“Democracy dies in darkness.” It’s an amazing rallying cry, a banner that supporters of The Washington Post flock to. As a tool for signing up potential subscribers, it has the benefit of setting out a core belief that many people share. It conditions the people who support (or profess to) democracy to consider The Washington Post an ally, by appealing to their emotions.
Creating that sense of belonging to a club is a key component of most subscription and membership marketing. You see it across most of the general news titles, from the offers made to “our readers” to the appeals to shared values. It’s even more obvious in the transition to membership rhetoric being offered by news titles, which have made that sense of belonging the central tenet of their marketing messages.
However, as digital subscriptions become the default primary revenue stream for many newspapers, the marketing messages they use to create that sense of kinship is changing. Driven by competition and an electric political climate, some publications are inverting that message. For many, the strongest sales pitch they can make to subscribers is not by setting out the values they stand for – it’s the values and people they stand against.
The changing nature of newspaper subscription
We’re entering the second stage of digital subscriptions. Many publications are altering their membership and subscription marketing messages as more people become habituated to paying for news online. The Guardian, for instance, made a considered decision to move from a message of survival to one of sustainability when it hit one million paying supporters.
Where once it was the sole preserve of the specialist B2B and information provider, now the viability of consumer-focused subscriptions is well established. As a hangover from those early days of B2B success, however, some newspapers still make the exclusivity of their articles and analysis the central focus of their subscription marketing.
John Barnes is the managing director of Sloop Media and a veteran of B2B publishing. He explains: “There’s been a swing back to quality journalism, which doesn’t happen by accident. It has to be funded everybody in the media is benefiting from that.”
The Times & Sunday Times in the UK, for example, was an early entrant into the subscription space. The paper has always made the case that readers can only be assured of news quality by paying to support its journalists.
Even for publications without the prestigious history of The Times, the message that information must be directly funded through subscriptions is widespread. The Information, a tech-focused publisher that charges $399 annually for access, justifies its high price that way. Founder Jessica Lessin told the New York Times: “I’ve said this from the beginning, and I continue to say this, but you can’t give away what you expect the reader to find valuable.”
However, due to their positioning and the nature of their content, many news publications have found it difficult to justify using the exclusivity of their content as the selling point for a subscription. After all, in the age of information overload you’d be hard pressed to find a generalist newspaper that isn’t covering the same beats as many free-to-access online outlets. Consequently, they have made their political affiliation or stance the core of their proposition – for better and worse.