Photo (cc) 2011 by libertyandvigilance

Every time I open a window, in floats another end-of-the-year memo from a Boston Globe Media executive. This one is from Tom Brown, vice president for consumer revenue, who reports that the Globe’s digital-only subscriptions now stand at 226,000 — a remarkable accomplishment given that the Globe was at just 95,000 in mid-2019.

For those of you who keep telling me that the Globe is going to drop its print edition, let me call your attention to this observation by Brown: “The print paper remains at the core of what we do and at 55% of consumer revenue, the largest component of revenue.”

That’s true even though print circulation according to the most recent report filed with the Alliance for Audited Media was just 128,000 on Sundays and about 73,000 on weekdays. The Globe, like other newspapers, will shut down its printing presses once costs exceed revenues — but not a moment before.

Also, I thought it was interesting that the Globe’s paid digital circulation kept rising this year even as overall traffic shrank following the end of the Trump era. (It’s over, right? Please tell me it’s over.)

“We had a strong start in 2021, but in the post-election/post-inauguration spring news audiences around the country began to wane,” Brown wrote. “We saw about a 25% decline in our non-subscriber audience during this period — something that was widely seen throughout the industry, yet our overall subscriber numbers grew modestly.”

The full text of Brown’s memo follows.

Dear Colleagues,

The past two and a half years have been a period of exceptional subscriber growth at the Globe. In mid-2019, we were thrilled to have the leading digital subscription business among major metros with 95,000 digital-only subscribers. From the launch of in the fall of 2011, it took us over 7 years to get to that number of digital-only subs. It took less than a year to more than double that number as we continued to refine, invest, and innovate to develop the sophisticated approach that we have today.

This note is intended to share an update of how we have evolved since that time and what the current state of our subscription business looks like.

The consumer team has disciplines in:

    • Analytics
    • Testing
    • Pricing
    • Database/campaign management
    • Email operations
    • Customer insights and market research

We work with so many of you across the organization on a wide array of projects. Our main focus is growing subscriptions and related revenue. Our team is in service of the incredible journalism that is created here every day. We feel a responsibility to recommend and enact strategies that help to continually attract new subscribers and retain existing subscribers. We focus on analytical techniques and approaches that can improve our ability to draw in, acquire, engage, retain and maximize yield of subscribers. We believe in the rigorous testing of new ideas and letting the data and analytics guide us as we refine our approach.

A Brief history – mid 2019

With support and guidance from leadership we set out to accelerate the growth of our digital subscription business. After a period of testing that began in the fall of 2018, we embarked on a major shift in our acquisition strategy in mid-2019. Encouraged by the early results of the testing we switched the core introductory offer (the offer most commonly seen on the paywall and in email). The rigorous outreach, tracking, sampling, and testing combined with our consistently excellent journalism led to our acquisition rate increasing by more than 500% and remarkably, engagement increased and the retention rate stayed the same. This propelled a sharp increase in subscribers beginning in the summer of 2019 — we passed the 100,000 subscriber mark in mid-June 2019! As 2019 continued, so did the strong results, and we felt more encouraged with each passing week that we had tapped into a new audience that saw great value in a Globe subscription once they had a chance to spend time with our content.

The effect of the pandemic on subscriptions

As the pandemic began in March 2020, we became even more relevant to our subscribers and to new readers. Many of the subscribers already acquired on the new offer were moving off their introductory rate in the early days of the pandemic, which caused an increase in retention. At the same time we were acquiring new subscribers at a record pace. Going into 2020, we planned for a record year with growth to 178,000 subscribers by the end of the year. This goal was surpassed in early April. By early May we had over 200,000 digital only subscribers. While it took over 7 years to grow to 100,000 we had added the next 100,000 in less than one year!

Earlier in 2021

We had a strong start in 2021, but in the post-election / post-inauguration spring news audiences around the country began to wane. We saw about a 25% decline in our non-subscriber audience during this period — something that was widely seen throughout the industry, yet our overall subscriber numbers grew modestly.

Where are we now — Q4 2021

Over the past 5+ months traffic has increased and so have subscriptions. We have reached a new all-time high of 226,000 digital-only subscribers.

We are a leader among U.S. major metro newspapers and one of only a few that have surpassed 100,000 digital only subscribers. Our strategy is being widely adopted across the industry and we are proud to be innovators in this approach and thrilled that it is even possible thanks to the incredible journalism, investment across the company to consistently improve what we do, and the support of the entire organization.

New England is the core for digital subscribers, accounting for 76% of total subscribers, but there are subscribers in all 50 states and more than 3,000 international subscribers!

A sampling of what we have planned for 2022

    • Continue to monitor acquisition results and test other offers to make sure we are always following an approach that nets us the best results for the long term health of the business.
    • Testing of new acquisition approaches and getting more dynamic with our subscription offering.
    • Working with the Product Development and Engineering teams to implement new tests and a redesigned checkout flow.
    • Taking a data driven approach to increasing engagement and retention through a series of initiatives designed to address churn both proactively and reactively — working closely with Marketing and Customer Service.

Home Delivery

The print paper remains at the core of what we do and at 55% of consumer revenue, the largest component of revenue. While print subscriber volume has declined as more people choose a digital option, we still have a dedicated base of home delivery subscribers. We are continuing to invest in Home Delivery acquisition and will increase that investment in 2022. Our Home delivery subscribers consist of a very loyal base with an average tenure of over 20 years! We continue to use analytics to make sure we can deliver the best experience possible to every subscriber.

Print newsstand sales

Another important piece of the consumer business is the revenue generated from sales of single copies on the newsstand. The single copy business was hit hard at the beginning of the pandemic as the foot traffic to stores, especially in the city of Boston, collapsed suddenly. 2021 has been a bounce back year though and sales have remained relatively flat year over year since the spring, indicating that there is still a consistent demand for print single copy.

I hope this gave you a good glimpse into our consumer business. Please feel free to reach out with any thoughts or questions to any of us on this entrepreneurial consumer team.

Thank you!

Tom Brown