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How legacy media companies tackled digital transformations and embraced subscriptions

Right now, digital transformation is one of the main things businesses should focus on. Even if you still have some clients who interact with you offline, there’s no denying that digital is the future.

Yes, digitisation may feel daunting, but some of the world's oldest and most prestigious media companies have successfully made the shift to digital subscriptions. If you’d told the editor of the New York Times in the 1980s that most people would be consuming their paper online, you’d probably be laughed out of the building. But look at them now.

As long as you approach your digital transformation with the right strategy, it should be a streamlined process.

How legacy media companies embraced subscriptions

Legacy media has paved the way for other businesses to establish — and embrace! — digital subscriptions. Thanks to their efforts, smaller media companies can learn a lot from what they’ve done.

The New York Times

Let’s start with the New York Times, a legacy broadsheet newspaper founded way back in 1851. As of 2022, 8.3 million of their 9 million subscribers are digital-only. The NYT is a great example of a successful transformation and shift to digital subscriptions. They didn’t just whack their print content online. Instead, they created a whole new strategy.

Some key components of this digital strategy included:

Optimising for different mediums.

People consume articles differently online than they do in a physical format. Maybe they’re scanning headlines while standing in line or reading an article surreptitiously at their desk while pretending to work.

Some people read on a mobile, tablet, or even on a smartwatch. Others still just get news by reading headlines on push notifications. Rather than clinging to the print medium, the NYT understands that they need to have a multi-pronged approach for every possible way their readers consume news.

Thinking carefully about advertisers and sponsorships

At the end of the day, media companies rely on advertisers and sponsorships to keep the business running. Readers are important, but so are these other revenue streams. It’s not just about running banner ads and posting sponsored content in newsletters. Since embracing a digital transformation, the NYT has piloted innovative partnerships with brands such as Google Maps with its 36 Hours travel series.

Expanding globally

The NYT has paying subscribers in 193 countries. Though it is a US-based news brand, people worldwide pay for their quality journalism. Adding verticals like Cooking and the famous NYT Crossword to their subscription model was also a genius way to bring in subscribers from around the globe.

Leveraging customer data to increase subscriptions

You can’t give your customers a good experience unless you know what they want. Having digital subscribers provides you with a wealth of data you can use to refine and perfect your subscription model, making sure you’re providing people with the exact service they want. Since focusing on digital, the NYT has become a very data-driven company. Every reporter at the company has access to reader analytics, helping them make sure they’re writing engaging stories people want to read.

Rebuilding their tech stack

It makes sense — rapidly building and testing a stream of digital products requires a modern technology stack. The NYT had to do a total rehaul of its tech stack to ensure that everything ran smoothly for both customers and employees.

The Washington Post

The Washington Post has been in circulation for nearly 150 years and remains one of the most-read newspapers in the US, with a huge international audience to boot. What’s most interesting is that digital behemoth Amazon drove their digital transformation after Jeff Bezos bought the paper in 2013.

Here’s how they did it:

Completely reworking their analytics system

The Post uses technology that tracks readers' online behaviours, which can be mined for insights. That raw data is then fed back into systems in the newsroom that helps journalists tweak how they present stories based on how people interact with the news.

Rethinking customer acquisition

Again, we’ve returned to the delicate balance between keeping customers happy and fulfilling advertiser requirements. The Post decided to put more effort into the customers’ side. They shifted from focusing on marketing to focusing on improving customer experience –– and it paid off.

Creating an effective paywall

Paywalls are an essential part of online journalism. While some sites are totally blocked for everyone except subscribers, The Post took a different approach. Readers get a handful of free articles each month and then need to subscribe. It gives non-subscribers a taste of the kind of journalism and content they’ll get, almost like a tester model.

It’s not just big media names going digital

While the New York Times and The Washington Post are just two big-name media companies that have successfully transformed their brands, digital transformation and subscription commerce aren’t just for the big hitters.

Irish Independent

The Irish Independent is a smaller newspaper, but a fascinating example: they only introduced digital subscriptions in 2020. Their strategy has proved very successful and has seen extraordinary growth for the brand.

Creating a North Star

The paper’s retention manager revealed that the most important part of their digital transformation was having a North Star — or a mission statement — that applied to every single team in the business. Everyone from editorial to advertising to audience management was involved in the process, making for a far more holistic approach to their transformation.

Relying on metrics

There’s a theme here –– metrics and analytics should be a driving factor in every digital transformation! The Irish Independent relied heavily on facts and figures to guide its subscription model. Every team created metrics and then broke those down into smaller, achievable tasks. Small actionable steps help a big, daunting project seem much more approachable.

Get started on your digital transformation with Limio

Limio is a startup in London focused on subscription commerce. We build software that helps media businesses sell their subscription products online, and we’re here to help you take the leap and start your digital transformation. Media companies that have done a digital transformation with Limio includes Economist, GEDI Digital, and Which?, so you are in good hands.

Check out our blog to learn more about subscription strategies from big-name companies and to try out Limio for your subscription commerce business. Click through and request a demo today!


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