How RP ONLINE is Growing Digital Subscriptions in Real-time

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German news site RP ONLINE launched their paid content model at the start of the pandemic and has been growing a loyal subscriber base ever since. Web analyst Michael Jochimsen explains how the digital publisher uses real-time data and audience insight to increase subscribers and shape editorial strategy.

Interview with Michael Jochimsen, Web Analyst at RP Digital

Can you describe RP Online?

RP ONLINE is one of the most successful regional news sites in Germany, with 19 local newsrooms across North-Rhine Westphalia. Published by the Rheinische Post Mediengruppe, the Düsseldorf-based website attracts 26 million visits every month, generating 98 million monthly page impressions.

What is your role at RP Online?

I am a web analyst at RP Digital, the department of the Rheinische Post Mediengruppe in charge of the strategic and technical development of RP ONLINE. As such, I work closely with product owners and journalists, enabling them to make data driven decisions.

When did you launch your subscription strategy, and can you describe the model?

The model in its current form launched in 2020. RP ONLINE has a hybrid model with premium plus (RP+) articles behind the paywall and freemium articles that are metered. The free articles are intended to increase our traffic and show potential customers the range of topics we have to offer. Premium articles are most often exclusive, thoroughly researched articles that tend to be longer.

How does your meter system work?

Our meter is ‘dynamic’, meaning not every user has access to the same number of free articles. How many articles are free per user is determined by their engagement. More engaged users can view only 5 free articles per week while fly-by users can read up to 9 articles per week. The reasoning is that fly-by users need a longer time to become engaged and willing to pay.

How important is audience data to that strategy? Can you give examples of how it can drive your paid content strategy?

With a hybrid model, it is necessary to decide for every article whether it should be freemium or put behind the paywall. We need the free traffic to grow our audience, drive our ad revenue and hopefully gain new subscribers in the long run.

Our best, most exclusive articles are behind the paywall. However, if those articles fail to attract current subscribers as well as convert readers into new ones, it is probably better to make that article free for everyone to read – especially if that article has a significant number of page impressions. Those decisions are based on data most of the time.

Data not only justifies those decisions, it has an impact on the content we produce in the first place. A few months ago, we noticed that articles regarding the Netherlands (west of Düsseldorf) were wildly popular among our audience. Many people travel there for work, shopping or leisure, so information about Covid travel restrictions, quarantine rules and other local regulations were of high interest.

After noticing this trend, we began publishing more articles on this topic – often to great success. A more recent example would be the Netflix series Squid Game which gathered a lot of interest as well.

How do you use Taboola Newsroom to help drive subscriptions? How does the platform fit into your editorial workflow?

Taboola Newsroom is mostly used by our online editorial team to make real-time decisions supported by the audience data.

If my colleagues notice an article gaining reader interest or even converting readers into subscribers, they can react immediately and place that article on the homepage, update the headline etc, to drive engagement. The same is true for a ‘below average’ article; the editorial team might decide to change its teaser or take the article off the homepage altogether, making space for better ones.

One of the most often used features of Newsroom is the ‘Front Page’ dashboard which we use to optimize content on the homepage. The editorial team needs to know which articles are performing well while they are on the homepage – which generates hundreds of thousands of pageviews each day. Increasing homepage CTR by just one percent might mean thousands of additional page impressions.

Has Covid affected subscriptions in a positive way?

We launched the current model in 2020, the year of the pandemic, so it is hard to tell what impact Covid had on subscriptions. What we can say is that traffic increased 28% year-on-year in 2020 and this helped drive up subscriptions.

Is there a separate team that oversees subscription?

At the start of the RP Plus project, the subscriptions were handled by the editors of the central digital team. However, during the second half of 2020, these tasks shifted over to the local and national editorial teams who have been trained in how to select and monitor premium content.

We embedded two ‘Paid Content Managers’ within the editorial department to monitor all published content that is put behind the paywall. They give feedback to the editorial teams and decide whether a paid-for article should be made free if it is not performing as expected for a premium article.

What kind of content goes beyond the paywall? How do you decide?

A general rule is that information that is publicly available is free to access, for example an article covering a press conference. If the article has exclusive information or does a deep dive on a topic, it is most likely put behind the paywall. Of course, there are exceptions, like a very short article that is free because we don’t want readers to be disappointed when they subscribe because of it.

When a major news story breaks – for example, the recent floods – how does that impact your subscription strategy?

In case of emergency, we tend to make more articles free than to put them behind the paywall.

An example would be our Covid liveblog, which started in February of 2020 and is still being updated every day. This liveblog is completely free, even the metered paywall is not active on there because it contains such vital information.

In an event like the floods, most current articles are free for the same reason. However, the content we publish a few days after the event is sometimes behind the paywall. An example would be a report on the affected people dealing with the catastrophe or an analysis on what the floods have to do with global warming.

How do you intend to grow subscriptions further?

At this stage, we are focusing on increasing the user engagement; generally measured by visit frequency. We noticed that users who are more engaged are more likely to subscribe and more engaged subscribed users are less likely to churn. Our reach is very stable, but we think there is a lot to gain from focusing on specific user groups and treating different groups differently.

To find out how Taboola Newsroom can help your subscription strategy, please contact EMEA Newsroom Engagement Manager Nigel Vincent at nigel.v@taboola.com.

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