What can publishers take away from the NYT’s digital success?
Last updated: February 9, 2023
In good news for the digital media world, The New York Times Company announced Wednesday that it gained 1 million digital subscribers in 2022, which has helped them increase revenue by 11% in 2022 despite an industry-wide slowdown in ad spending.
The new additions bring The Times’ total number of paid subscribers to 9.6 million, not including the 1M+ gained through its February 2022 acquisition of The Athletic, a sports news website with its own paid subscription model.
This latest milestone continues a years-long run of success for the legacy newspaper’s digital product. In February, its acquisition of the sports news website The Athletic put the paper at 10M subscribers total, reaching its original goal more than two years ahead of schedule. (Now they’re hoping to hit 15M subscribers by 2027.)
“It was our second-best year for net digital subscriber additions, behind only 2020,” Meredith Kopit Levien, the chief executive of The Times, said in a New York Times article this week. “Importantly, with each passing quarter, we saw more proof that there is strong demand for a bundle of our news and lifestyle products,” she added.
But the Times’ success is an exception, not the norm. From Buzzfeed and local newspapers to streaming giants like Netflix and Hulu, media companies have struggled to monetize their digital content amid a slowdown in ad spending and a perceived lack of interest in paid subscriptions.
So what can other media companies take away from the Times’ continued success?
Obviously, you can’t growth-hack your way to The Times’ historic prestige overnight. But replicating parts of its marketing and subscription strategy can give your publication a more sustainable business model for 2023 and beyond. ‘
Here’s what we’re seeing:
1. Invest in your strengths
There’s one obvious factor to the Times’ success: When the digital revolution came calling, they already had a reputation as one of the most trusted media sources in the world.
But in the pressure to adapt to the constraints of digital media, they could’ve done what many other big media brands did: pivoted to reels and short form content at the expense of what makes them special.
Instead, they doubled down on quality long-form journalism. We’ve seen this throughout their main publication’s continued coverage of key political and social issues, as well as their choice to buy The Athletic, sports media’s first subscription-only longform outlet.
The Times was able to identify that their audience still had an appetite for quality, in-depth journalism — and was willing to pay for it — before any of their peers. So they can give their subscription a clear value proposition and back it up with their pedigree.
The CTA on their paywalls — “support local journalism” — says it all.
Besides pleasing their audience, that’s also allowed the Times to attract journalists from other organizations and further increase the value of their subscription.
Ground your creative decisions in customer data whenever possible. This allows you to justify your strategy with an objective view of your strengths, weaknesses and prospects rather than going in blind. That way, you can rest assured that you’re charging customers only for what you do best.
2. Generate first-party data and elicit new subscriptions with newsletters and other marketing assets
But these days, it’s not enough to put out content on your website and expect audiences to seek you out. The Times makes it easy for readers to check out their content consistently by complementing their on-site journalism with 20+ daily newsletters. While most are restricted to paid subscribers, a few of them, including The Morning Newsletter, are open to everyone.
That’s significant for two huge reasons.
First, The Morning Newsletter serves as an informal free trial for people considering a subscription. Since people are more wary of paying for news than Netflix, this is an important way to reassure readers that the journalism is worth of the spend.
If you’re charging for subscriptions, definitely consider condensing your magazine into a smaller email newsletter. (And best of all, if you’re managing subscriptions with Omeda, you can create your list and create an automated email campaign all without leaving the platform.)
The other big benefit: Because these emails cover general topics and specific verticals, this gives The Times a treasure trove of information about their readers’ preferences and interests. With so many different newsletters at their disposal, each with their own focus areas and target audiences, this gives them an infinite number of data points that they can use for more effective cross-promotions, upsells, ad placements and targeted content opportunities.
Find yourself short on first-party data? Consider creating more newsletters related to different sub-topics. Or you could run surveys on your audience, then come out with new webinars, events, downloadable content and/or email newsletters for their specific needs.
Then as you generate more data from these assets, you can create more specific segments (i.e,, readers ages 18-35 interested in media and B2B who haven’t made a purchase). Use that to further personalize your offers, on-page personalizations and cross-promotions and you’ve got a clear path to revenue (and if you use Omeda, most of this process is automated!).
3. Capitalize on the network effect
The Athletic’s meteoric rise from virtual unknown to sports media darling is emblematic of NYT’s success as a whole. When their legacy counterparts were largely prioritizing quantity over quality, The Athletic optimized for both.
They recruited a staff of local sports writers that had been laid off from other publications, then used them to create verticals for each major city. (Their markets ranged from Los Angeles and New York to Winnipeg, Tampa Bay and Montreal.)
This targeted approach helped The Athletic gain traction as they debuted their paid subscription. It especially attracted people in smaller markets — or one sport fans — who weren’t going to pay for more generalized national sports news.
But it’s one thing to just put out 6 posts about each NBA team per month. It’s another to create communities around each city. But it’s another to create vibrant communities around those cities through your brand.
The Athletic also created local Twitter accounts for its local verticals. That multiplied its reach while also sparking invaluable word of mouth traffic at a critical turning point for its business.
That allowed it to take advantage of the network effect — it became more valuable as more people used it, writes Jocelyn Hu, Marketing Lead of Privacy.com. “It’s the same principle that helped Facebook grow into the biggest social network on earth—and helped ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft disrupt the taxi industry one market at a time.” (And as a bonus, localized content is another goldmine of data for The Athletic and the Times as a whole.)
Say you’re not in the sports game. How can you capitalize on the network effect?
Look for opportunities to localize your content. And that doesn’t have to be literal. If you use Omeda, you can use data from your CDP to see which job titles, industries, and/or referral sources yield the most engagement on each of your webpages. From there, you can create more targeted content that’s more relevant — and more shareable.
4. Smart use of recommended content modals
Bingeing. It’s the ultimate goal of any content creator in 2023 — and today’s winners design their user experience in a way that nudges them to explore their interests further. The Times is no exception, as each of their articles is followed up by a callout featuring multiple additional resources on the topic.
Take this example: This recommended content modal doesn’t just tell audiences to read more about Wordle. It gives readers multiple avenues for learning more about the game, including how to improve their strategy and watching people use it in interesting ways. This gives people multiple reasons to keep reading and makes it more likely that they’ll stay on site.
Multiply that over thousands of pages and it has a huge lift on engagement over time.
Look for opportunities to keep talking to your audience. (On Omeda, you can provide content recommendations within the HTML of your article or along the side of the page. You can also target different content recommendations to different audiences to maximize each visitor’s time on site.)
This doesn’t just increase impressions and please the advertisers. Numbers aside, this gives you even more useful data about each of your subscribers.
Two people reading the same article might see the same recommended articles listed underneath your headline piece. But their paths will probably diverge from there: One might read even more related articles while the other might wander over to another one of your other verticals.
Tracking each of these journeys helps you create a unique, hyper-specific profile for each person when they otherwise may have looked indistinguishable. Armed with that intel, you can give each of these subscribers even more relevant content and keep them coming back.
(With Olytics, Omeda’s website analytics service, you can see how each visitor interacts with your website. You can add their website activity to their full customer profile — and even convert unknown visitors into known audience members.)
5. Simple but super-effective landing page and conversion mechanisms
Another key variable of the NYT subscription model is its simplicity. You’d expect a conglomerate the size of The Times to have a clunky customer journey, but that’s not the case. One look at the landing page below and subscribers know exactly what they’re paying for. They know exactly how much and how frequently they’ll be charged. They also have options to add and remove different subscriptions from their package, giving them that much more control over their experience.
Pair that with streamlined copy and a clear visual hierarchy and it’s a clear path to conversions.
6. Straightforward self-service resources
One of the biggest barriers to getting a subscriber is gaining their trust. Because whenever someone hands over their credit card, there’s a small part of them wondering, “If I change my mind about this subscription, am I going to be able to cancel it without having to contact customer service and sit on hold for hours?”
The Times enables customers to start, end or change their subscription, both to the magazine and individual email newsletters, via a self-service portal. When your audience has full control over what they’re paying and when, they’re more likely to trust you with their money for the long term.
Looking to level up your own customer service offerings? Consider implementing a self-service customer portal and/or outsourcing your subscription management process.
With more than 40 years’ experience in audited, controlled and paid title subscriptions, Omeda is an industry leader in subscription management and fulfillment, from magazines and newsletters to website access, single-copy sales, site licenses and more. Our subscription management service is connected to an end-to-end audience management platform, empowering publishers to harness subscriber data to better connect with their customers.
Want to see it for yourself? Schedule a demo today.
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