The New York Times and Wall Street Journal are putting behavioral data to work

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TheNew York Times andWall Street Journal are each respectively increasing their focus on user behavior to promote deeper engagement, and drive subscription growth and retention, per NiemanLab. The two publishers — leaders in digital transformation among legacy publishers — have ramped up efforts to appeal to their readers based on expressed interests.

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Here are the publishers’ unique strategies for driving subscriber acquisition and retention through audience data:

  • The New York Times placed its “For You” tab at the center of its app’s navigation bar in a bid to steer readers to content that’s most likely to interest them. The tab “is the most prominent surfacing of active personalization in the experience,” according to assistant managing editor Matt Ericson. Personalizing content within this section of the app likely helps reduce the sense of content overload among subscribers: The publisher puts out250 stories every day. This likewise enables The Times to deepen engagement, as subs are served the content most resonant with their personal interests. Deeper engagement, in turn, helps to reduce churn, as subs more fully appreciate what they’re paying for, and can also drive new sign-ups, as people recommend things they love.
  • The Wall Street Journal has developed a cross-functional team to boost engagement — and reduce churn — by iterating on its promotional products. The Wall Street Journal is treating its reader base as a single organism, pulling engagement levers at the aggregate level. To identify features that play well with subs, the team — dubbed “Project Habit”— listed out every action a reader could take on its site, and then created an algorithm to measure those features in terms of sub engagement and retention. The Journal is using that data to prioritize or expand on the features that have proven out. For example, the team found that subscribers’ habits are formed within the first 100 days, after which new habit adoption plateaus: In response, the Journal put more energy into its first impressions, extending its email welcome series duration from 12 to 100 days. Now80% of new members engage with its retention efforts in the initial phase of sign up, which has boosted long-term engagement. The net effect is that WSJ has seen subscribers’ activity per day — its key engagement metric — increase at a steady rate.

Publisher subscription strategies must begin with reader preferences, as budgets for paid news subscriptions are low, and many readers are souring on news consumption altogether.Readers appear to be exhausted by the news cycle:32% of global news readers say they actively avoid news, with that number hitting 41% in the US, per Reuters.

As such, the impetus is high to not only provide relevant alternatives to articles (e.g. puzzles, or recipes) but also to ensure readers don’t have to sift through undesired content to find those alternatives themselves. In this environment — and one in which publishers also compete for attention with tech platforms like Twitter, which center on user data — content delivery matters as much as content quality.

The stakes are high: Among people that subscribe to news sources, most are only willing to subscribe to one, per Reuters. On top of that, across the top news-consuming countries, average willingness to pay for news has remained relativelyflat over the past few years. To compete for these limited dollars, publishers banking on subscriptions must develop strategies to incorporate user data across all facets of decision-making.

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