and will continue to be there for people going forward,” said Watford.

Retaining a new (maybe different) consumer

“Quality, original content is what people will really respond to,” Pavlik said. “The other side of that is creating content that really utilizes the media platforms that people are now using.”

While consumption habits may have changed, at least temporarily during the pandemic, some media organizations are noticing this new cohort of subscribers is different than their usual readership. The Times has said new subscribers are younger and more ethnically diverse.

The Journal’s new subscribers are also younger, though they still hold senior roles.

The Journal has an effort underway to get a better understanding of just who its new readers are and what they want. Since creating its paywall in 1997, the Journal has fine-tuned its onboarding process for new subscribers to learn as much about them as possible (and personalize their experience). New readers are promoted to sign up for things such as newsletters and authors they can follow, all in an attempt to make sure “they’re adopting valuable habits early on,” Watford said.

The Atlantic sends updated emails written to reflect current headlines to convince readers to subscribe. “The Atlantic’s corps of journalists is working around the clock to make sense of this moment. Their work is exposing racist theory and practice and the role of authoritarian thinking in exacerbating this national crisis, and at the same time providing vital information about the ongoing threat of the coronavirus,” the publication’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, wrote in a letter last weekend. “I’m asking you now to become a subscriber in order to help us do this important work.”

New subscribers at the Post, meanwhile, more closely match their usual user. The organization is assembling its own team devoted to user experience and engagement that can focus solely on how those factors relate to retaining subscribers. The Post had always planned to create such a team this year, but the pandemic accelerated the concept, King said.

“There’s so much data and understanding of who the customer is—that becomes the key part of [retaining them],” Goodman said.

Resources for reporting

Some news organizations have had to satisfy these customers while working with fewer resources.

The Journal and the Post have not had layoffs; however, the Times’ CEO said it will likely reduce its workforce, though it would not affect jobs “in journalism.”

But other newsrooms across the country have had to tighten their belts, including pay cuts, furloughs and outright layoffs, due to the economic impact of the pandemic. Gannett, the owner of USA Today, had planned layoffs due to the merger with New Media Investment Group, which was finalized in November, and has implemented furloughs during the pandemic. The Atlantic laid off 17% of staffers at the end of May, with most reductions affecting its live events team. Most editorial staffers laid off were from the video team.

It’s costly to give newsrooms the resources they need to do the journalism readers want, while providing coverage that could distinguish it from other media outlets. “That’s going to be a challenge, and there’s no easy answer,” Pavlik said.


@SaraJerde sara.jerde@adweek.com Sara Jerde is publishing editor at Adweek, where she covers traditional and digital publishers’ business models. She also oversees political coverage ahead of the 2020 election.