Publishers Evolve Marketing to Keep Subscribers Brought in During Pandemic

They're ramping up efforts to retain new paying customers

Publishers are honing their marketing strategies to retain new subscribers. Illustration: Adweek; Sources: iStock
Headshot of Sara Jerde

Key insights:

Digital and print media companies wondering how best to keep new subscribers who signed up during the pandemic will need to prove to readers that their publication is invaluable after the crisis.
The Covid-19 pandemic has led to an uptick in subscribers at a variety of news organizations, including those that have long-established paywalls like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, as well as newly created ones like at The Atlantic.
Until coronavirus took hold, publishers had been advertising why their reporting matters and is worth paying for. Now, according to experts, they’ll need to focus on fine tuning the data provided by the new cohort of subscribers to better serve their needs.
As publishers focus on retaining these subscribers, they should determine how to show that the “uniqueness” of their Covid-19 and crisis coverage that first attracted those subscribers will apply to other reporting from the newsroom, according to Jaime Spencer, executive vice president and head of local media at market research firm Magid. “You’re not paying for coverage of this story—you’re paying for our coverage. It just happens to be about this story,” he added.

Reacting to the pandemic: advertising on social

As publishers’ traffic increased in March, when the coronavirus began its advance across the U.S, many news sites dropped their paywalls and began to increase ad spend to promote their subscription offerings.
Between consumers’ need for vital information and the additional brand marketing, it worked. The Journal has grown to over 3 million total subscribers, and the Times attracted 587,000 net new subscriptions during the first quarter and now has over 6 million total subscribers.
Media organizations boosted their marketing across channels, but especially on social media.
The Atlantic tripled its daily Facebook ad spend. The tactic only accounted for a small percentage of subscription growth, but it’s a social media campaign that “has continued to be profitable,” said Sam Rosen, svp of growth at The Atlantic. “Increasing paid marketing has been helpful,” he added. The Atlantic grew its subscription base by 90,000 within two months, and has reached over 200,000 subscriptions since the paywall’s launch in September.
The Post also increased its ad spend—as it usually does when there’s an uptick in traffic—to promote a discounted annual subscription rate ($29 instead of $100) that launched in February. The news publisher extended the rate to convert any new visitors who might be reading the site’s pandemic-related journalism. The Post has attracted “an increase in subscriptions,” but declined to provide exact figures.

The Washington Post kept a special running during the pandemic.

“This is a particularly critical moment,” said Miki King, CMO of the Post, adding that the newspaper has “no interest in exploiting” the opportunity by reverting back to the standard price.
USA Today also doubled down on brand marketing investments, including a paid social campaign for Memorial Day in which the publisher increased its year-over-year spend by 65%. The move attracted 262% more subscribers than the same campaign last year.

Messaging around Covid-19

Before the pandemic, marketing efforts achieved a certain panache: Celebrities touted the importance of their reporting (the Journal); some led to award-winning work and prestige within the advertising community (agency Droga5’s work for the Times); others gave out-of-home advertising a trial run (The Atlantic); and have even gone up against the White House by advocating for free speech (The Washington Post’s tagline “Democracy Dies in Darkness”).
Since the pandemic took hold, as newsrooms created new products at unprecedented speed and sales teams addressed brand safety concerns, marketing teams have had to weigh how to address the crisis in their messaging.
The Atlantic focused its ads around two messages: one that highlights fact-checking (a campaign that began before the pandemic and is the publisher’s most engaged ad campaign), and another centered on the organization’s “vital” reporting. The marketing intentionally hasn’t mentioned Covid-19. “We wanted to speak to the broader moment we were in,” Rosen said.


@SaraJerde sara.jerde@adweek.com Sara Jerde is publishing editor at Adweek, where she covers traditional and digital publishers’ business models. She also oversees political coverage ahead of the 2020 election.