Nieman Foundation at Harvard
Nonprofit news organizations are becoming more diverse, but they still lag behind the communities they cover
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Dec. 7, 2017, 1:57 p.m.
Business Models

When it comes to convincing people to subscribe to or support a publication, there’s not just one funnel, but many.

A new report from the American Press Institute offers some insight into the many factors —
both behavioral and emotional — that influence how people decide whether to give news organizations money.

Following a series of one-on-one interviews with fifteen people around the U.S. (which followed a previous, broad survey of 2,199 people), API split news subscribers into three groups. The “civically committed” see supporting news organization as their moral duty; as a result, they aren’t sensitive to pricing and will pay for subscriptions even if they don’t use them. On the other end of the spectrum are the price-sensitive “elusive engagers,” who are averse to subscriptions and see information as a commodity. Sitting between the two are what API calls the “thrifty transactors,” who are highly selective when it comes to publications they pay for, but also highly loyal.

Here are some highlights from the report, which you can find in full here.

For the civically committed, it’s about more than just the content. These subscribers are actually more interested in in being members, and as such want to feel “a sense of belonging and membership with the news organizations they support,” writes Tran Ha, the report’s author. In-person events, hand-written thank-you notes, and partnerships with other mission-driven groups are effective ways to further engage these kinds of subscribers.

To attract thrifty transactors, news organizations should focus on excelling in a few key coverage areas. Because these subscribers are driven by, first and foremost, concerns about the utility and relevance of the organizations they support, they’re more likely to respond to news organizations’ continual reassertion of their unique value. These are people more likely to subscribe to Harvard Business Review and The Wall Street Journal rather than, say, donate to The Center for Investigative Reporting. One proposal: News organizations should create cheaper subscription tiers focused on specific verticals or specialty areas, so subscribers can pay for just the content they need.

Elusive engagers are more likely to respond to one-time payments over long-term commitments. Fears over subscription lock-in are real among members of this group. “It’s almost a fear that once you give them your credit card that they’ll make it hard or stopping is going to be an issue,” said one of the elusive engagers API spoke to. The solution: News organizations should make it easy to cancel, and make that clear up front. These subscribers, while largely reluctant to pay, are more likely to respond to one-time payments, rather than long-term payments.

When it comes to local, news organizations should think beyond just “news.” Ha recommends that local news publications lean into the history, culture, and unique traits of their organizations, which can also resonate with people who no longer live in the local area but still have a connection to it.

With digital subscriptions, differentiation matters more than ever. One thing that’s true for members of all three subscriber groups is that people are more likely to pay for news products that they think are truly unique, valuable, and differentiated. Standing out has never been more difficult or more important, which is why Ha recommends that news organizations prioritize coverage areas in which they excel. This is also a marketing challenge, which is why news organizations must make these unique traits a fixture of their brand positioning and subscription funnel. “A big question that factors into subscription decisions is, ‘What can this publication give me that I can’t get anywhere else?'” writes Ha.

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