D2C Summit: How Insider puts editorial at the heart of subscription growth business

A few years ago, Insider was a publisher of finance, tech and business news with around 5,000 subscribers. But that was before Olivia Oran joined the team as Head of Editorial Subscription Strategy and Growth, helping take subscriber numbers to the more than 100,000 it boasts today, recently highlighted in the Digital Subscription Snapshot 2021, Q2.

As the FIPP D2C Summit entered its second week, Oran spoke with FIPP President and CEO James Hewes about how she has harnessed both her own editorial experience, and Insider’s USP as a provider of stories that help readers better run their lives to grow the subscriptions side of the brand. 

A unique role

Oran began by discussing her broad and unusual role, in which she acts as a bridge between the newsroom and the business team. With over 10 years’ reporting experience at Reuters and other outlets, in her capacity at Insider, she has found that there are big differences between the two sides of the business. 

“In editorial you have instant gratification, you might break things and fix them later,” she said. “But in the rest of the business it’s slower – you’re A/B testing, there’s a slower ramp-up before you see impact.” Oran brings the teams into contact with one another by, for instance, exposing the business team to editorial meetings: “it’s important that they see how we decide the big stories of the day and how we’ll cover them.”

Oran was already a fan of Insider before she joined the team. “My interest was piqued by Insider’s experiments with paywalls,” she said. Compared to bigger outlets or news wires, she likes the fact that at Insider, there isn’t much red tape. “There is risk-taking, fun headlines, a distinct voice,” she explained. “People like our bullet points at the top of articles and the accessible tone.” The company’s mantra, she later explained, could be said to be “experiment often and fail often – sometimes to a fault!”

Editorial at the heart 

Oran has made it her explicit mission to connect the editorial side to the business side. “Editorial and business decisions need to be aligned so that the voice is streamlined across the board,” she said. All of this is in the service of building a healthy corporate culture and subscriptions business: “You can’t make decisions in a silo.”

What’s more, you need to lead with high quality content rather than offering discount after discount, she added. Recently, a new word limit of 600 words for almost all features was implemented, chiming with the brand’s aim of delivering key information to audiences in an efficient and concise format.

Paywall success 

Oran also talked about the success of Insider’s paywall, despite the fact that the vast majority –  perhaps 90 per cent – of the stories on the site are still free to read. “The paywall has been very successful, while still being a small part of the business,” she explained. “Insider is still monetised primarily by ads, but there’s a longer-term goal to be funded by one-third advertising, one-third e-commerce, and one-third subscriptions.

“There’s an idea that subscriptions are immune to trends and fluctuations in traffic,” she went on to say. “But traffic stats still matter – the subscriptions side of the business still needs to prioritise traffic and getting eyeballs on the site. What we’re trying to do is keep the ad revenue but build a digital subscription business alongside it. We’re very careful about not upsetting our friends on the advertising side.”

At the moment, Insider uses a freemium model, with a hard paywall for premium coverage (mostly business coverage). “But we’re not committed to this model,” said Oran. “We are hoping to build a more dynamic solution in which people get served different kinds of messages depending on different factors, but we’re still young – we’re still building reader loyalty, we’re not in the same place as some of our competitors yet.”

Change of attitude among staff

When working for Insider and encountering its paywall, some reporters have had to shift their mentality according to a different notion of success. “They might be used to getting a million views on a story,” explained Oran, “but that doesn’t happen when stories are behind a paywall. I try to explain that the volume will be lower, but the impact might be greater. 

“One advantage of this approach is that we don’t have to worry about clicks and eyeballs. We can go deep on topics and cater to a narrower audience.”

Furthermore, Oran added that it is important to her to make reporters feel like the work they are doing is important, and not just content. “At a time of massive layoffs across the industry, it’s really nice to be able to appreciate reporters,” she said.

Subscriber acquisitions and retentions

Oran added that there is a lot of overlap between the company’s approach to acquiring and retaining subscribers – but there are some key variations in the kinds of content that drive subscriptions. 

“Stories that cater to large audiences, for example about residential real estate or Covid, will get a lot of subscriber traffic but won’t necessarily get new subscribers,” said Oran. “On the other hand features, profiles, scoops – these are the big hitters for getting subscribers. And if your story is not driving subscriptions, it generally isn’t getting a lot of traffic, either.”

Behind the paywall, Insider invests in a lot of service journalism, such as how to sell something successfully on Amazon. This kind of thing is a central part of the subscriber-only offer.

On the live events side, Insider puts on about three events per month, which can also attract subscribers. “Events that drive sign-ups are action-oriented – how to start an influencer business; how to get started in the housing market, etc.,” explained Oran. 

Defining a story’s success 

Oran’s team uses a range of metrics to establish how successful a story is, including reader traffic, how many subscriptions it brought in, whether it got wider coverage in a senate hearing, for instance, or led a company to change their policy, how likely a reader is to stay on the page, and others. 

While Insider makes use of data, some stories still surprise with their success. “I was surprised by the reach of our story about toxic workplace culture at Bon Appetit,” said Oran. “This was partly due to the massive social media presence of the people involved. Data isn’t everything – I was proven wrong in this case.”

In keeping with the culture of experimentation at Insider, they are currently looking into putting stories about digital culture, for example about YouTube stars, behind the paywall. These kinds of stories appeal to a younger audience who aren’t necessarily reading the core verticals of finance, tech, and markets.

“One struggle is deciding what actually has potential, and what is just a shiny thing which should be ignored,” explained Oran. Generally, the company launches new areas only when complementary to those core areas of focus.

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