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News Plus 14 Jun 2022 - 4 min read

'Most subscribers not consuming any content at all': Media audiences are marketing science – mostly light, disloyal, category users as brands creating content take note

By Paul McIntyre & Brendan Coyne
Tim Rowell, Piano

"Typically 11 per cent of our clients' audiences generate 70 per cent of their page views," Piano's Tim Rowell says.

Australia’s major mastheads, regional publishers and journalists are being remoulded into marketing operatives as they chase subscription conversions and revenues, plus deeper audience data. They are also learning – and challenging – some core marketing theory in the bid to reinvent digital business models. The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, The Economist, and The Telegraph are cracking it, per Tim Rowell, APAC boss at subscription platform Piano. Now brands are lifting the content-subscription playbook, with the likes of L’Oreal, Jaguar Land Rover and Air France moving in.

What you need to know:

  • Across major publishers, 11 per cent of audiences on average drive 70 per cent of media consumption, according to Tim Rowell, APAC GM at subscription platform Piano.
  • The firm works with the likes of The Wall Street Journal, The Telegraph, The Economist, the BBC and ABC News, plus brands including Alliance, Air France, L’Oreal and Jaguar Land Rover.
  • Rowell suggests even paying subscribers can be light consumers, with a high proportion as “sleepers”, that may consume little content month to month, yet still sufficiently value a brand to subscribe.
  • But publishers should follow marketers’ lead on CX, per Rowell, or risk losing audiences and money.

When we look across our clients and at the usage by subscribers, in any given month a high proportion of subscribers are not consuming any content at all. But over three months, they are, so they have a relationship – we call them sleepers. But I think to equate loyalty with volume of consumption is probably the wrong way to think about it.

Tim Rowell, GM APAC, Piano

Australia’s major mastheads, regional publishers and journalists are being remoulded into marketing operatives as they chase subscription conversions and revenues and deeper audience data.

While audience volume remains a key focus for publishers in their efforts to attract ad dollars, the majority of digital users, at least, are light, fly-by-nighters, effectively dropping in to consume content more intermittently than most would hope. Like Ehrenberg-Bass marketing theory on customers, most publisher audiences are super light users, even if they are fee-paying subscribers.  

“Typically 11 per cent of our clients' audiences generate 70 per cent of their page views. What that means is there are a small group of users who are consuming large amounts of content,” says Tim Rowell, APAC boss for publisher subscription platform Piano which works with major mastheads like The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, The Economist, and The Telegraph. It is also working with the likes of L’Oreal, Jaguar Land Rover and Air France as brands push deeper into content publishing and product subscription models, or aim to make money from digital experiences.

Parallel models

For publishers, those light-to-heavy audience ratios mean both subscription and ad-funded models are viable in tandem, said Rowell, a former Telegraph UK exec. Much of the fear, loathing and reservations by publishers adopting subscription models is that they will lose ad revenues because of smaller audience tonnage. 

Rowell suggests that is not true.

“If done sensibly and not too intrusively ... there's no reason for that [ad-funded] part of the model to change," per Rowell.

“For those people who you'd classify as disloyal in that context – i.e they don't have a huge relationship with that brand, which on average across all of our sites is roughly 70 per cent of all users consuming one piece of content in any given month – they will never see a paywall. They will never be given an invitation to pay. So there is no change to what or how you are running,” he added.

“You can use the free content as lead generation for pushing very loyal readers into paying for content. Therefore you can actually grow advertising revenue, because you can grow consumption at the same time as operating a subs model. The two are not exclusive.”

The likes of News Corp came to that conclusion some years ago, implementing hard paywalls for mastheads such as The Australian, The Times and the Wall Street Journal (though sites such as news.com.au remain free, with the publisher bidding to entice sign-ins and bolster first party data with the promise of fewer ads).

Rowell said a dual ad-subs approach enables publishers to prioritise quality content above chasing clicks, a trap some mastheads fell into last decade in the face of steep print declines while their digital revenues were hollowed out by adtech players and agencies that tagged their audiences and bought them cheaper elsewhere, arbitraging the difference and posting bumper profits.

Loyal versus light 

Growing revenues via both disloyal (light readers) and loyal (heavy) readers has some parallels with the marketing science around brand growth coming out of Ehrenberg-Bass and other marketing institutions. But Rowell suggests engagement is not always a reliable proxy for loyalty.

“When we look across our clients and at the usage by subscribers, in any given month a high proportion of subscribers are not consuming any content at all. But over three months, they are, so they have a relationship – we call them sleepers,” said Rowell. “But I think to equate loyalty with volume of consumption is probably the wrong way to think about it.”

Flipping that mindset is “a challenge for editorial teams to get their heads around,” he added. “But you have to be sensible about it. The ‘sleepers’ are not coming in every day to read, but they value your product, your brand, enough to pay for it. They just have other things to do.”

You deal in optimisation, in fractions of improvements in conversion rates. But that can end up being a lot of money. It's why you have major newspapers now with data science capability. They have invested in that side of the business because small ticks in conversion can be significant additions to the bottom line.

Tim Rowell, GM APAC, Piano

Data analytics, martech stacks

Like brands, publishers are now working out how to get a single view of the customer, paying or otherwise.

“The biggest problem we've seen within our core client base [publishers] is that they are working with a multitude of disparate technology systems,” said Rowell.

“Publishing companies are faced with having to build their own data lakes, build their own data analysis tools, they're having to integrate all these different platforms.”

Personalisation engines are also agenda items as publishers seek to create niche audiences at scale.

“If you think about 70 per cent of users just consuming one piece of content in any given month, the strategy is to reduce that percentile. You achieve that by presenting things that are interesting to them. So content recommendations are key, as well as targeting people with the right message at the right time in order to drive the right action – whether that's a subscription offer, whether that's a newsletter sign up. These are all additional tools publishers need.”

Advanced subscription publishers are now also more experienced “full funnel” marketers, per Rowell, recognising that a sale or subscription requires “a series of micro conversions” along the path to conversion from prompt, to reminder or retargeting, to offer.

CX: bigger picture required

Rowell thinks publishers would gain from refining customer experience (CX), even when it comes to losing customers. Offering digital subscription sign-ups but cancellation only via phone, for example, will ultimately erode long-term revenue as well as brand equity, he suggests.

“You don’t know people’s circumstances. They may have lost their job. They may actually only want to cancel for a short period of time. If they have to wait on the phone for half an hour to cancel, they are unlikely to feel great about that brand,” he said. “If you give them the ability to cancel easily, our data shows they have a much higher likelihood of coming back to re-subscribe.”

Publishers, said Rowell, must add CX to subscription sales expertise.

“Ease of sign-up, providing multiple payment methods that suit the user, offering the ability to easily cancel. Those kind of things reduce the friction of somebody signing up … and [digital subscription skillsets aligned with CX] are one of the biggest contributors to success,” per Rowell.

“The more you refine that approach, the better you get. You build the skills internally. You understand what tests to run, what offers to present, how to minimise friction in the purchase flow,” he added.

“You deal in optimisation, in fractions of improvements in conversion rates. But that can end up being a lot of money. It's why you have major newspapers now with data science capability. They have invested in that side of the business because small ticks in conversion can be significant additions to the bottom line.”

Brands piling into content or subscription models, he suggested, could gain significant advantage by lifting some of those approaches.

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