How Maximizing User Relationships and Data Collection Built the Foundation for Forbes’ Subscription Business
In the recent Piano Academy session “How Local and National Publications are Transforming Their Businesses Through Reader Revenue,” we compared how local publications Philadelphia and Boston Magazines and national publication Forbes launched their subscription models. In this post, we deep-dive into Forbes’ approach with Nina La France, SVP Consumer Marketing & Business Development.
Using the end of third-party cookies as an opportunity
Forbes recognized that they had to pivot their digital strategy in response to the pending end of the third-party cookie. They began developing a first-party data initiative that was based on user behavior and a wide variety of data sets. The data would be used to build targeted and segmented audience profiles from which Forbes could personalize and monetize content.
In partnership with Piano, Forbes set about establishing a reader revenue initiative. They wanted to understand metrics such as:
- Entrances to the Forbes website
- Traffic flow from page to page
- Most engaging categories and subcategories
- Authors or pieces of content contributing to subscription conversions
- Advertising categories sold throughout each stage of the experience
Forbes also understood that they had to integrate their various websites into a more cohesive ecosystem, and turned to Piano to help incorporate their various product offerings into Forbes.com. By collaborating with Piano to achieve their objective, Forbes aimed to shift more of their own strategic resources towards generating growth through additional innovation.
Launching a colorful paywall experience
In November 2020, Forbes introduced a metered paywall to build the foundation of a subscription business model, enabling them to maximize user relationships and data collection. Working with Piano’s Strategic Services, they developed an approach that was simple, clean and easy to grasp.
Forbes and Piano applied a countdown system built upon color-coded ribbons alerting users to the number of remaining free articles in their sessions. There were color-coded prompts on the first four articles of a user’s session before introducing a paywall on the fifth article, encouraging users to subscribe for the full Forbes experience. This model allowed Forbes’ internal analytics team to measure the hits and subsequent conversions throughout the site experience. The data was then shared with contributing writers to give them a better understanding of what types of articles were deemed most valuable based on user and conversion behavior.
“What we’re seeing is opportunities for new email newsletters that could potentially start to flow across the pipeline,” said Nina La France, SVP Consumer Marketing & Business Development, Forbes. “And then we're seeing who’s actually converting on those offers and what those themes are that drive readers to subscribe.”
With the help of Piano’s Implementation team, the first four months of the program allowed Forbes to gain a more detailed understanding of how to both collect and analyze first-party data. As a large and successful organization, the team received executive buy-in to implement, analyze and optimize their site experiences using this data. They discovered that the true believers in the Forbes community artificially inflated their conversion rates in the first month of the program. These were brand-loyal Forbes readers who were more than happy to subscribe for more interesting content. The numbers were more realistic in months two through four, providing a foundation of insights that enabled internal conversations about strategic business decisions for the subscription model.
“That's why working together with our Piano team has been super helpful to flesh out what's happening, where we're going, how it's looking and where we think we're going to go,” La France, said. “And we'll probably forecast our model here in the not too distant future.”
The price is right for a lucrative subscription model
Working with Piano, Forbes developed a pricing survey to help validate their overall pricing strategy. The survey validated their initial assumptions and helped them create a pricing model where an annual plan of $74.99 proved most lucrative for the business by encouraging a healthy volume of regular subscriptions. Additionally, the team implemented a holiday discount pricing plan in which they reduced the annual offer to $49.99 during the holiday season. Traffic to the Forbes site verified that the holidays are a peak period for their business, and the tradeoff between the holiday discount and the amount of revenue and subscriptions generated from that program was worth the effort. Most importantly, Forbes built a two-year subscription plan valued at $139.99 into their pricing model.
“I didn't even conceive of a two-year price point when we first launched the program,” La France, said. “And surprisingly, we have an unexpected number of people who have taken us up on that two year offer.”
The team introduced many of these measures to a small subsection of their US audience, the market in which the subscription program first launched. Initially, they built audience segments within Piano accounting for 5% of their total US readership, and later increased them to 10% and then 20% of their total traffic. Thanks to this segmented approach, Forbes did not notice any loss in overall site traffic as a result of the paywall and subscription ribbons that were added.
As the program continues to earn new subscribers and accumulate more first-party data, Forbes intends to introduce a nurture element. Certain first-party data points will trigger email prompts or reminders to users encouraging them to subscribe to the site content or to a personalized newsletter that features some of the most interesting stories published on Forbes.com. The newsletters already contribute additional hits to the paywall as a reminder for users to come back to the site and officially become a subscriber. The nurture program will expand upon the success of the current newsletter program and tie back to the overarching goals for the business — achieving growth through innovation.