Welcome to a new, regular series on audience engagement from the Center for Media Engagement team.
Subscriptions, donations, and memberships are critical for many newsrooms’ business models. But what strategies actually work for gaining new subscribers? Researchers at the Center for Media Engagement (CME) tackled this question by testing several news subscription messages.
For this study, CME collaborated with three newsrooms: a mid-size local newspaper in the Southwest, a small regional news magazine in the West, and a large local newspaper in the Southwest. The organizations tested strategies using Facebook, email, and newsletter advertisements.
CME researchers considered four different elements of subscription appeals:
- The image shown with the subscription offer,
- The content of the subscription message,
- Whether the offer was for a free newsletter or paid content,
- And whether the subscription ad appeared on Facebook or through direct email.
For each test, CME collected data on the number of people reached and the number of people who clicked on a link. The results show that some strategies are more successful than are others. Overall, however, the findings illustrate how difficult it is to get people to subscribe.
When the subscription offer appeared on Facebook, an image of the newsroom’s logo reduced click-through when compared to other images, like a journalist working or a top story. In email promotions, news consumers were more likely to subscribe when the ad emphasized what they could gain from a subscription as opposed to what they could lose. For example, “Stay in touch with news from our city and the world” versus “Don’t lose touch with news from our city and the world.” And, as you might assume, free newsletter subscriptions gained more clicks than paid print/digital access.
When we compared how much it cost to share the subscription message over Facebook to the number of subscriptions returned, there was little evidence that Facebook ads on their own attract enough subscribers to justify the price tag. However, it is important to keep in mind that we only looked at a particular subset of messages. It is possible that Facebook advertising could be more effective using other messages. Further testing can help figure out if there are instances when Facebook ads are worth the cost.
For now, we would urge publishers to be cautious and systematically test whether a paid Facebook subscription strategy is worth the expense.
- Use a photo of journalists doing their work or an image of a top story when soliciting subscribers via Facebook. Using a logo is not as effective.
- When contacting people via email, use messages that tell people what they gain from subscribing in addition to the details of the offer.
- Most importantly: test your strategies. Some yield better returns than others, and knowing what appeals to your audience can be especially helpful.
To see the full report, click here.
The Center for Media Engagement is part of the Moody College of Communication at the University of Texas at Austin. It envisions a vibrant American news media that more effectively empowers the public to understand, appreciate, and participate in the democratic exchange of ideas.