|In 2013, few things will matter more to media outlets than growing their digital reader bases. But there's hardly a clear-cut answer how they should forge ahead to fulfill that goal.
Some analysts have debated mobile's growing importance for publishers, while others watch major news corporations test the waters with metered paywalls. It's safe to say that outlets of all shapes and sizes, ranging from 100 to 100,000 digital subscribers, will soon experiment with digital subscription models.
To get a sense of how different outlets are moving ahead, I spoke with four different publishers about their current and upcoming digital subscription strategies.
The Wall Street Journal: Measured Pricing
The Wall Street Journal, which is currently available on iOS, Kindle Fire and Blackberry, has allowed the financial news outlet to become "much more real-time." Chief Product Officer Alisa Bowen thinks the continued growth of its digital products has placed a heightened focus on constant updates and video production, making their digital formats a "very complementary" experience to the daily newspaper.
"Digital subscribers use the product at similarly high rates early in the morning, but there's a novelty with digital that happens at the end of the day, even after 9 p.m.," she says.
The WSJ also intends to keep subscription costs as straightforward as possible. That means two choices: $21.99 for digital only, or $25.99 for a digital and print bundle. Bowen hopes that the publication can retain and engage more customers with that approach. "We've been very focused on improving the transparency and clarity of our pricing," she says. "[We make] one clear pricing proposition for consumers across all platforms."
Last December, the news organization arrived on Apple's newsstand - a sign that it's doubling down on expanding digital readership. Bowen says that effort will continue internationally as the company pushes digital local language products in Indonesia, Korea, Germany, China and Japan.
The Economist: Premium Digital Branding
With 100,000 digital-only subscribers worldwide, The Economist stands committed to making the magazine available on as many platforms as possible. The weekly economics journal's digital reach includes iOS, Android, Blackberry X, Window 8 and Kindle Fire. In addition, it also plans to be on Window 8 phone, Chrome Store and other platforms as web-based subscriptions continue to rise.
"Most of our subscribers now actually pay more for digital, either exclusively (a quarter of new subscriptions) or pay more for digital as part of a digital bundle," says Senior Vice President Michael Brunt.
What's even more interesting is The Economist's continued ability to charge the same amount for both digital and print subscriptions. "People pay for our content," says Brunt, "not really for the piece of paper it's purchased on." That model, $127 for each or $160 bundled for a one-year subscription, started last October and will continue through 2013.
The Economist hopes its longstanding premium pricing will hold up across new platforms. "We set our prices to be premium," Brunt says. "It's important for us as a brand. You can subscribe to a few of our competitors at a much discounted price, but that's not our model."
The Atlantic: Smart Growth Through Digital Subscriptions
According to Kimberly Lau, VP and general manager of The Atlantic Digital, the magazine projects its digital subscriptions will double going into 2014. That could happen as the publication continues to expand the breadth of its products, which includes the recent choice to make print content available on its native iPhone app.
The Atlantic, which has focused on its native iOS apps for some time, hopes to be as "platform agnostic" as possible. While there aren't any plans for additional native apps at the moment, Lau notes that digital replicas are available on Kindle, Kindle Fire, Nook, Google and other platforms. "If someone is trying to consume The Atlantic on a Nook [for instance], we're trying to be there," Lau says.
In addition, the publication will tap internal resources that it hasn't previously used to promote its digital products. "All of the digital circulation has been completely organic," Lau says. "We haven't spent a dime on acquiring customers in the space."
That will change this year; the publication expects to spend money on its own platforms. It will also focus on shepherding mobile device users who are still visiting The Atlantic's main website toward a more optimal experience on their respective devices.
Down the road, The Atlantic will be on the lookout for changes in consumer patterns. "Things that looked promising a year ago can sometimes quickly change for better or worse," Lau says. Perhaps the biggest move along those lines could come in the form of a metered paywall, which the team will continue to discuss in the months ahead.
29th Street Publishing and Maura: Levelling the Playing Field
Smaller outlets looking to expand digital readership may find the process easier, thanks to some third-party developers that are helping lower barriers to entry. One company to watch is 29th Street Publishing, an iOS developer that currently builds apps for approximately 20 magazines, some of which are established and others are brand new. Among their clients are ProPublica, Poetry, The Awl and Maura, a digital mini-magazine edited by former Village Voice music editor Maura Johnston.
Maura publishes four to five new articles every week that offer unique perspectives on a wide variety of pop culture topics. Recent articles have included an interview with Community writer Maggie Bandur, an inside look at a Canadian K-Pop convention, and an oral history of Seattle art punk pioneers Unwound. "We want to give writers and editors who are talented and have a point of view a way to thrive in a marketplace that's so dominated by certain brands," says Johnston.
In its first few months, the digital weekly sold mostly yearly subscriptions, which sell for $29.99, but can also be purchased for $2.99 per month or $0.99 per issue, Jacobs says. "A lot of that is people just saying ‘I love Maura. I want to support Maura,'" he says. "It's almost a movement, more than a magazine."
While Johnston and 29th Street Publishing declined to share Maura's exact circulation so far, both her and Jacobs say it's sustainable enough to pay writers "alt-weekly" wages. "It's basically [projected] around 1,000 subscriptions in the first year," Jacobs says. "We're trending comfortably ahead of that number."
Moreover, Jacobs thinks 29th Street Publishing can continue to connect writers, illustrators and artists to targeted audiences. While Johnston pays writers and employs a dedicated proofreader, Jacobs thinks individuals with the right "voice and sensibility" could carve off a steady individual outlet.
"If you have a following, 400 or 500 subscribers means you're doing better than [some] freelance jobs," Jacobs says. Above all, that's an idea that could be a complete game changer worth watching this year.
Each of these four publishers possesses a distinct approach to digital subscriptions in 2013. Some want to expand their reach as far as possible, while others wish to find their target audience particular to their readership. Likewise, subscription prices vary based on how much an organization values content and fixed costs.
Regardless of their size, all four publishers agree that the future lies in digital subscriptions. They will undoubtedly modify their strategies as new trends and developments arise, but their commitment to the model will remain the same.