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Dec. 18, 2015, 11 a.m.
Business Models

Lights, camera, subscriptions! The Boston Globe is taking advantage of its Hollywood moment

The Boston Globe wants to use the release and critical success of Spotlight as an opportunity to market itself to new readers.

This fall, Boston Globe CEO Mike Sheehan added a new element to the presentation he makes to potential advertisers: The trailer to the movie Spotlight.

The movie chronicles the Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into child sex abuse in the Catholic Church, and Sheehan has been screening the trailer to show advertisers the impact the Globe’s journalism, especially the work of its investigative Spotlight team, has had.

“I don’t tell advertisers they should advertise with us to support journalism,” Sheehan said. “But when you do advertise or sponsor or partner with us, there is a side benefit: you really are helping your community in doing so.”

Beyond Sheehan’s pitch, the Globe has been using the buzz around Spotlight (last Thursday it received three Golden Globe nominations, and it’s being billed as an Oscars contender) to market itself and promote its journalism.

It’s rare that a critically acclaimed film is made about your newspaper, so Globe executives wanted to take advantage of the good publicity. But they also didn’t want to look like as if they were exploiting a tragedy for the Globe’s gain.

“Out of deep respect for the survivors and for the current clergy who have done a terrific job of rebuilding, we want to make sure we don’t use this as an opportunity to damage,” Sheehan said.

As a result, the Globe has crafted a mix of editorial and business strategies that aim to resurface archival articles while also exposing new readers to the Globe’s journalism.

The original Spotlight stories that the movie is based on have reappeared on the Globe’s most-read articles list, and the paper created a free ebook and a 12-minute documentary to highlight not just the stories on the Catholic Church but also other work that the investigative Spotlight team has done over the years.

The paper used a combination of email retargeting, social and search ads, and house ads on its own site to promote the products and, ultimately, to try and attract new subscribers.

“We wanted to focus on the Spotlight team, the journalism, and why ‘Big J Journalism’ in general matters,” said Meghan Lockwood, the Globe’s VP for consumer marketing, “to focus on the idea that the team has been around since 1970, and to give people the chance to engage deeper.”

The 12-minute video that the Globe created touches briefly on the investigation into the Catholic Church, but spends most of its time covering the 40-plus-year history of the Spotlight investigative unit, highlighting a number of the team’s investigations.

The Globe uploaded the video in multiple places, including directly to Facebook, where it’s received nearly 330,000 views since it was published in early November. Matt Karolian, the Globe’s social media director, said the paper made a “significant investment” in promoting the video, ebook, and original coverage on Twitter and Facebook along with paid search ads.

“One of the things I find very powerful about the Facebook ad platform is that you’re able to target down to groups of 50 people, or 5,000, or 50,000, or 50 million,” Karolian said.

The Globe targeted users who said they were interested in seeing the movie or who posted about going to see it, but also focused on users who had expressed interest in broader topics such as investigative journalism.

“[Our goal wasn’t] to blast the universe or tie it to Boston as a keyword term, but we wanted to give people who were searching for the movie or the articles a deep asset to engage with and to get more involved in,” Lockwood said.

The Globe has been running ads for the Spotlight ebook on its homepage and on the specific landing pages it created to house its coverage of the movie and its investigative stories.


It’s also running an email retargeting campaign tied to the ebook. In order to download the book, users need to submit their email address. The Globe then sends the people who signed up a series of three emails, each offering more content and information about Spotlight and the Globe and, in the third email, information on how to subscribe to the paper.

The ebook debuted about two months ago and has been downloaded a few thousand times, Lockwood said.

17.5 percent of users who click on an ad for the ebook come through to the landing page and give the paper their email addresses. Similar campaigns often have conversion rates in the single digits, Lockwood said.


“It was important to give something away for free,” Lockwood said. “From a conversion standpoint, we’re giving people something pretty valuable for their email, and then moving them through the path from that.”

The Globe has about 65,000 digital-only subscribers, the most of any regional paper in the United States, and a digital subscription isn’t cheap: It costs more than $360 for a year of digital access, as readers pay $0.99 per day to read the Globe.

Ken Doctor broke down the paper’s digital pricing strategy in a recent column:

The Globe had averaged only 57 cents a day, or a little more than $200 a year, per user in digital subscription revenue before the dollar-a-day pricing kicked in. So the new price adds about $160 a year per susbcriber. That kind of math is one building block toward a mainly digital, mainly reader-supported future.

This is a game of ARPU, or average revenue per user (or subscriber, in this case). Increasing ARPU is, I believe, the key to building the next generation of the business. “Our average revenue is up 40 percent,” says [Globe vice president for consumer sales and marketing Peter] Doucette.

The Globe’s analytics tell it that once digital-only readers reach the 13th month of subscription, they’re unlikely to cancel. It’s at that golden point that they see the price increase to 99 cents a day. New subscribers pay 99 cents for the first month. Then, in their first year, the price goes to $3.99 per week, or $15.96 every four weeks. At that thirteen-month point, it’s 99 cents a day.

With its strategy of using Spotlight to find and attract readers who are interested in journalism — and who are, hopefully, willing to pay premium prices for it — the Globe aims to cultivate subscribers who will be around for awhile.

“It’s smaller gross numbers, but I think they’re a much more engaged audience,” Lockwood said. “It’s people that will be long-time subscribers.”

Photo of the filming of Spotlight by Thomas Cole used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Dec. 18, 2015, 11 a.m.
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