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Using your website to increase print subscriptions
By Dan Wilcox, co-owner of Lions Light Corporation, www.lionslight.com

In my previous article titled “Using your website to increase print and online advertising revenues”, I wrote that very few publishers of small and medium-sized publications are satisfied with the marriage of their print and online products. And that if I were to articulate it for them, the main question they share is “How can I use our website to increase both my print circulation and advertising revenues?” This article discusses the first half of this question and explains some circulation philosophies suited to small and medium-sized weekly publications with paid subscribers.

You’ve heard the phrase “newspapers are dying.” People have been saying it for 20-plus years. Whether cause or effect, many publications began throwing in the towel in their circulation departments around the same time. Some simply stopped picking up the phone to sell new print subscriptions, not realizing that they’re staring right at an oncoming train.

Can you use your website to increase print subscriptions?

The answer is yes. Approximately 80% of a newspaper’s revenue comes from print advertising, and because advertising revenues increase or decrease based on print circulation, the primary purpose of your newspaper website should be to sell more print subscriptions. When you gain print subscribers, you gain print advertisers, your main source of income. And when you lose print subscribers, you lose print advertisers.

The importance of posting ALL articles to your homepage

Imagine standing in line at the grocery store. You didn’t know you wanted that Twix or Snickers bar until you saw it. The same can be true for your readers. If they can’t see your stories, how will they know if they want them or not? If you’re only posting some stories (behind a paywall or not), or if you are completely hiding your stories behind a paywall, (possibly in the form of a PDF/page-flipper), then this article is definitely for you.

Many publishers fear that if they put all their content online, it will push print readers to their website, resulting in decreased print circulation numbers. While this is a valid concern, it is somewhat wrongheaded because if their website was set up properly, they could actually increase print subscription sales.

A little about paywalls

A paywall is something that restricts the amount of content to visitors coming to your website. Some newspaper website solutions have paywalls and others don’t. Our newspaper website solution has 2 paywalls that work in tandem with each other.

One of the paywalls is a metered paywall, which allows the user to view the first few articles they click on for free. You determine how many articles to give away each week before readers arrive at truncated articles prompting them to subscribe or log in for access.

The second type of paywall is a standard paywall, which allows you to make specific stories free, that won’t count against the free stories counted with the metered paywall. Some newspapers use this paywall for free content like obituaries, etc.

Fishing

Instead of looking at the website as competing with your print product, I’d like to compare our goal of increasing print subscription sales to a simpler activity… fishing! It’s a pretty safe bet to say that when you’re fishing, you’ll catch more fish if you have more hooks in the water. The same is true for your newspaper. The more “hooks you have in the water”, i.e. current articles on your home page, the more readers you’ll attract.

The goal is to give potential subscribers a reason to frequent your website by giving a few articles away for free, while withholding most of your content in the form of truncated articles, requiring them to log in or subscribe to read the rest of the article. Now that the reader knows what they’re missing, they decide they want to read the article, so they subscribe to the print edition which gives them immediate online access to continue reading articles. This method hits it on all fronts; Visitors to your website have a reason to come back (free articles), they can see what they’re missing (truncated articles), and you’re effectively using your website to increase print subscriptions.

Is it a good idea to give free online access with print subscriptions?

Online access should ideally be bundled with every print subscription. You can charge a little more for it if you like, but charging more than a few bucks is unwise. While you may make a little extra money, your circulation department will be more efficient if your print subscribers have the ability to log in and make account updates like renewing their subscription, changing their mailing address, etc. This only happens if you give subscribers online access with their print subscription. (If you have a Periodicals mailing permit, run all pricing strategies by your USPS rep to ensure you don’t violate any permit rules.)

A successful strategy might be to price your print and online combo subscriptions just slightly above, or equal to, the in-county print-only price, say $1 - 3 dollars more. Most readers will simply buy the print and online combo subscription because it offers them a better value.

What’s the big deal with a PDF or page-flipper solution?

There are numerous reasons why your articles should be in a database, generating HTML articles, and not distributed to readers in just a PDF or page-flipper. Some problems with a PDF or page-flipper solution include having an ineffective sitemap, likely not having a Facebook “Share” button or other social media interactivity, losing the ability to have an RSS feed, which makes for a “clunkier” way to read articles online. All of which result in significantly less traffic from search engines and readers.

There’s nothing wrong with having a PDF, but it should be the secondary means of browsing articles. The biggest argument publishers give for only using a PDF to post stories online is time. However, I think most of you would agree that saving 30 minutes a week posting stories isn’t worth a decrease in subscription and revenue opportunities.

Another reason publishers may like the PDF or page-flipper is they love the look of their print product, but what they fail to realize is that when the general public is online they tend to prefer reading articles in a webpage format.

If you have a quick and efficient solution, like our system (ROAR), or another system that allows you to post your entire issue quickly, time will not be an issue.

Don’t tie your hands

 

Lastly, while there are exceptions to this (like students and snowbirds), unless you’re a daily, or your subscription prices are high, short term subscriptions may not be the best approach. Some publishers offer 1-month or 3-month subscriptions. However, if the shortest duration readers are presented with is a 6-month or 1-year subscription option, most will still subscribe. This frees up your time because you don’t have to convince subscribers to renew in just a few weeks. For this same reason, you should also offer discounts for 2 and 3 year subscriptions.

If you have questions about how these philosophies apply to your publication, or would like to see our publication website solution, ROAR, please contact us.

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Please don’t miss my next article on a unique concept called the ‘Bulk Online Subscription Plan’ (BOSP). At my own newspapers, I personally sold 43 BOSP subscriptions, which resulted in 6000+ paid online subscribers, a steady flow of print subscription sales and leads, and even new print advertisers over the years. This concept is most applicable to industry papers (mine were oil & gas and mining), but even if you don’t have an industry publication, it might be a useful read.

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About the author

Dan Wilcox is the Vice-President and partner at Lions Light Corporation. Lions Light provides website solutions and consulting to small and medium-sized newspapers across the United States. Dan has helped lead Lions Light since 2007 and has over 25 years of experience in the newspaper business. Previously the majority owner of two leading industry newspapers in Alaska, Dan thrives on helping newspaper owners and managers grow their print circulation and advertising using their website. Dan now resides in Peoria, AZ where he enjoys spending time with family and friends, dirtbiking, hiking, and playing pool. He can be reached at dan@lionslight.com.