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How ToI+ drives subscriptions with data- driven user analysis

The Times of India’s premium subscription product, ToI+, was launched in March 2021 to double down on the growing opportunity around reader revenue. The brand now has more than 120000 paying users. Neha Gupta reports, based on a session at WAN-IFRA’s Digital Media India Conference 

The brand, with 50 million digital users, produces around 2000 pieces of content every day, across 70 cities, and since the paywall is in a nascent stage, the focus this year has been on consumer acquisition. Times of India’s paywall offering, at this point, can neither be called metered nor hard, since aside from 350-400 premium pieces, all the content is free to access on the website and apps. 

Radhika Shukla, head of Growth and Strategy, TOI+ and Newspoint, Times Internet, joined WAN-IFRA’s Digital Media India Conference to share the brand’s subscription journey to date and their initial learnings. The paywalled content includes expert opinion, newsletters, podcasts, crossword, and in-depth news analysis, heavily driven by data and charts in an easy to consume form. Once a user becomes a subscriber, they are shifted to an ad-lite model. 

Currently, ToI+ offers only one yearly subscription plan at a very competitive price of Rs 599 (€ 7.24) (Android and browser) and Rs 799 (€ 9.66) (iOS). The brand also offers a Times Prime membership that has been dubbed a super subscription service that provides access to over 15 premium subscriptions and offers from more than 20 brands, such as SonyLiv, Disney+Hotstar, Cricbuzz, Uber, Starbucks and Myntra amongst others.

Since ToI+ is only a year old, the brand’s biggest focus this year has been strategising customer acquisition that has been categorised thus:  

– Platform-based strategy: To cater for varying consumption patterns, the brand has different user acquisition strategies for the four prevalent platforms in India — Android, iOS, web and mWeb (mobile web) — for free as well as paid content offerings. 

Android users form the largest base of ToI’s subscribers, followed by iOS, web and then mWeb. Despite that, a disproportionately high number of users come from mWeb, followed by web, Android and iOS. This happens because apps are highly personalised, and drive usage through push notifications, resulting in more engaged users. 

“For Android app users, we have in-app pop-ups, used very carefully and only pushed at cohorts that have, in the past, acted on push notifications or visited the ToI+ list page,” said Shukla. 

On the other hand, about 90 per cent of ToI’s mWeb traffic is driven through search engine optimisation, which means that the user lands directly on the article page, making it important to feature a nudge or a pop-up about ToI+ to push the user towards the subscription page. 

Similarly, for users who come from the web and land on the homepage, the lineup of stories becomes crucial and acts as a converter. 

– User journey/ funnel: The brand has condensed users into different cohorts depending on their consumption patterns and applied a differential acquisition strategy at every level of the user journey. 

Reaching out to potential subscribers

The brand does this in three ways:

  • Type of content: Sifting through the 2000 content pieces each day and matching ToI+ content with different reading habits.
  • News cycle: On heavy news days, traffic to the ToI website is very high that is reflected in the subscription numbers. The brand carefully taps into such busy days, producing content relevant to these news events to acquire and convert the maximum number of users. 
  • Time of the day: The time slots of 7-10 am, 4-5 pm, and 8-9 pm have a higher number of subscriptions compared to the rest of the day. To capitalise on these spike hours, the brand has devised nudges and push notifications to drive numbers. 

Differentiated communication and pricing strategy

ToI uses Clever Tap and Google Analytics to analyse its user base and behaviour in terms of daily active users, article page visitors, plan page visitors and payment page visitors. To avoid user leaks at the various stages mentioned above, the brand analyses these cohorts and conducts surveys to identify the reason behind the leak. 

To prevent these leaks, the brand has a strong vertical payment stack, which means it has tie-ups with banks, offers coupon codes or fintech instruments like Cred. It also offers Times Points, which a ToI user can accumulate by consuming content – free or paid – and subsequently, use them to buy a subscription. “This vertical payment stack helps us convert users who are dropping out due to the price not being attractive to them,” Shukla said. 

The company has also experimented with user cohorts to test engagement levels. Shukla said ToI sees three types of users:

  • Light readers: 80 per cent
  • Medium engaged readers: 10-15 per cent 
  • Heavily-engaged users: 5 per cent 

When the brand launched ToI+, it found that heavily-engaged users were the easiest to convert of the three categories. Seven months into the launch, of the subscribed base, 50-60 percent users were highly-engaged, 10-15 percent users were medium-engaged and another 10-15 percent were light readers. 

“You cannot ignore your light readers because they constitute the majority of the reader base and are crucial in building a strong funnel. The reasons why light users don’t convert could be many, so we conducted two experiments,” said Shukla. 

Free trial to paid: The brand launched a free-trail service on its Android and iOS apps and saw that 25-35 per cent of the users converted from free trial to paid within 30 days. The conversion was higher for iOS, compared to Android. Subsequently, it removed the free trial and found the numbers had not dropped. “This led us to the conclusion that for us, free trial was not the biggest conversion driver, and was simply a way for people to explore the content and its quality,” said Shukla.

Micro transactions: The company launched micro payments for text-based reports only in December 2021 to focus on lightly-engaged readers and build an activation funnel. The micro payment option enables a user to choose to pay-per-article, consume it and decide if they want to buy a subscription. 

The company also has experimented with pricing to try to find the right price point where micro transactions will not cannibalise their annual subscription, Shukla said. “When we reduced the pay-per-article price drastically, we realised it was jeopardising our annual subscription. So, we brought it up to a level where a reader, after paying for and consuming 3-5 stories, realises that it is more profitable to go in for an annual subscription.” The company is still running the micro-payment option and has found that users who want to become subscribers are usually ones who have paid for two stories within a week. 

What convinces a user to become a subscriber? 

– Content: 50-60 per cent of the product purchase at ToI happens through its content offering, which involves a strong news cycle, image and headline.

– Discovery and ease of usage: The brand wants to avoid drop-outs because of lack of information and, thus, pays close attention to presentation and positioning of content, an easy sign-up flow, and a detailed page plan.

– Geo-wise strategy: ToI gets a lot of traffic from different geographical areas, especially USA and UAE. To cater to global audiences as well as the 70 Indian cities it covers, it offers personalised push notifications, location-wise content, location-wise pricing and offers. 

– Pricing: While OTT in India has picked up pace, news subscriptions are still a tough nut to crack. 

“Since India is still a very price-sensitive country, it is important to keep the pricing competitive but also watch our Average Revenue Per User (ARPU),” Shukla said. 

Engagement tactics

Engagement is key to driving subscriptions and reducing churn. Here are a few things ToI does to onboard users:

  • User distribution pre and post subscription
  • Personalised notifications: The brand has worked hard on automating dashboards, emailers, and personalising push notifications for subscribers and non-subscribers, which help it analyse subscription patterns. 

This helps the brand calculate the subscriptions driven from a particular story, and which story might be a huge traffic generator but not a good subscription converter. We also know that a story that might be a huge traffic generator, might not be a good subscription converter, Shukla said.

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

January 2023