This is what has made The Buffalo News’ digital subscription strategy so strong


Leading up to the April 22-23 Local Media Association Digital Revenue Summit in Chicago where winners from the Local Media Digital Innovation Awards will be presented, we’ll be showcasing some of the winners and the great work that will be on display.

Today, we’re featuring The Buffalo News, which won for Best Consumer Revenue Strategy. The judges said this about their entry:

Love the successful paywall outcome. Smart use of technology, and then scaling what was learned into its own business product. 

We caught up with David J. Adkins II, Chief Operating Officer, [BN]Tech, to learn more:

High level, can you tell us a little about your overall consumer revenue strategy? At The Buffalo News, we believe that consumer revenue already is a big part, and needs to be an even bigger part, of our total revenue mix. Because of that, we have made growing digital subscriptions a primary focus across many different departments.

First, in the newsroom, we have individual product owners and advocates who are actively trying to engage readers on all platforms and to help drive them to subscribe.

Second, our digital subscriptions team is constantly diving into the mountains of data that we have access to and trying to make sense of it and target users with the right offers, messaging, and price at the time they are most likely to buy.

Finally, our technology team built a suite of tools completely focused on converting subscribers, from our IP-address based paywall metering system, to a custom subscribe and login process, and a single sign-on process that integrates with all of our third party vendors.  These three pillars have helped us to grow digital subscriptions like we never have before.

What are the most unique components of the strategy? We believe the most unique component of the strategy is the technology that our system is based on. We set out to close all the loopholes in other technologies and to prevent users from using the most common paywall bypass methods that exist today. We also focused on making our sign-up process as frictionless as possible in order to remove as many barriers to subscribe as possible. The most challenging aspect of that was to make the process frictionless in our backend as well by integrating into our circulation management system and to make it easy to update and change out offers on the fly without a lot of technical expertise.

How has your audience reacted to the work you have done around your paywall? Overall, I think our numbers speak the loudest. We have tripled the number of digital subscribers since we started this process and we continue to grow every week. Two years in and we still have not hit the plateau, like some other publishers. But the reaction from readers has changed the way we talk about our paywall.

For example, because of the way we track, we do not guarantee any user a specific number of page views. Instead, we do it based on internet connection, so we stopped publishing our paywall limit and explained to readers that we offer a free trial of our content to readers, and the only way to guarantee access to an article is to subscribe. We did so in response to a few complaints from readers that said they “didn’t get their X free articles.” But overall, we have had a lot less complaints than we anticipated and our customer service team was well-prepared to answer questions as they came up and to do their best to convert non-subscribers who called to complain into paying subscribers.

Any advice for those who are working on their paywall? Absolutely. First, don’t do too many things at once. Make a small adjustment, then another, then another, with a few-week gap in between. Then you can use data to determine which changes have the biggest impact, good or bad, and you aren’t trying to guess what caused a positive or negative change. I would also recommend learning more about what your readers want and structure your paywall appropriately.

For example, we know that Buffalo Bills fans are really into their sports coverage and our page view numbers showed it.  In response to that, we put up a hard paywall for Buffalo Bills only coverage and offered a “Bills Content Only” subscription in addition to our regular paywall. What we found by doing that was that there were a large number of subscribers willing to pay just for a fraction of our content. Additionally, there are a large number of readers who just opted for the full-digital subscription instead of the discounted bills only subscription. The lesson learned there is that a one-size-fits-all meter may not be the best choice in your market and you need to experiment to find out what works best for you.

Register today for the Digital Revenue Summit where we will be recognizing the best digital innovation in the industry.