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April 17, 2018, 1:18 p.m.

The New York Times has signed up a lot of subscribers. Here’s how it plans to keep them.

“My team believes that by investing in the subscribers we have and making the subscription experience better and better, we’ll be able to help all parts of the subscription business.”

Editor’s note: Atlantic Media publishes a weekly newsletter I like. It’s called The Idea and it’s about “everything new and innovative in the media industry.” You should subscribe!

This week’s edition featured a Q&A with Ben Cotton, executive director of retention and customer experience at The New York Times, in which they discussed a couple projects we’ve covered here that help explain how the Times is thinking about its subscribers these days.

Here’s an expanded version of that Q&A, which will be of interest to anyone thinking about subscription or membership models.

Last week, The New York Times launched its newest podcast, Caliphate, which gives a behind-the-scenes glimpse into Rukmini Callimachi’s ISIS reporting. The Times is giving subscribers early access to podcast episodes — one week, to be exact. The Washington Post is also developing subscriber-exclusive content, including a new article format reserved for only subscribers, a subscriber-only newsletter covering the midterm elections, and a subscriber-only audio series that features recent Post stories.

Publishers with large subscriber bases are starting to invest in subscriber retention as a central component of their consumer revenue strategy: The Times tripled its retention staff between 2015 and 2017, and the Post now has 25 employees that work on retention — up from zero a year and a half ago.

Given the results of early tests at the Times, subscriber-exclusive content may be a promising retention tactic. Ben Cotton, the Times’ executive director of retention and customer experience, told The Idea that subscribers particularly value service journalism that displays the breadth of the Times’ coverage, as well as behind-the-scenes access to the journalism process. The Times’ early subscriber-exclusive experiments reflect these insights: In January, the Times’ launched Year of Living Better guides for subscribers, and the Caliphate podcast gives listeners a behind-the-scenes look into an investigative piece.

The Post’s subscriber-only product strategy centers around providing content in formats beyond the traditional article. “The goal is to find the most creative ways to bring content to subscribers that makes them want to continue to be loyal readers,” Miki King, the Post’s vice president of marketing, told Digiday. “We’re still giving you the journalism, but we’re giving you a different experience.”

The Idea spoke to Cotton in detail about the Times’s experiments with subscriber-exclusive content and other subscriber acquisition and retention tactics they’ve found to be effective. Check out our full conversation below, lightly edited for clarity and length.

The Idea: Can you give us an overview of your team and role as executive director of retention and customer experience, and how you fit into the Times’ larger Consumer Revenue team?

Ben Cotton: We are in charge of everything that happens to a New York Times reader after he or she becomes a subscriber. We have another team in Consumer Revenue focused on acquisition that’s trying to get people who are readers to read more and eventually convert to become a subscriber. The moment they do, my team takes over.

We are responsible for everything from the first onboarding email you get right after you become a subscriber telling you about the Times and what you get with a Times subscription, through the times that you’re contacting us by phone or chat or email for customer service reasons, all the way up to the point that you decide to cancel, although we hope that you obviously decide not to cancel.

Between all of that, we are responsible for retention and engagement marketing — so doing marketing to our customer base to try to make sure that they’re seeing all the best things that the Times has to offer, and making sure we manage subscribers through important lifecycle moments in their journey as a subscriber. We have people who work on subscriber-only benefits to try to reinforce the value of a subscription and make clear to subscribers why what they’re paying for is worth more than the free product.

Then it’s subscriber-only content like the Year of Living Better guides that we’ve been doing. Then [we have] customer care — our whole customer service operations that answers the phones or responds to emails from subscribers who either have questions about our products or subscription offerings or who have complaints or concerns about anything we’re doing that they don’t like.

The Idea: We read a couple months ago in Digiday that the Times is “shifting from focusing on signing up new subscribers to retaining current ones.” Are there any differences between an acquisition-forward strategy versus a retention-forward strategy, assuming that we’re interpreting the Digiday story correctly?

Cotton: We are as a company pursuing a subscriber-first strategy. We’ve declared that we think digital subscriptions is our biggest growth opportunity and that’s the thing we have to focus on the most as a company if we’re going to grow and succeed as a digital news business.

My team believes that by investing in the subscribers we have and making the subscription experience better and better, we’ll be able to help all parts of the subscription business. We’ll both improve retention on the subscribers we have — which is our primary goal — and we’ll create more opportunities for the rest of the company to attract new subscribers, because they’ll see more and more things they can only get if they decide to become a subscriber.

The subscriber-only [Year of Living Better] guides is a great example of that, where we are now marketing those as something you can only get if you decide to sign up and pay. So for people who are interested in journalism and service journalism like that — we know there are a lot — we think that’s something that might hook more people to pay for the Times. But above all, we think that that’s the kind of thing our subscribers really like and by reinforcing that they’re getting things that nobody else is getting, we think we’ll be able to convince them to keep paying and to boost our subscription business over time.

The Idea: Can you tell us more about those guides, the Times’ first subscriber-exclusive content launched in January? How did you land on the idea of creating subscriber-exclusive content and designing an idea around service journalism in particular?

Cotton: We did a whole bunch of testing around this last year that indicated that subscribers who engaged with these features that we did just for them — and even subscribers who just got messaging about them, even if they didn’t always use them — we saw increased reductions in subscribers’ likelihood to churn.

I think that’s down to a couple things: One, we know that subscribers like the breadth of The Times and things that show off that breadth — like the Year of Living Better guides that aren’t about hard news, but give subscribers a wider set of valuable journalism from the Times — really resonate with them in particular. And so we think there’s a pretty likely connection to that and the likelihood to retain.

Subscribers also tell us all the time that they love getting behind the scenes of our journalism — they love our journalists and getting to know who they are. So ways to connect our subscribers with them, either directly in person or via a conference call or some other form of digital connection, we get really fantastic feedback on them. We’ve seen in testing that those kinds of things help with our retention.

The Idea: Are there any plans to expand the slate of subscriber-only content?

Cotton: Yeah. The biggest thing right now is this podcast called Caliphate, that stars Rukmini Callimachi, our ISIS reporter. She just published a big investigative piece about ISIS and she’s doing this multipart podcast taking readers behind the scenes of some of her reporting in the Middle East and into her investigations of the ISIS story she’s been covering so thoroughly for the last few years.

What we’re doing is making episodes available early to subscribers. Subscribers will get access to each episode one week before the general public. While everyone will be able to listen to this podcast, we think that’s it’s something that’s going to draw a lot of interest, particularly from our subscribers, and so we think that letting subscribers in early and allowing them to hear episodes before anybody else is going to reinforce the value of the subscription. It’s going to make them feel valued as a Times subscriber, and we hope will also probably, if other people hear about it, convince more people to become subscribers over time.

The other thing I’d add is that we’re experimenting all the time. A lot of these things we’re doing for the very first time — certainly for the podcast and the guides series too, except for some testing we did last year — so we’re going to see how it works and we’re looking closely at the data we get from it. The cases where we see success we’ll probably do more like it, and the cases we don’t, we’ll move on and try other things.

The Idea: What is your process like for developing a new experiment to try?

Cotton: The most exciting part of doing this kind of work has been how closely different parts of the company have partnered on it. We work in marketing in the Consumer Revenue department, but with the guides work, we’re working really closely with a product and design team that has built and designed the experience. And we’re working really closely with editors in the newsroom who are picking the topics and deciding which kinds of guides and writers to write them they think would be most interesting for a project like this. The same is true with audio — the idea for this podcast came long before we decided it was going to be something special for subscribers.

I think that’s been the theme of this kind of work: that it’s been deeply collaborative and cross-functional, and that in many cases, they’re editorial-led ideas. Because we as a company have decided that we’re going to make subscriptions the focus of our business strategy, writers in the newsroom and editors and product managers and designers are always thinking about what we could be doing for our subscribers on a much more regular basis than they were before.

So oftentimes it’s people coming to us with ideas and us working together to figure out the right way to execute them, rather than us coming up with ideas on our own and trying to convince people to get on board — which I think is a much more collaborative and productive way of working on these kinds of things. The journalism of the Times is such a strong selling point as a reason to subscribe that that’s what we want to be putting front and center, and so we try to make as many of the ideas as we can stem from that.

The Idea: Any other cool projects you’ve been working on recently?

Cotton: A few months ago, we launched a once-a-month, print-only kids’ section that’s generated a ton of positive attention. We hear all the time from subscribers that they grew up reading the Times at their kitchen table with their parents, and so while we have many more subscribers in digital today, we still think there is an exciting place for print, particularly for families. With the kids’ section, we’re experimenting to see whether there’s something there that we can do in print. And we’re sort of thinking about whether there are other things we can be doing to bring families together and involve kids in the future as well.

The Idea: We remember reading about the kids’ section in Nieman Lab! It said it was for just a year. Are there any plans to extend it based off of feedback?

Cotton: The feedback has been really strong so we’re evaluating that over time, but absolutely, if we continue to think it’s doing well, either that or things like it are things we’d want to continue doing into the future.

The Idea: You’ve worked in several consumer revenue roles at the Times since 2016. Are there any acquisition or retention levers you’ve discovered to be particularly effective?

Cotton: All the work our brand marketing team has done over the last couple of years to start to tell the story of the Times in a more proactive way has been really fantastic. Showing either existing subscribers or prospective subscribers real-life cases of our journalists out in the field and how they really do go the extra mile to get a story in the way that I think reporters at most other news organizations aren’t able to do in the same way, has gone a long way to tell more people about The Times and Times’ journalism, why they should be subscribing, and why they should keep subscribing. So I think that’s been a huge lever that we’ve all been really excited about.

We’ve also had a lot of success in the last year-plus from our Crosswords product and our Cooking product, which are now also subscription products that you can pay for on their own or as part of a bundle. We’ve seen a lot of success using those in every way: We’ve gotten people who don’t want to subscribe to the Times otherwise but do use one of those products to become a Times’ customer, and we’ve gotten a lot of people to subscribe for more money by bundling all those things together in one package or special offer. We’ve also seen success in trying to get current subscribers to use those products in a way we think can drive retention.

The Idea: Is it typical for someone to convert from a subscriber of a standalone product into a full Times’ subscriber?

Cotton: It’s a little early to say. Cooking has been a subscription product for less than a year, so the focus of those products is on getting as many people who use those products and don’t subscribe to start subscribing — with the thinking that over time if we have more people in the Times’ ecosystem, it will give us more opportunities to cross-sell people on other products or upsell them to full subscriptions.

The Idea: What is the most interesting thing you’ve seen from a media outlet other than The Times?

Cotton: I’m a big fan of media outlets pursuing subscription models that focus on a particular niche and making something that people passionate about that niche will think is worth paying for. There are examples of this popping up frequently now, which is exciting, but a few that come to mind are The Information for technology, The Athletic for sports, and Stratechery for tech/media strategy.

Meena Lee and Sarah Guinee are strategy research fellows at Atlantic Media.

Photo of the New York Times building by Anthony Quintano used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     April 17, 2018, 1:18 p.m.
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