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How The Indian Express is strengthening subscriptions

The Indian Express is one of India’s legacy media organisations with 90 years in the journalism business and now in the process of transitioning from print to digital. Neha Gupta reports about the company’s recent subscriptions journey after attending a session at WAN-IFRA’s Digital Media India (Virtual) Conference 2022 

The company’s flagship brand, The Indian Express (a national daily), and other major publications such as The Financial Express (a business daily), Loksatta (a Marathi daily) and Jansatta (a Hindi daily) make up some of its biggest subsidiary offerings. Shyamal Datta, the principal product manager of Indian Express, joined WAN-IFRA’s recent Digital Media India (Virtual) Conference 2022 to talk about the challenges and learnings from its newly-launched subscription business.

Indian Express is one of the six leading publishers that are part of the Digital News Innovative Programme – Subscription Bootcamp, offered by WAN-IFRA and supported by Meta Journalism Project, India. 

The subscription journey

The Indian Express put its ePaper – its only paid product then – behind a paywall in December 2019, just three months before the COVID lockdown began. Consequently, advertising revenue and print circulation took a hit. The company spent April and May 2020 putting its resources and energies into experimenting on how to strengthen and expand its subscription offering.

From March-May 2020, the brand removed the ePaper from behind the paywall and reintroduced it towards the end of May after carrying out a few pricing experiments to cater to multiple audience segments and user needs. The company continued its experiments in the following 6-7 months and launched a metered paywall on The Indian Express Digital in August 2021. In January 2022, the brand launched full digital access and a combo offering digital access and the ePaper. 

Currently, two ePaper subscription packages are available – a yearly subscription at Rs 1499 (€ 17.90) and a 2-year subscription at Rs 1999 (€ 23.87). Subscribers have access to ePaper archives, exclusive invites to IE events, ad-lite experience on the IE app, and free health insurance (which is something that is typically far less expensive than in other parts of the world).

The digital subscription offering, called Express Premium, also includes two plans – a yearly package at Rs 1399 (€ 16.71) and a 2-year package at Rs 1799 (€ 21.49). Subscribers get access to daily premium stories, access to exclusive newsletters and an ad-lite experience on the IE app. 

Six stages of the subscription journey

IE’s ultimate aim was to improve the subscription journey, which it viewed as a six-step process.

  • Acquisition: Get an increasing number of visitors to use the product through sign ups and free registrations.
  • Engagement: Experiment with ways to revise its content offering to maximise pages per session and the time spent.
  • Loyalty: Calculate how frequently a user is visiting the website through the Data Interface Unit and Monthly Active Users.
  • Conversion: Turn first-time registrations and repeat visitors into paying subscribers. 
  • Renewal: For many publishers, retaining subscribers and keeping them coming back regularly is among the greatest challenges.
  • Referral: Aim to satisfy users to the degree that they will refer your product to someone else. 

Boosting registrations and reducing churn

The subscription and growth trajectory was challenging. The initial user registration rate was low and the monthly churn rate was extremely high at 80 per cent. The visibility of the ePaper and premium paid articles was limited, which led to the brand having to constantly acquire new subscribers to maintain the base level of subscription revenue. To get to the root of the problem, the company asked subscribers for feedback about how they perceived the product and the overall user experience. 

“We spoke to a sample of paid subscribers via our Product and Marketing team to understand the rationale of them purchasing and reading The Indian Express. Based on the feedback, we created a conversion funnel that was benchmarked against our understanding of the industry,” said Datta. “Since subscriptions in India are at a very nascent stage, most benchmarks are not publicised against a standard mark, because of which we had to work off of assumptions.”

Below are a few experiments The Indian Express conducted to optimise the subscription journey for its users as well as for the company:

Experiment 1: Improve low sign-up ratio

When IE launched digital subscription, a user, upon visiting the login page, was given the primary option to sign up via their email ID or phone number, while signing up through social media was a secondary option. The brand switched the position of the two sign-up methods and saw a 4 per cent increase in the registration rate.

Experiment 2: Increase the click through rate (CTR)

The brand produces around 300-400 premium stories on its website each month, which were experiencing a low CTR. To combat this, the company tested these stories with two headlines and found that the better headline led to an average of 20 per cent higher clicks as well as an increased amount of time spent on the particular story. 

Experiment 3: Combat banned recurring payments

The brand had initially launched its digital access with a monthly and a yearly plan but the 2021 Reserve Bank of India regulation banning recurring payments and requiring a user to authenticate them threw a spanner in the works. The company scrapped the monthly plan and replaced it with a 2-year subscription package. While this move helped in increasing the average revenue per unit (ARPU), it reduced the number of transactions since some people could not afford the more expensive plan. 

“We might try to win back lost subscribers once the recurring payment issue gets resolved, but as of now, the current plans seem to be working best for us. They have also helped in increasing sales value by more than 10 percent over the last three months,” Datta said. 

Experiment 4: Lower the churn rate

With an 80 per cent monthly churn rate, the brand found that while users were actually happy with the provided services, they were not being reminded enough to renew their subscriptions. To combat this, the brand set up automated renewal reminders via email and SMS, which increased the renewal rate by 5 per cent. “This 5 per cent might look like a small figure but cumulatively, it adds to the overall revenue over the years,” Datta said.

Experiment 5: Increase visibility of premium stories

The company tried repurposing popular, archival content that was still witnessing traffic and promoted that as premium content. Although this move did not translate to substantial conversions, it increased the visibility of new premium stories. “This also led to a mind shift with the user that at some point they will have to pay for the services provided by IE,” Datta said. 

More experiments in the works 

The company has plans for several more experiments during the next 3-6 months, which include:

  • Multipage vs single page checkout: Currently, IE has a single page view comprising subscription package details, login options and payment details, which has led to confusion among smartphone users. The company plans to conduct A/B testing on making this a multiple-page process to make it more mobile friendly and see which version works better. 
  • Auto upgrade to a higher plan: To make the experience convenient for users, the company now delivers its ePaper via WhatsApp and email. While this has helped in ease of navigation, it has also completely removed the need for an ePaper subscriber to visit the website. To combat this, the brand will test auto upgradation from ePaper to ePaper plus digital access. 
  • Multiple plans with different tenures: Expand subscription offerings with more focussed plans. 
  • Optimising the app for loyal users: The IE mobile application is still not optimised and is more of a reflection of the website. 
  • Automate response to payment failures. 

Outcome and learnings

After implementing the aforementioned experiments during the past three months, the company has seen a distinct revenue increase. The brand has also realised that its priorities will change to varying degrees according to a shift in focus on the number of subscribers, ARPU or sales volume.

“Unless we have user details, we can’t be sure of how they are going to interact with us in the coming years. The more registrations we have, we will be in a better place to personalise the user journey and be able to protect our ad revenue,” Datta said. “We also learned that the definition of perceived value can be different for users and the business. So, the way we see value as publishers, editors or product managers, might be completely different from how users are getting value from our products.”

(The writer is a multimedia journalist with WAN-IFRA.)

December 2022

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