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May 8, 2018, 10:53 a.m.
Business Models

With “straightforward and unsexy” email, The Christian Science Monitor has hit 10,000 paid digital subscribers in a year

With a move to a paid daily email newsletter, “the conversation around what we’re going to write has totally changed.”

One year ago, The Christian Science Monitor launched a new paid daily email newsletter called Monitor Daily. As I described it at the time, it’s

a daily news digest of five pieces of content (stories, videos, graphics), plus one editorial and “one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight often related to the news,” that will be emailed to subscribers each weekday at 6 p.m. Boston time. Each article can either be read in “30 Sec. Read” form — a summary that still has a clear beginning, middle, and end — or expanded to a full edition that is estimated to take about 50 minutes to read. The Daily is also on the Monitor’s website and available as audio (read by Monitor staff) to stream or download.

Monitor Daily, which is ad-free, costs $11 a month or $110 a year; it’s $7 a month or $70 a year if you already subscribe to the Monitor’s weekly print magazine. The goal was to reach 10,000 paying subscribers in the first year; writing about it at the time, I described that as “very ambitious,” noting that the cheaper Slate Plus got 9,000 paying subscribers in its first year.

Well, they made it. And the Monitor has seen enough success with the Daily that it’s taking the next step in its paid-content plan: a metered paywall. Launching today, readers will be asked to pay up after reading five free stories.

“The reason we feel confident in expanding this look and feel to the whole site is that the Daily has done extremely well,” David Grant, the Monitor’s associate publisher, told me. It has a 50 percent open rate and about a 20 percent clickthrough rate. “The relationship we have with readers is manifest everywhere on our site,” he said. “We produce journalism that’s worthy of your support. You support it.”

Of course, that can be easier said than done. But the Monitor has reoriented its newsroom around the paid product. “The conversation around what we’re going to write has totally changed,” said Noelle Swan, who leads the Monitor’s science, technology, and environment coverage. “Moving toward the subscription model and scaling back the number of stories we put out each day has liberated us from being tied to whatever’s trending online, though we obviously pay attention to that. But we’ve gone from ‘This thing happened, what are we gonna do about it?’ to ‘This thing happened, should we do something about it? And if so, how do we do it in a way that adds distinction and value to the discussion?’ So much out there recycles the same talking points over again.”

The team uses a Trello board to track stories in progress. “There are very few spots with ‘Something about [X],” Swan added. “For the most part, a story doesn’t get up on that board until it’s gone back and forth between editors and writers to really hammer at the precise idea we’re trying to get at. Is there some deeper question we’re probing that takes the story to a different elevation than most publications are taking it to? That has to happen in the beginning, it carries the story through, and it has made the difference.”

To help it hit 10,000 paying subscribers, the Monitor has focused heavily on email marketing. “It’s very straightforward and unsexy, but we begin our relationship with all our subscribers by talking to them about the work we do,” Grant said. The Monitor sends out very few email solicitations that include discounts or special offers — “I think we sent two like that over the past year, [compared to] 40 to 50 op-ed-style, this-is-why-you-should-subscribe emails.” That’s led to a steady growth in subscribers, following an initial bump of 2,000 to 3,000 subscriptions shortly after the new product was announced.

“All of our most effective [email promotions] were driven by things that were repurposed from editorial work,” Grant added. An email promotion might be a column, the reworked top section of the daily email with an editor-written intro, or links to all the parts of a series. “These emails are very personal,” Swan said. “They come from an individual, not the organization itself, and sometimes from individuals on editorial.” When readers respond to the emails, their responses go not to some general “Contact us” inbox but to the editor who’s named in the email. “Myself and [editor] Mark Sappenfield have sent thousands of emails to subscribers this year,” Grant said. “That may not be sustainable over the long term, but if we transition it to the customer service team, they will be encouraged to pass it on. It’s really closing the circle: We send something to you, you have a question, a real human writes back to you.”

The Monitor’s goal for the next year is to reach 17,000 subscribers. “We think that’s ambitious but doable; it seems reasonable, not necessarily to double, but to do very well in your second year,” said Grant, pointing to growth for Slate Plus and Talking Points Memo’s Prime.

The team is working to make its analytics more helpful to the editorial side. Editors score each story on how “distinctive” it is; that score is pulled into a spreadsheet alongside how well the story is doing with both existing and potential (non-paying) subscribers. “This is not weapons-grade technology,” Grant said. “It’s just an effort to pull together things we know and look at them in an intelligent way that’s actually actionable.”

Over the next year, the Monitor also wants to see if it can use social platforms in the same highly targeted way it’s used email. “How do we get people who are highly likely to become supporters of the Monitor to become aware of us?” Grant said. Right now, about 6,000 of the subscribers to the Monitor’s daily product have never subscribed to the weekly print magazine — but most of those were already on one of the Monitor’s email lists. Another 2,500 are also subscribers to the print magazine. “The number of people who’ve come to the site in the last year and just subscribed is probably fairly small,” Grant noted. The hope is that social, if used wisely, could increase that number.

Photo of The Christian Science Monitor by Sarah Nichols used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     May 8, 2018, 10:53 a.m.
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