The Week Avoids Paywall, Transitions to Digital with App Subscriptions Instead

Generally speaking, consumer publications have been the least likely to make print content available for free online, and their resistance may be paying off.

Generally speaking, consumer publications have been the least likely to make print content available for free online, and their resistance may be paying off. The Week has been able to transition a substantial portion of its print subscribers to digital subscriptions through tablet and mobile apps — without making any of its premium content free on its website or putting up a meter or paywall of any kind. Head of Direct Marketing Abi Spooner spoke to us about how The Week is acquiring digital subscribers through email marketing, converting them through free trials, and retaining them through multi-device access.

Company Profile

Founded: 1995 in print; launched subscription tablet app November 2011.
Parent Company: Dennis Publishing
No. of Publications: 3 (US and UK versions of magazine, plus website)
Dennis Publishing has 21 titles with subscriptions.
Employees: Dozens spread across parent company
Business Model: Hybrid — subscriptions, advertising, one-offs, events
Paying Subscribers: 160,000 in print; 20,000 digital
Location: London, UK (also has office in US)

Target Market

The Week is a weekly publication of condensed news targeting busy professionals who are interested in staying abreast of current affairs but pressed for time. The Week’s target audience is affluent (average income is £60,000) and consists of a 50/50 split of men and women.

The Week’s digital publication targets the same demographic, although the digital audience tends to skew younger and more male.


The Week provides summaries of different perspectives of the week’s news and editorial commentary from global media to provide readers with multiple political viewpoints. In addition to news and opinion, the magazine also covers science, business and the arts.

The Week’s website contains free content that is different from The Week’s paid products, including the publications paid tablet apps. For the most part, the website content provides daily and breaking news updates, while the premium content in the print magazine and tablet app summarizes the top stories for the week and opinion columns.

Editor’s Note: This may seem like an unusual division of content between free and paid. Basically, the free-to-view website is acting a blog, driving visitors to content related to real-time trending news. However, the print and digital magazine doesn’t have more in-depth content, rather more summarized, analytical and thoughtful content for when readers are in a more relaxed mode. In this way, The Week leverages the strength of the different media; desktop surfing encourages easy, skimmable updates, while the tablet encourages more leisurely and thoughtful reading. While most assume the latter is synonymous with long-form content, The Week shows how that is not necessarily the case.

The only difference between the print magazine and tablet edition is that the tablet apps have more and bigger images but are lacking the crossword puzzle found in the print edition.

The magazine is pay-worthy mainly because of its curated content, which diminishes the noise and time of surfing multiple sites. Subscribers get a sense they are “in the know” when it comes to the most important current events.

“If there’s a delivery problem, [print subscribers will call and] say they need it because they want to feel up to date before going to dinner party,” Spooner told us.

Obviously, the wide variety and volume of content requires a substantial editorial department. The weekly magazine is released every Thursday digitally and delivered by Friday morning to print subscribers. Spooner told us that the magazine is laid out on Wednesday night and sent to print. Then the content is fed into a Content Management System that allows The Week to “Create Once, Publish Everywhere” (or COPE, as it’s known internally). This custom-built system takes the same amount of time to publish an iPad edition of the magazine as to publish on multiple platforms, including the iPad, iPhone, Android, and Kindle. (watch Alex Watson, Director of Product, Tablet and Apps at Dennis, talk about it here.) Coordination has made development and evolution of the publications content for digital easier and faster to adapt.

Revenue Streams

Dennis Publishing generates about £75 million a year (about $115 million), and about £22 million (nearly $34 million) is by The Week.

About a third of The Week’s total revenues are from subscriptions, both print and digital.

The site offers multiple subscription options:

  • Digital only (UK and abroad): £23.99 for 13 issues (includes iPad, iPhone, Kindle, Android access)
  • Print + Digital (UK): £27.49 for 13 issues
  • Print + Digital (abroad): £32.25 (Europe) or £34.75 (rest of the world) for 13 weeks.
  • Print only (UK): £24.99 for 13 issues
  • Print only (abroad): £29.75 (Europe) or £32.25 (rest of the world) for 13 weeks.

Spooner told us the print-only subscription plan is the most popular, with 160,000 subscribers (even the orders coming through the website are mostly for print-only subscriptions). But The Week also has 20,000 digital-only subscribers (through its Website, as well as through tablet platforms like Apple Newsstand, Amazon for Kindle and Google Play for Android), and the trend is shifting towards more digital subscriptions (see chart below).

Since The Week is based in the UK and selling to European audiences, it has to collect and remit the Value-Added Tax. Spooner told us that Dennis resolves payments on the company level, not for each individual publication, and therefore, The Week does not alter its pricing for audiences based on location.

Marketing Tactics

The Week employs a number of subscriber acquisition tactics for its digital tablet publications:

Email Marketing
The primary way was to harness the audience the publication already had from its print edition. The Week created a VIP list of people who wanted to know when it launched on the iPhone (the first paid digital edition) and emailed them. Also, all print subscribers got 3 months free.

By emailing and offering its current subscriber base a free trial, The Week was able to build buzz and raise its rankings in the Apple Newsstand.

Website — SEO + PPC
While the content on The Week’s website is different from the premium content in the print publication and digital apps, there are always promotions on the Website for print and digital subscriptions — most notably, in the top right corner above the navigation bar.

The site is search engine optimized for its free articles. The Week also runs PPC campaigns on its brand name. The result for a search of The Week will yield both an organic result that links to the publication’s homepage, and a paid result that links to a subscription conversion form.

Social Media
While The Week has robust followings on Facebook and Twitter, Spooner told us that social media has never really been a great traffic driver or conversion tool for the publication.

Postal Direct Mail
The Week has invested and had a lot of success with direct mail for print subscriptions, mailing about 56 million pieces in 2012 and getting about half of all people who called to convert to a trial subscription. (Editor’s Note: Phone calls — both inbound and outbound — for subscriptions and events are more effective and customary in the UK than they are in the US.) They are currently experimenting with direct mail for digital subscriptions, but do not have any data.

The Week is also currently experimenting with marketing digital subscriptions through text messages in order to drive downloads of the app. Spooner said it’s easy to set up a campaign, but very hard to track, and therefore it’s unclear if driving prospects to the website (which has highly trackable analytics) has a higher or lower ROI than driving prospects to the app store to download. There’s also the risk that consumers will find text messages far more annoying than email marketing.

Conversion Tactics

For print subscribers who are offered a free trial at launch of a new digital product, Spooner told us that 37% of the ones that took the free trial converted to paying subscribers last year.

The site also employs other conversions tactics:

  • A free PDF download of “news briefings”
  • A free newsletter (email opt-in available on the homepage and through a lightbox overlay)
  • A free demo of the iPad app through the website
  • A phone number on the conversion page
  • A 4-week free trial for digital-only subscriptions through The Week’s website.

**Note: While prospects can sign-up for digital-only subscriptions through the Website, most of the CTA buttons go to a print + digital conversion page, thereby leading prospects towards the higher-priced subscription plan.

Oddly, the conversion funnel is only optimized for The Week’s US site, requiring one click before prospects are taken to a one-column form fill page with a great button. On the UK site, the conversion funnel is particularly long, requiring prospects to click five times before getting to the form fill page below (which is labeled step 1 in the checkout process):

The page also violates a number of conversion page best practices. It uses a two-column form, which can increase erroneous data entries, and has boring button copy.

Free trials require a credit card or direct debit set-up (this is a popular option in the UK where a publisher can automatically deduct a subscription price from a subscriber’s bank account). Direct debit subscribers are automatically renewed.

Apple subscribers are sent a notice about impending charges through Apple. Subscribers who come through The Week’s site can access their subscriptions through up to five devices, while those coming through Apple Newsstand or another third-party platform cannot. However, Website subscribers do not receive a notification before being charged for their subscription.

Retention Tactics

The Week was not willing to share its exact renewal rate, but Spooner did tell us that print + digital subscribers have higher renewal rates than either print-only or digital-only subscribers.

The Week has also employed complex retention tactics, such as personalized offers to upgrade. If an existing subscriber responded, they would get some amount of free access until their next Direct Debit program. The length of free access varied, starting at three months, and Dennis had to model 28 different customer pathways for this program.

About Abi Spooner

|image6|Abi Spooner started her career in subscription marketing 15 years ago “completely by accident.” But the mix of mathematical and creative skills needed for her job has maintained her interest.

Her biggest lesson learned is to never assume anything. “There’s always something new to find out and challenge all the assumptions you had before,” she said.

And her best advice is to test. “We could have so many conversations, but the best thing is to get as much tests out as you can.”

Vendors & Technology

Payment processing — Dovetail Services

Email management — In-house and Dovetail

CRM —  Subsinfo by Dennis Publishing

App development — In-house and Kaldor with UX by Clearleft

Analytics — Google Analytics and Flurry

Insider Analysis

If there’s one lesson to be learned from this Case Study, it’s that consumer publications can create subscription-based digital content without having to give anything away. More consumer publications should follow The Week’s example of publishing in print and for tablets and foregoing online (website-based) distribution.

That said, The Week does engage in content marketing through free content on its website. It’s also done a great job of leveraging its existing print audience through email marketing and special offers and transitioning them to a digital environment. We particularly like the fact that bundled subscribers have higher retention rates than print-only or digital-only subscribers. We also like how integrated The Week’s systems are, allowing them to create once, publish everywhere and offer multi-device access to subscribers. While the former saves company time and resources, the latter is a known retention tactic. And lastly, we think it’s great that The Week is willing to try new marketing channels, like SMS, but also looking for data to back-up their experiments.

The biggest area of improvement for the company will be in improving the digital side of its business. It should start with optimizing the conversion pages for the UK site. And given Dennis Publishing’s size, we also encourage the parent company work with Apple, Google and Amazon to allow syncing between devices (even for subscribers who come in through the third-party platforms), lower commissions, and greater access to subscriber data in order to boost retention rates. Lastly, we recommend The Week include its crossword puzzle in the digital editions — you’ll be surprised how much games can do for both member engagement and retention.

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