From the birth of “freemium” publications to the proliferation of digital channels – be it web, mobile, native apps or social media networks-through which readers can now access content, traditional publishers have had to dramatically transform.

Having previously always worked for publishers, I cringe when people focus on the decline of print and predict its death knell. Multi-channel content delivery is now just part and parcel of the landscape and print has its place, albeit in a reduced capacity. Radio after all didn’t die with the advent of TV.

The reality is that as an industry, publishing, for all its criticisms, has sought to modernise at a pace – sometimes slow, sometimes fast – that allows it to continue to monetise its print editions whilst still being able to invest in its digital outlets. This strategic path to digital transformation has been fraught with challenges that have demanded investment in technology long before digital advertising revenues could make any reasonable return.

Coupled with the speed at which technology has, and is advancing, publishers’ business plans have undoubtedly had to maintain a certain flexibility to be able to innovate as trends come and go. Outside of publishing, I know of one major online travel company that doesn’t plan beyond the next 6 months technologically because of the speed of tech development.

Some publishers however now believe we are approaching a tipping point, where print advertising will no longer make up the majority of newspaper’s revenues, something that was discussed between senior figures at the FT, Johnston Press and Guardian Media Group in this interesting Radio 4 programme. Nevertheless, falling print sales and new commercial models have led to traditional publishers seeking innovative ways to engage readers and keep them loyal in these multi-channel, multi-choice times.

Loyalty schemes have been around for a long time and as a result have become very developed, be it coalition programmes such as Nectar or tiered based points schemes such as the frequent flyer programmes operated by airlines. The publishing industry, newspapers in particular, have traditionally been fortunate enough to boast a loyal readership without necessarily having to actively reward readers with a designated scheme. Subscribers of newspapers sporadically benefited from one-off reader offers – receive a gift when starting a subscription or reader vouchers at indeterminate times – but bespoke programmes that continuously rewarded readers for their loyalty throughout their subscription term, have been few and far between.

Why implement a loyal programme?

Before taking a look at what the landscape looks like for loyalty programmes in the UK national newspaper market, it is worth considering some of the reasons for implementing one in the first place. Prior to even embarking on a programme, wholesale buy-in of every major stakeholder in the business from marketing to subscriptions, to editorial and senior management, is required. Then there is the job of creating the offers through brand partnerships or leveraging internal resources. And finally, you will need some kind of mechanism for publishing the offers and redemption – predominantly through a digital platform or website. There is no doubt that a well-executed loyalty programme requires investment both financially and in terms of human resources, however, the benefits for a modern news organisation are now numerous and compelling.

Reader retention

Subscriber and reader retention, has always and still is, the biggest reason for running a loyalty scheme. Traditional newspaper publishers have to work harder than ever before to convince subscribers of re-subscribing to their print or digital editions. It is well accepted that the cost-per-acquisition of new subscribers far outweighs the cost of retaining existing subscribers. Ensuring those loyal readers feel loved – beyond the value of the content they are accessing – goes a long way to reducing subscriber churn. A well-defined, targeted, loyalty programme will help to give readers the feeling of extracting more value from their subscription fees. And the more they engage with the scheme, the less likely they are to churn. Predicting churn therefore also becomes easier when analysing engagement and redemption data.

Grow subscriptions

Loyalty programmes are not just a preventative measure to stop subscribers being lured away by other content providers. A good programme, offering unique rewards that resonate with the readers, is an excellent way to entice new subscribers and demonstrate the value of their subscription. Paying for content is still anathema to many people, particularly digital natives. In fact, a recent survey said the UK population was only willing to spend 92p a month on news sites. If they are being asked to pay fivefold that for quality reporting, then digital natives will need even more compelling reasons for parting with their money.

Increase commercial revenue

Publishers’ revenue models are diversifying all the time and a loyalty programme offers another potentially new source of income. If the loyalty programme is housed on a digital platform through which subscribers can access offers, additional traffic inventory will be created. This can obviously be sold to advertisers.

There is however another benefit beyond the potential to sell this newly-generated digital traffic. As brands seek out meaningful relationships with publishers beyond purchasing standard advertising formats, publishers’ sales teams can open discussions on alternative revenue models with brands by offering them the opportunity to become partners on the programme itself. The main aim of any brand is to get its product into the hands of a targeted consumer.

A publishers’ loyalty programme offers brands access to a captivated, targeted audience, whilst the publisher benefits from leveraging this relationship to offer its readers exclusive cherry-picked products and offers. By proxy, the publisher gets a more engaged and loyal subscriber. All three parties stand to benefit, the publisher, the brand and the subscriber.

Know your readers better

Publishers already hold a large volume of data on their readers and if they have a paywall, be it soft or hard, they will be gleaning even more insight into their subscribers. Publishers are using this data in a variety of ways to increase circulation, subscriptions and create new products. A digital loyalty platform, as part of a loyalty programme, will allow publishers to add even more insights to help with these marketing strategies and many more.

For those publishers without a paywall, the opportunity to broaden their datasets to sell more targeted advertising at a premium is extremely compelling. When competing for digital ad revenue with the likes of Google and Facebook and their vast datasets, publishers need to ensure they know their readers more intimately than ever before. A digital loyalty platform, as part of a dedicated programme, will only further enhance publishers’ data management strategies.

Next week, Clock‘s Jason Treloar examines individual UK newspaper titles and their loyalty programmes in more detail.