‘New Incentives… for a Subscription’; Maybe Time Has Come for Timewalls

So I have 8 hours, 26 minutes and 5, 4, 3, 2—oh, you get the picture—seconds to tell you about this article I read today on the International News Media Association website before it locks, and I can’t access it unless I become a member.
From an article on Twipe, I learned that this is called a timewall—sounds a little science fictiony—and it’s proving to be pretty successful for acquiring new paid subscribers.
“In Germany, [the media group] Madsack launched a timewall in mid-2019 that allows new content to be free for the first hour, then it goes behind the paywall. With a goal of 25k new subscriptions with this strategy in the first 18 months, after just six months they were already halfway to their goal,” writes Mary-Katharine Phillips.
Added Bernhard Bahners, chief digital officer at Madsack: “The timewall offers readers new incentives to opt for a subscription faster and more often, for example compared to conventional paid content models.”
The thought process behind this is that readers are incentivized to visit the website often so as not to miss an article—kind of like when tickets used to go on sale for a big concert or musical. (Remember those days—now I just keep getting money back for cancelled events I had tickets for.) “This has helped to gamify the user experience” which we all enjoy, writes Phillips, “and drive increased frequency, which is key for retention.”
Apparently, clicks on all articles are going up in that first free hour since people are on the site anyway.
At BoiseDev, a mico-news site in Idaho, paying members receive local news stories in a newsletter, which are then published on the website the day after. So I just tried to click on an article and got this: “Unlock member stories FIRST. Cancel anytime. Membership in BoiseDev makes these exclusive stories possible, and gives you access to stories before anyone else.”
“The timewall approach allows for members of our business-focused content to get a tangible perk while keeping the paywall down,” said Don Day, publisher of BoiseDev. Apparently, they’ve made tens of thousands of dollars in reader revenue, and everyone still gets to read it. Day first wrote about this in December 2018 in NiemanLab’s excellent Predictions for Journalism.
MittMedia in Sweden and INMA—the one where the clock is running down on me—both take the free-first approach. They put the articles out there—MittMedia for just an hour and INMA for a day—and then show visitors a countdown clock with your remaining time. Who doesn’t love that?
After the hour or day is up, the article becomes premium content, accessible only with a paid subscription. Phillips wrote that MittMedia has increased subscriber conversions by 20%. The strategy makes sense. Last week I found an INMA article I really liked but then got busy. So when I wanted to access information from it the next day, it was available only to members. Whereas if I never get to read an article, I won’t know its merits.
Apparently, it took MittMedia just two weeks to build and launch the timewall.
Delia Cai, growth and trends editor at BuzzFeed, wrote briefly about timewalls in 2019—specifically the INMA and MittMedia model. “It’s an interesting way to think about the lifespan of an article, and how the value of a post isn’t always highest when it’s freshest—which, of course, is pretty crazy to wrap your head around when it feels like being first is the only thing that matters in this biz.”
Amazingly, she also brought up what publishers do in a crisis! “Plus, a timewall also preserves a democratic element of journalism that often sits uneasily with more tightly walled-up sites, especially in times of crisis (i.e., why the NYT will disable their paywall during Hurricane Harvey coverage), and that’s pretty cool. So what we’re saying is, maybe there’s still a chance that newspapers can keep the general public informed and make money, too?”
I have just six hours, 44 minutes and 15 seconds left. Time to go!

‘Are You Leaving Money on the Table?’ Hybrid Events Are Probably the Future.

I was watching an admittedly bad—but happy—TV movie the other night, and the ending focused on an in-person event where a contest winner would be announced for building the nicer house. A woman stepped to the podium: “I want to welcome everyone here tonight, and also all the wonderful people in our community watching at home who couldn’t make it.”
It makes sense, but of course, it’s anything but revolutionary. We’ve been hearing awards show hosts saying that for years—although lately there have been no hosts. But you haven’t really seen that introduction given at most pre-pandemic, business conferences. The thinking has usually been that by offering the conference virtually, you would encourage people not to come. Maybe let them buy some recorded sessions later.
Even when in-person events do return—and at some point they will; safety guidelines were being issued today—virtual will remain part of the mix.
“There are people in your community who will never come to an event but would benefit greatly from it,” Brian Cuthbert, group vice president, Diversified Communications U.S., told me this week. “Are you leaving money on the table by not giving that segment of audience an opportunity to become a customer and spend some money with you?”
In an article in Industry Dive’s Marketing Dive this week, “respondents were asked about the types of events they expect to see in the future with:
  • 62% predicting to see global virtual events with live video feeds from headlining speakers;
  • 59% think virtual events tailored to defined groups of experts and specialists will emerge;
  • 51% expect global virtual gatherings of national and regional experts to foster those communities; and
  • 47% think member-only virtual networking events designed to connect businesses with prospects will emerge.”
More events may actually turn “hybrid,” especially as Cuthbert explained, when learning is the biggest goal. “For conferences and training, where the hook is around learning and education, hybrid has more legs than other formats,” Cuthbert said, adding that “really good content” can be delivered in many ways. But when networking and delivering an experience are paramount, it will be tough to replicate in-person, he added.
“If it’s virtual only, what are you doing to make [participants] feel part of the community?” Cuthbert asked. “People want to learn from others also. [This crisis] can be very isolating. We’re not in the office, we’re not connecting face to face. And are people going to pay [virtually]? Is it just about sessions or is it about networking?” He mentioned the chat and discussion rooms that some platforms provide, but admitted that’s “never going to replace the in-person element.”
An article today on Event Manager Blog suggested that producers of future in-person events may have to come up with a new marketing strategy.
“Remember that time you used to check your social media feed and you spotted that event you really wanted to attend?” the author asked. “Remember the frustration you experienced because, for whatever reason, you could not attend? FOMO, or the ‘fear of missing out,’ was the origin of your frustration.
“Event marketers jumped at the opportunity to make you feel that discomfort. Happy faces of attendees having fun while you were stuck at home—or worse, at work… What nobody expected was the rise of virtual events. All of a sudden, we could attend dozens of events from the comfort of our living room. To top it off, these events were in most cases free to attend.
“A dream come true for attendees, or a nightmare for an industry in pain.”
Cuthbert also asked about pricing? For hybrid events, that’s mostly going to be trial and error. Should it cost less for people to attend virtually? But will that again be encouraging them to stay home—literally. Another advantage of the hybrid model, at least for the foreseeable future, is that it will be easier to pivot. In other words, committing to strictly in-person for, say, December or January, is still tricky. But add a virtual component, and then that could be easily extended. A foundation would be in place.
“That’s where we are,” said Cuthbert, who has not fully designed a hybrid event yet.
We’re all looking to see what components work well so we can piece together the best experience possible—in-person, virtually, hybrid, or, at the least, in a bad TV movie.

‘Understand What You Do Well’; Keeping Your Audience Post-COVID

In my previous postStephanie Williford of EB Medicine spoke about the tremendous engagement they’ve been getting since they started posting COVID-19 resources. One article in particular has garnered 340,000 views when a typical, popular article used to get 10,000.
Of course, EB Medicine is not alone. Many publishers and associations have seen big jumps in their visitors and clicks due to coronavirus coverage and resource sites they’ve developed. The challenge for most will be keeping that engagement—and hopefully in many cases subscriptions—after the crisis has abated or in a year from now for renewals.
Here are some ideas:
Examine previous spikes and identify the readers who stayed and who left. That comes from Robbie Kelman Baxter, author of The Forever Transaction and a past SIPA keynote speaker, in an article on the What’s New in Publishing site. Can you tell why they might have stayed or perhaps what their engagement has been since? “It’s never been more important to understand what you do well and why people come to you, from an editorial and a revenue perspective,” said Mia Lehmkuhl Libby, CRO, The Daily Beast, in that same article.
Make your news and information continue to be relevant, said Jeremy Gilbert, director of strategic initiatives for The Washington Post. “Make people aware… about the width and breadth of coverage that you can do.” Which leads to…
Promote non-coronavirus stories to your new visitors/subscribers. The Guardian in the UK is sharing a list of 10 of its most-well read non-coronavirus articles every day. At the Post, Gilbert said that they are “trying to show that our arts writers and critics, our sports writers and critics, and our food writers and critics can feel relevant now but also signal to our audience that after the COVID crisis, we’ll have different kinds of coverage that they will still need… We’re thinking very deeply about what are the things, the products, the tools that we can offer our audience and how can we bridge [new subscribers] from caring about the news in the time of the virus to caring about the news when things are going better.”
Steer people to products or platforms that will continue. Get your new visitors to subscribe to at least one ongoing thing—even if it has to be free. Newsletters are a great example. People tune in now because maybe they have more time or because they’re in front of the computer more or feel more isolated. But “If you can get them to subscribe to a newsletter, you have a way to reach them even when they go back to in-person offices and in-person meetings,” Gilbert said. Ragan turned much of their COVID coverage into a Crisis Leadership Board.
Know what about the relationship that feels important. “Why did the audience turn to you now so you could continue to make that valuable?” Gilbert asked. “Many of the people taking our subscription offers today are taking them on annual plan. So by April of next year, we would have had to make the case to them that their subscription is still valuable, even if we are in a happier, healthier position by then.”
Look at the specific COVID-19 coverage or resource that got the most clicks. How was it written? Was it a list? Did it have faces? For Williford, what is it about that one article that got 340,000 clicks, “How do we transition people?” Gilbert asked. “If you are one of the almost a million people who subscribed to our COVID-19 email newsletter, what are the other newsletters that may be valuable to you? What kinds of coverage did you click through from the email newsletter and how can we use those interactions with our site or native apps to get you to stay?”
Encourage new habits. “Find ways to deliver value, develop habits and remind subscribers about the value of the product,” said Michael Silberman, Piano’s SVP of strategy. “Even flat churn is impressive, given the big increase in new subscriptions during March.” Cancellations of monthly subscriptions acquired in March dropped an average of 17% compared to subscribers acquired in January and February, Piano estimated. Churn dropped by about 34% in Europe, whereas in the U.S. it was flat overall.
Understand what your audience needs. “And so if we can keep the needs of our audience at the forefront and not just think of our audience as consumers who buy our products but also people who need our news, we’re going to have a better experience,” Gilbert said.

World Economic Outlook 2020-2021: The Great Lockdown

The COVID-19 pandemic has dealt the U.S and world economies a series of often unprecedented shocks—the “Great Lockdown” as economists refer to it, basically closed a wide range of sectors including travel, tourism and entertainment and many more, resulting in unemployment rates in the U.S. of more than 20 percent as of June 2020 and drastic revisions of worldwide economic growth for 2020 and 2021.

In a Connectiv/SIIA webinar on June 3, Chris Walker, Deputy Division Chief of the International Monetary Fund, offered an overview of how government and financial institutions are attempting to combat the crisis as well as economic forecasts for the U.S. and other advanced and emerging economies based on IMF research that can be found here.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the IMF had predicted the U.S. economy would grow at a rate of 2.3 percent in 2020—basically the same rate of growth for the last 10 years. Now, however, the IMF has dramatically revised its forecast, suggesting a drop of 5.9 percent for the U.S. and 7.5 percent for the Euro area this year.

“Anticipated drop per person worldwide is considered to be much sharper than during the 2009 financial crisis, which at the time was consider the gravest financial crisis since the Great Depression,” said Walker. “That highlights the scale of what we are dealing with.”

Governments and financial institutions have also taken actions not seen since 2009 (and in many cases, exceeding those measures) in an effort to preserve economies, including paycheck protection, loans for small business and individual rebates, as well as the Federal Reserve cutting interest rates to nearly zero.

“If you consider the three packages passed by Congress, that’s an increase in spending of about $3 trillion or 3% of the total GDP,” said Walker. “The Fed has provided a huge amount of credit support to the corporate sector and even extended lending to municipalities. Interest on a 10-year bond is now well below 1%, something no one anticipated the U.S. would ever reach.”

A recovery path depends on several factors, most notably a resurgence of COVID-19 in the second half of 2020 and 2021. “Our initial estimate is that we will not have a V-shape recovery for advanced economies–it’s actually shaped more like a check-mark with a sharp drop followed by a more gradual recovery over time,” said Walker. “Most risks are to the downside, with the first downside scenario being the outbreak lasts longer than originally anticipated. That means that at the toughest point, growth will be 2% or 3% worse than what we forecast. For example, the forecast for the U.S. is minus 5.9% for 2020 but that could end up being a loss of 8%.”

On the bright side, neither the U.S. government nor world economic institutions have exhausted their means of support. “We can’t borrow indefinitely even at these rates and not expect to see repercussions,” said Walker. “However, we are far from limit of support that the government can provide. If you can issue debt at less than zero percent and it can be used to support economic activity, that is an opportunity.”


For Williford, Positive Feedback and More Traffic Lighten Heavy Workload

“Every day is hard. Often, there’s very little or nothing they can do. [In addition to patients,] they see their own colleagues pass away… It’s very stressful. Plus their hours might be getting cut. Many of them have had their budgets frozen because many hospitals and emergency departments are really suffering right now. They’re not getting business from elective surgeries and overall volume in EDs [emergency departments] is actually down.”

That was from a conversation I had with Stephanie Williford, CEO of EB Medicine and a new SIPA executive board member, a few weeks ago. She was describing many of her customers who are ED personnel and ER doctors. I had interviewed people on the frontlines of COVID-19 before, but more in loans and banks and people hurting that way.

This was different.
“They have to deal with all of this. And then we have to assess that and figure out how to respond.” If that wasn’t enough, a couple days later Williford sent me a story from Buzzfeed News titled An ER Doctor’s Diary of Three Brutal Weeks Fighting COVID-19.
“This gets at the heart of what our audience is seeing and dealing with every day,” she wrote.
As an information provider but also a business, how do you respond? For Williford, the humanity came first. She spoke last Tuesday as part of the excellent two-day SIPA 2020 and repeated something she told me: That EB Medicine forgot to initially ask for email addresses on the free COVID-19 resources they posted on their site. Given the 340,000 and counting views for one primary article, it probably cost them a lot of leads.
But I think they can be excused for forgetting that.
“We were initially going to keep our [COVID-19] content behind the paywall, but we immediately got pushback on that,” Williford said Tuesday. “When we did put it in front, we got really positive response.” That 340,000-views article might typically get 10,000 views. “So traffic has gone through the roof. Every week we’re adding more content. We’re doing more regular podcasts, more social media. International organizations are asking if they can link to us, and if they can translate the content—Japanese, Spanish, Italian.
“We’re still mixing in our regular content. It’s not all COVID all the time, but we are pushing people towards the free content. We’ve seen pretty good results so far, with a couple hundred new email signups. Subscriptions have increased 9% we think due to the increased engagement. It’s definitely been a challenge and an increased workload—the COVID content plus everything else we do—but the customers appreciate having the information.”
As for the economic woes—some of their audience have had salaries cut in half—Williford said that she tries to be understanding and flexible. “We’ve kind of gone outside our wheelhouse [and become] a little more touchy feely. We’ve created a wellness resources section on our website. That’s something we’ve never had before. We’ve done blogposts about mindfulness, show them we care. Plus things llike, ‘Here’s where you can get discounted shoes, airbnb’s [it’s not always safe for them to go home] and free yoga classes.'”
And not every contact they make with customers is a sales pitch. Sometimes now, Williford said, they will just check in. “‘How are you doing? How can we help?’ We’ll remind them of the free resources we have available. We’ve actually had a lot of positive feedback from that. ‘Thanks for asking. I’m doing well. It’s been a struggle but I appreciate what you guys are providing.'”
Williford has also stopped any telemarketing. “They’re just so stressed; we thought adding a phone call is not going to help them. For our larger accounts, we’re doing virtual lunches—just casual conversation, again trying to pay attention to what their needs are.”
Still, the business continues. EB Medicine continues to invest in different areas right now, reallocating in-person event money to online sponsorships and exhibits. They’ve also expanded their retargeting and remarketing efforts with Google Ad Words; eliminated a step from their checkout process; added a pop-up if a visitor is on their website for longer than 30 seconds; and started doing live webinars. Williford just never thought their audience wanted that. Plus it’s a very competitive space.
But the world has changed.
“Our customers are really in the thick of it,” she said. “Fortunately, we have an editorial board for each product, and they really drive those product decisions. They’re able to tell us from the ground what [our customers] need. A hospital might not be able to develop their own protocol, for example.
From the humanity end, one line seems to guide Williford right now:  You can’t take care of your patients unless you take care of yourself.
“Our main focus is on the practical application—what can you do with us? Here’s what you need to do. Luckily we have a very connected editorial board.”

As for her own staff of 14, Williford has reached out to all of them during this time to see how they’re doing. But she believes more is needed. “We don’t have a regular company-wide meeting every week. But we’re getting ready to re-implement that again. I’m feeling disconnected and that we need that.”

If they’re seeing what she’s seeing, it probably makes sense.