Back in 2011, The New York Times was in trouble. With revenue and profit falling, they recognized that they were being dragged down by their print-centric model and decided to refocus their efforts online. In the past six years, they’ve grown their online subscriptions at a breakneck pace; in 2017, online subscriptions accounted for $340 million in revenue.
And while their standard digital subscription is focused on news, they’ve also built out two standalone platforms: Cooking and Crosswords. The Times has found great success with these products, drawing in 40,000 new subscribers in the first quarter of 2018 just through Crosswords and Cooking.
Now, they’re at it again. They announced at the end of May that they would be introducing a new standalone subscription, this time with a focus on parenting.
How the Standalone Subscriptions Work
As a regular digital subscriber, you get access to all of the stories on The New York Times website and app. You also can play the daily mini crossword and receive a recipe as part of your “Morning Briefing,” an overview of the news you need to know to start your day.
However, if you want access to the full-sized crosswords (including the world-famous Sunday puzzles) and the full repository of recipes assembled by a dedicated team of editors, you can either subscribe to the Crossword or Cooking apps, respectively, or you can upgrade your digital subscription to include access to all three platforms.
Why the Standalone Subscription Is Smart
The Times recognized that they had a lot of valuable information on their hands. Voracious crossword puzzlers won’t settle for the easy puzzles they find in the back of People magazine. First published in 1942, The Times crossword has been the gold standard for decades. They recognized that puzzle fans would be willing to pay for access to the daily puzzles (plus a catalog of 20 years worth of archived crosswords).
Similarly, The Times food section has been the go-to for all things culinary for years. In a world filled with self-proclaimed foodies, The Times realized that they could expand the food section to create a focus on at-home cooking. That’s what they did with the Cooking app, giving users access to over 18,000 recipes, plus how-to videos, guides, and cooking tips and techniques.
The Times evaluated their business as a whole and identified two areas where they excelled. They then offered access to these areas of expertise at a reduced cost. (The Cooking and Crossword subscriptions are less expensive than the news-based digital subscription.)
From there, these subscriptions can be their own revenue source, which is great, but they can also drive subscribers to sign up for a complete digital package, which is even better. By proving their value in one arena, The Times hopes to win over readers who otherwise might subscribe to news from The Washington Post or some other source. I often talk about the importance of creating a product pyramid, and The Times has clearly mastered this concept.
Why Focus on Parenting?
The Crossword and Cooking subscriptions were almost no-brainers. With lots of high-quality content in both of those areas already, it was easy for The Times to create separate platforms and populate them with useful things that subscribers would be willing to pay for.
Parenting might seem like a left-field choice—it’s not a topic they’re particularly known for. However, in a recent interview, Head of New Product and Ventures Alex MacCallum shed some light on the decision. MacCallum explained that The Times used four criteria when assessing new product ideas: market opportunity, subscription potential, unmet needs in the market, and The Times’ advantage in meeting that need. Let’s break each of those down.
1. Market Opportunity
With nearly four million babies born in the U.S. alone in 2016, there is a huge potential market for parenting information. Additionally, the average age of a parent is less than the average age of a Times subscriber. The Times has extra incentive to target this younger pool of potential subscribers, hoping to draw them in with parenting information and keep them around for a larger digital subscription package.
There’s a lesson to be learned here: While it’s important to create great content, it’s even more important to be sure there’s an audience for it. No matter how incredible your content is, you can only monetize it if there’s someone interested.
While The Times isn’t known for parenting expertise at the moment, they have confidence in their ability to assemble a great team that will create a high-quality product and outpace the competition.
2. Subscription Potential
As any parent knows, parenting is a lifelong endeavor. The subscription model is a powerful choice here because it allows The Times to create a platform that will grow alongside you and your family, providing you the best information for each stage of life. If The Times can get new parents on board from the start and win them over with quality content, they’re more likely to keep them around for many years to come.
Building a subscriber model around a single life event, like being a new parent, would not be as strong a choice. Babies quickly become toddlers and then preschoolers, and parents would eventually abandon that source of information for something more relevant to their child’s stage of development. However, focusing on the broader topic of parenting allows The Times to build renewals into their business model.
You should be thinking about subscription potential for your content, too. Don’t pick too narrow a focus for yourself, or you risk harming your ability to drive renewals. But too broad a focus often means that your content won’t entice niche readers. Finding the delicate balance between too broad and too narrow can be the key to a sustainable subscription model.
3. Unmet Needs
The internet, of course, has lots of parenting information, but how much of it is high-quality? The last thing a parent wants is unreliable information about something related to raising their child. A lot of parenting information online lives on blogs or on parenting forums, which serve a purpose, but doesn’t necessarily lend themselves to the type of high-quality, authoritative information parents are looking for. If The Times can create results-driven content for parents, they can stand out from the rest.
Additionally, a lot of the larger parenting websites are bogged down with banner ads and cluttered interfaces. Readers don’t like having to sift through lots of superfluous stuff. A clean, user-friendly interface puts The Times miles ahead of the competition.
After identifying your own market opportunity, you need to follow the example of The Times and understand what’s missing from online coverage of your area of expertise. Readers can find a lot of information for free on the internet, so what are you offering that is unique and worthy of a subscription?
4. The Times’ Advantage
The Times is a huge, venerated institution. They have the financial resources to put together an impressive team and build a sleek, user-friendly platform. They have the capacity to create lots of high-quality content and do in-depth research and reporting on topics and issues that matter to their users. And they have the history and integrity of The New York Times name to back them up; no one wants parenting information from an unvetted source.
What is it that you and your team do better than anyone else? Do you have access to resources or people that other content creators can’t provide? Do you have a killer interface that makes your website or app a joy to use? Whatever your strengths are, know them and lean into them.
MacCallum notes in her interview that the next step for the parenting team is diving into focus groups and one-on-one discussions to hone in on what readers want and need. Every content creator should take a page from The Times’ book and establish a clear-cut way to gather user feedback.
A beta version of the parenting product will be available later in the year. I, for one, am very interested to see what direction The Times chooses to take with this new platform.
About the Author
Rob Ristagno, Founder and CEO of Sterling Woods, previously served as a senior executive at several digital media and e-commerce businesses, including as COO of America’s Test Kitchen. He started his career as a consultant at McKinsey. Ristagno holds degrees from the Harvard Business School and Dartmouth College and has taught at both Harvard and Boston College.
Rob is the author of A Member is Worth a Thousand Visitors: A Proven Method for Making More Money Online. He regularly speaks at key media conferences, including at Niche Media events, Specialized Information Publishers Association meetings, and the Business Information and Media Summit.