Many of us regularly dismiss plenty of subscription pop-up boxes on web sites. Why tie yourself to a digital subscription if you’re just visiting to read one article or a handful of items each month? The most frugal among us—including many small business owners and bloggers who operate on a shoestring—may wonder why anyone pays to read New York Times or Wall Street Journal stories online when they can find free news elsewhere. The reason people pay for news site subscriptions shines some light on how small businesses can build their own subscriber/customer bases and grow beyond “shoestring budget” mode.
One standout example of digital subscription success is the New York Times, which suffered along with the rest of the newspaper industry through the digital transformation in the late 90s and early aughts. Now, though, the paper of record has 2.5 million digital and print subscriptions – a giant leap from the 1.5 million print-only subscribers the paper had in 1995. Even though less than 2% of the Times’ monthly visitors are paid subscribers, total digital revenue for 2015 was $400 million, with more of that coming from subscriptions than from advertising, according to a recent conference speech by NYT Global editorial director Lydia Polgreen.
The first lesson for business owners considering a subscription model for content or services is this:
Not every site visitor must become a subscriber for your business to succeed.
NiemanLab reported last August that of the 60 million unique visitors to the Times’ site each month, only a million are paid subscribers. However, paying readers spend more time on the site and view more pages than free visitors view so they’re more valuable in terms of ad revenue. In other words, per industry analyst Ken Doctor, “loyal core readers build the foundation of the news business.”
The challenge for every business is building the loyalty that leads to subscription or customer base growth.
Customers become loyal after businesses prove their value
To win subscribers, the Times went beyond the basic free coverage that readers could get from other outlets. Polgreen mentioned unique stories the Times did, such as a long-form profile of a woman living with Alzheimer’s and investigative pieces on nail salon worker exploitation and state prison corruption. With these types of stories, the Times created a clear value proposition: exclusive, interesting reporting by experienced journalists.
Small businesses don’t have the resources, budget, or pedigree of an organization like the Times, but they can provide value customers will pay for — if they’re willing to spend time getting to know their target market.
Listen to your target audience
This is what the Times does when it spends weeks or months tracking a story they know readers will care about, and it’s what top bloggers like Jon Morrow recommend for new bloggers and business owners who want to build an audience. By listening to your current or future audience, you can learn what they want and what they value enough to pay for.
Who’s your audience?
Before you can listen and learn, you need to know exactly who to listen to. Invest some time in developing your customer personas—such as age and income brackets, lifestyle, location, and more—so you can make the best use of your listening efforts.
Where’s your audience?
If you already have a customer base, email list, or a social media following for your business, you know where to find your current audience. To reach similar prospects—or to build a brand-new audience—follow blogs, news stories, and social media accounts that reach the people you want as customers.
What does your audience want?
Morrow and other experts recommend approaching this step as relationship-building in its own right, rather than comment-thread pitches to people you don’t yet know. Start by simply listening for what your target audience wants and what they don’t want. Most importantly, listen for things they’re not getting anywhere else that you can provide. Then, if you have questions to ask or insights to contribute, do so.
As you develop your understanding of what your audience wants, you can start providing valuable content, products, or services they’ll be willing to pay for. Not all your content should be behind a paywall, of course. Free content can build familiarity and show your audience the value of expanded access to your offerings – just as the Times does with its combination of limited free and unlimited paid readership.
Businesses grow by answering this question
Polgreen’s speech included advice for other news organizations. “We need to answer this question: Why should a news consumer lean forward to consume, and pay for, your journalism when so much is available for less money, or worse, for free?”
Business owners and aspiring professional bloggers should ask a similar question of themselves. Why should customers consume and pay for what you offer at the price you charge? When you listen to your audience, you’ll know the answer.
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Casey Kelly-Barton is an Austin-based freelancer who enjoys writing about business development and marketing, e-commerce payments and fraud prevention, and travel.