The coronavirus crisis has been a challenging time for many media and publishing businesses. Some have struggled with severe declines in ad revenue, with events also proving challenging to maintain at pre-pandemic levels of profitability.
But there have also been opportunities, with readers flocking to trusted sites in record numbers in search of information and entertainment. Here is how three publishers have focused on growing – and more importantly, retaining – audiences during the pandemic and beyond.
The Athletic: creating sports content in lockdown
For sports publisher The Athletic, the coronavirus crisis posed a particularly serious threat. With sporting events cancelled for months, the site had to focus on what content it could bring its subscribers in order to retain them, let alone stand any chance of bringing new ones in.
The first step The Athletic took was to extend their 7 day free trial to 90 days. They also sent out a memo to subscribers to explain exactly how their coverage would change. “Even before the recent news, you told us that we are not only here to inform you but also to entertain and provide an escape from the day-to-day,” it read. “We will continue to deliver. Our writers will get as creative as possible to find interesting angles and ideas.”
The note went on to outline what subscribers could expect, with more features and long-form stories as well as coverage of other milestones within the sports world that didn’t involve matches. The Athletic also unlocked a selection of evergreen articles from its writers to give potential subscribers a further opportunity to sample its journalism.
Many in the industry expected The Athletic’s subscriptions to languish, and even co-founder Adam Hansmann said in an interview that “it should have been the end of us.” But instead, their perseverance in delivering valuable content in a way that few other sports providers were matching has paid off.
Not only did The Athletic manage to retain most subscribers through lockdown, but they are now adding more subscribers per day than ever, helped by the slow trickle back of sports. In early September, they reached the 1 million subscriber milestone; enough to make their newsroom profitable.
The Conversation: turning pageviews into trust
The Conversation is a publisher who works with academics and journalists to turn research into content that is more accessible to the wider public. Their articles are published under a Creative Commons license, which means it can be republished and shared by other outlets.
Their contacts within universities and research faculties meant that as lockdown hit, they became a popular destination for audiences looking for understandable but reputable information. They also saw an increase in publishers looking to distribute their articles, again due to the demand from the public to hear from experts.
“From February or March, we saw our traffic go through the roof because everything was changing,” said CEO Chris Waiting in an interview with Media Voices. “Nobody knew what was going on. So the public was just really hungry to have experts not only explain the current moment, but to put it in context.”
In March, The Conversation’s stories were read 100 million times globally. This has now settled down at around 70 million a month, and has been followed by an uptick in newsletter subscriptions, podcast listens and more. Their UK newsletter alone is now received by 72,000 each day.
The publisher is now focusing on retaining the interest of new readers through these outlets, as well as building relationships with other publishers looking to redistribute their work.
Quartz: taking an opportunity to refocus
Business news publisher Quartz was struggling before the pandemic. Described by Digiday as being ‘caught in the mushy middle’; not quite niche enough to be essential to a small group of readers, but not quite big enough to compete at scale. The business had pivoted from being a free, ad-driven site to launching a metered paywall in 2018 as part of a subscription drive after its acquisition by Japanese company Uzabase.
By November 2019, the site had just 11,000 people paying for a $100-a-year membership; far short of its expectations. But the pandemic provided an opportunity for Quartz to find its feet as a subscription player.
It quickly launched a ‘Need to Know’ coronavirus email newsletter, and focused its content on what a reimagined office would look like, mental health for workers, and the commuting revolution, according to The Drum.
Quartz also took another look at its membership product, fattening up its offering with weekly field guides, deep dives, access to digital events, workshops and presentations.
Their newsletters have now grown to be a top referrer for new subscribers. Virtual workshops focusing on themes such as remote working have had thousands of attendees, which in turn have proven to be a useful entry point into a relationship with Quartz’s work.
As a result, paying members have doubled since November, with notable spikes in growth in March and April. The publisher recently reached 21,000 members, and is doubling down on its core strengths.
“We’ve learned that the work of growing a subscription business is incredibly cross-functional, requiring alignment and collaboration between nearly every team at Quartz – from product, analytics and engineering to editorial and marketing,” Quartz president Katie Weber told The Drum. “We’ve always believed in a strongly defined audience that is loyal to the brand, and that’s the lens through which we look at membership.”
There are lessons that publishers of all shapes and sizes can learn from these three organisations when it comes to growing and retaining audiences, especially during a crisis.
Firstly, vast traffic numbers are not a business model by themselves. The Conversation – running without any advertising support – recognises that newsletters and other ways of engaging consumers is important to keep them coming back, and further develop relationships.
Transparency with readers is also vital. This is something The Athletic realised early on, and when confronted with the prospect of a summer without their usual content, they reached out to their audience to explain what their plan was. “The Athletic considers your voice vitally important to us,” they wrote to subscribers, whilst emphasising that they would be listening carefully to what was expected of them as well.
Finally, it’s never too late to refocus. Quartz used the pandemic as an opportunity to spot where readers were being underserved by other publications, and bolstered its content offering accordingly. This could well prove to be a pivotal moment in its survival.
Esther is a freelance media analyst, marketer, designer, and co-host of the Media Voices Podcast, a weekly round-up of all the key media news, as well as interviews with guests from top organisations. She writes frequently for industry sites like What’s New in Publishing, as well as editing their popular weekly newsletter and their growing library of reports. She has written and designed The Publisher’s Guide to Podcasting, a comprehensive 50 page report on the challenges and opportunities of podcasts for publishers. Esther is also the founder of the Publisher Podcast Awards, celebrating the best in podcasting from media and publishing businesses.