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How digital news outlet Republic got to 24,000 paying subscribers

In November of last year I discovered the article ‘Why Should Your Stories Be Free?’, written by publisher turned editor-in-chief Maxim Kashulinsky (the guy sat at his laptop, above). He argued for the introduction of a paywall for his independent digital news outlet, Republic. We featured this story in our publication, The Graph.

We are delighted to now share more on how Maxim and his team have grown Republic’s subscriber base to 24,000, each paying up to 60 USD per year. Below you’ll find the interview I had with Maxim, distilling the five ways the news outlet has accomplished this feat.

1. Bring less news and more stories

Robbert: “We chatted back in November 2016, and since then you’ve become editor-in-chief of Republic. What’s been on your mind?"

Maxim: “As the new editor-in-chief, I started thinking where we should go in 2017-18. What should we do with the publication? I was sure we should remain a subscription platform, because we saw that readers were willing to pay for meaningful information. We’ve been putting our political, business and economic content behind a paywall since 2014. Subscriptions helped us to be cash flow positive since the end of that year.

“There were three types of stories on our website: news articles, opinion pieces from outside contributors and features written by our reporters. The idea was to strengthen all three.

Republic's offices
Republic's offices. Credit: Arseny Neskhodimov

“Take news articles. Until recently we mainly curated news stories coming from news agencies and other newspapers, editing them only for readability. This type of news aggregation was good – it’s a product. You should also keep in mind that websites publishing uncensored news are scarce in Russia. But I started to think that we needed to do more to retain and grow our subscriber base. That’s why we are now bringing more added value into our news coverage: there is no need to report all important “news of the day” anymore, as people get news from Facebook or Twitter anyway. We’d write a news article only when we have something to add. It correlates with what our subscribers say. Through our Telegram, Slack and other channels we communicate directly to them and we found that they’re really looking for our stories, such as opinion pieces, editorial commentaries and investigative journalism.”

2. Newsletters are key

Robbert: “How have you been communicating these changes to your audience?"

Maxim: "We have a free newsletter we send to people every day at 9am. The workday in Moscow starts a bit later in comparison to the States, for example, so most people get it during their commute or at breakfast time. Our newsletter consists of three parts: the curated news ‘to get your day started’, the in-depth Republic stories, and direct links to other news websites. Most of those latter links lead to English-language articles.

“The newsletter excerpts of our in-depth stories lead to content behind a paywall, which makes the newsletter part of our funnel. When you subscribe to this free newsletter, we send you an email with a discount in a week or so.

“Interestingly, people who receive the free newsletter interact with the news articles to other sites the most. I think this is because it’s full of surprises - we like to link to articles discussing psychological concepts, business strategies or even physics. An article on the solar eclipse in America drove a lot of interest.

“Last July we also launched a newsletter that we send exclusively to our subscribers. Every newsletter features a short column written by one of our journalists or guest authors. In this column, they discuss a topic they care about. They always share three links to external articles.”

3. Give people great deals

Robbert: “When people show interest in a story behind your paywall, how do you improve conversion on your subscription page?"

Maxim: “Since June we’ve been using bespoke landing pages on which you can subscribe to Republic. We use this for sponsorship deals, where a blogger, for instance, can use a specific link to get his or her readers a discount for a Republic subscription.

Republic's metrics
One of Republic's main metrics: Subscribers. Bars upwards are new subscribers, bars downwards are expirations. The red line is the total.

“From December last year, we gained 4,000 extra subscribers. I contribute some of this growth to a smart marketing campaign in July in which we tied the discount rate to the temperature in Moscow. The weather was terrible in the first summer month, so we started our ‘Let’s make it hotter’ campaign. During several weeks the size of discount was set automatically every hour and equaled the temperature outside our office multiplied by two. E.g. 19 degrees Celsius meant 38% off the price of the subscription. It was fun, I saw people waiting for peak temperatures to purchase the subscription.”

4. Run quality sponsored content for your subscribers

Robbert: “How much of the revenue does Republic get from subscriptions? And where does the rest come from?"

Maxim: “We earn more than 60% of our total revenue through subscriptions. We still sell banners, but our traffic numbers aren’t big enough to make an impact. We don’t really care about page views as such – we’re interested in retention.

“The biggest traffic source to our website is ‘direct’, with our Facebook and Twitter accounts following behind that. We ran a video project on Facebook last year and we learned that what happens on Facebook stays on Facebook. Our audience on Facebook grew almost tenfold, but there was no uplift in subscribers. So, we cancelled the project. We do have a good experience with running targeted ads on Facebook with subscription deals though.

“What works well for us is sponsored ‘partner articles’ written by freelance journalists on our behalf. We recently did an article with Korean Air. We work with an author who lives in South Korea and he wrote an interesting post about unexpected places there. My favorite part of that story was about the rising craft beer scene. The story is written like any other story on Republic, but we clearly mention it’s sponsored. We are transparent about all advertising rules on our website to both subscriber and advertiser.”

5. Be a place of intelligence 

Robbert: “What are the other things you want to work on? Where do you see Republic going?"

Maxim: “I want Republic to become the place people come to for great stories and wonderful ideas. After all, what do people get from professional media? News, stories, ideas or help. We can’t compete with bigger news organizations in reporting news. Helping readers to buy a new car, raise a child or cure a headache isn’t our aim either; at least we don’t want to give practical advice. We give our readers information which they would share with friends at the dinner, in the bar, at a conference room. No jokes, no memes, no funny photos but something meaningful, something which would probably change their lives or attitudes. It could be a scary story about a secret FSB jail where alleged terrorists are tortured before being brought to official trial or a story about a flamboyant and talented TV producer who has created a great TV Channel from scratch. It could be a new way to treat cancer, or how to deal with economic inequality, or a theory which explains the failure of one of the biggest Russian banks. I want to raise the bar of discussion on Republic and make it the place where the best minds share their views on politics, economics and life.

Maxim at MediaMakers conference in Moscow, with former Bild publisher, Kai Diekmann
Maxim (right) at MediaMakers conference in Moscow, with former Bild publisher, Kai Diekmann

“We only hire people who have experience at one of the quality publications in Russia and are in favor of experimenting. One of the things I want us to work on is our comment section, which is only open to subscribers. I usually like the level of discussions going on and our subscribers even add to or correct stories written by our authors, which is great.

“I also want to share more insights with other subscription platforms in Europe and beyond. And we learn a lot from other publications. Last year, for instance, we organized the MediaMakers conference, to which we brought top speakers like publishers of Bild and De Correspondent, as well as editors from Quartz and Buzzfeed.”

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