The Atlantic Targets College Students With New Group Subscription

The publisher has signed up more than 75 schools in its first year

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News and culture publisher The Atlantic launched the first group subscription product in its 167-year history last summer, which has so far focused almost exclusively on reaching college students through their universities.

Since going to market last April, The Atlantic has signed up more than 75 schools across the country to participate in the program, reaching more than 500,000 students, according to Mary Liz McCurdy, senior vice president of business development and strategic partnerships at The Atlantic.

“We went the academic route first because there is substantial pent-up demand for it,” McCurdy said. “But it also helps us future-proof our audience by bringing in a new generation of readers.”

The Atlantic is far from the first publisher to offer college students a discounted or free subscription product, noted Felix Danczak, global head of marketing at subscription platform Zuora.

But the opportunity to reach undergraduates as they develop their media consumption and spending habits for the first time is invaluable. 

“Any subscription is fundamentally about balancing your cost per acquisition against the lifetime value of a subscriber,” Danczak said. “College students represent the best that ratio ever gets.” 

The initiative reflects the increasing sophistication of publishers’ digital subscription strategies. As the market for reader revenue matures, publishers must constantly find new pools of untapped customers to target, and colleges represent a continuously refreshing source of emergent consumers whose educational background make them an ideal audience.  

The Atlantic, which recently surpassed 1 million total subscribers and reached profitability, has also positioned itself as a thought leader in conversations around democracy and American history, giving it a nominal right to win in the space. In tandem with its broader push onto university campuses, the publisher is embarking on a new, three-college speaking tour called Democracy at a Crossroads, which kicked off May 2 at the University of Nevada, Reno. It will also make future stops at Morehouse College in Atlanta and Michigan State.

Pricing and product description

Unlike standard enterprise subscriptions, which are often priced on a per-seat basis, The Atlantic charges universities based on two factors: the length of their contract and the size of the school, according to McCurdy.

Contracts are either one, three or five years, and the size of the school is measured by the number of students, staff and faculty it has. The publisher has struck some sweetheart deals to encourage early adoption, and it has also, in some cases, worked with sponsor organizations to foot the bill for colleges with less discretionary income to spend on the program.

The publisher declined to say how much it charges for the product, or how much revenue it generates. A representative assured ADWEEK that the business is small but growing.

The program also serves as a test run for a more standard enterprise subscription product—targeting companies, think tanks, nonprofits, etc.—that the company plans to roll out more heavily in the second half of the year.

However, the true value of academic subscription products comes from the audience they offer rather than the immediate revenue they generate, according to Danczak. 

Students develop many of their consumption habits in college, meaning their lifetime value as subscribers is just beginning. And rather than The Atlantic spending money to reach students, the universities are paying The Atlantic, meaning its customer acquisition costs are nearly nil.

Retention challenges and attribution questions

As with all subscriptions, it is incumbent upon the publisher to prove the value of its product to the customer.

In the case of academic subscriptions, however, the dynamic is complicated by the fact that while the universities pick up the tab, it is the student body that The Atlantic must convince to use its product.

The publisher declined to share usage figures, as it has yet to determine benchmarks and appropriate metrics for measuring engagement. McCurdy did say, however, that some of its highest-performing schools see up to 30% of their student population use the subscription.

The publisher has weighed and implemented a number of techniques aimed at bolstering student readership, according to McCurdy. 

To ensure the schools see the value and renew their contracts, The Atlantic has toyed with ambassador programs, partnerships with student newspapers and even passing out flyers. These programs would potentially add reach beyond the company’s Democracy at a Crossroads tour.

The publisher also faces unique challenges related to data and attribution, as students signing up for access to The Atlantic must use a university email, which then disappears when they graduate. 

“We want to be sensitive because some of the students are minors,” McCurdy said. “But we know this is a strong growth channel, one that will help us get to 1.5 million subscribers.”

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