Airline-like loyalty programs try to tie down news readers

An “executive platinum subscriber” to The New York Times? Or perhaps the title of “grand ambassador” to The Washington Post suits you better?

Loyalty programs — perhaps best known in the travel industry — are coming for news, as publishers’ marketing departments try to figure out how to make their subscriptions stickier and more exclusive. A lucrative program encourages potential subscribers to consider a publisher when they normally wouldn’t and, even more importantly, locks in existing subscribers so they can’t imagine switching to a competitor.

This isn’t the same as a referral link for a freebie or 10% off your next order, though. The best loyalty programs focus on tracking and incentivizing a user for the long term. Sound familiar? Lifetime value is something that most publishers are already thinking about calculating and tracking.

Before you tune out the idea of bringing the flying experience anywhere near news — I imagine news loyalty will look different than the massive complexity of travel loyalty. It has to start simple, just as airlines did in the 1980s after industry deregulation forced change.

That probably means discounts first, followed by perks. Instead of jacking up prices for long-time subscribers and praying they keep paying, publishers will have to contend with how to offer those users real value.

News obviously has a different business model than airlines or hotels. The key differences will come out in teasing out the primary metric — the “miles” of news, if you will. Is it attention minutes, à la Chartbeat? Is it the revenge of the pageview?

Most subscriptions are structured as an all-you-can-eat buffet now, so an incremental pageview isn’t the same as revenue-per-seat-mile on an airline. (All you micropayment enthusiasts can chime in here.) The data and tech for loyalty programs aren’t insignificant lifts either, even if publishers are already building their foundations anyway.

At the end of the day, loyalty programs are a game to most people. And gamification is partly why news loyalty hasn’t gained momentum in the internet era. News is serious, and gamification might be seen as cheapening the core product, or confusing users who already don’t love the subscription-discounting game. But as consumer budgets tighten and retention becomes harder, new tactics are on the table to keep user attention and dollars.

My alma mater, The Washington Post, had a program called PostPoints through at least 2019. A decidedly print-based and D.C.-local feature, PostPoints had the right idea but didn’t really transfer over to the modern era. Integrating local discounts and events may show one path toward new loyalty.

I said in last year’s prediction that the way publishers think about the bundle and brand is changing as a wider set of consumer services change. The creative pursuit of reader revenue will continue as we borrow from other industries — even industries we often love to hate.

Ryan Kellett is vice president of audience at Axios.