As the demand for quick, relevant, and engaging content grows, how can publishers keep their readers hooked and convert them into loyal subscribers, or grow their engaged audience? Amalie Nash, audience strategist for the Family and Independent Media Sustainability Lab at LMA, shares her insight for enhancing digital subscriptions using a nuanced approach that integrates traditional and modern techniques. From the secret sauce of high school sports coverage to reimagining news through alternative formats, here’s a rundown of five transformative strategies for that ultimate growth.

Tap into the power of prep sports

Prep sports, especially fall high school sports, are a gold mine. High school sports content has consistently been a top driver for digital subscriptions, surpassing topics like politics, crime, and business. 

“If you don’t already have a written strategy around this, you’re leaving subscriptions on the table,” Nash explained. “Prep sports is just such a huge area because it’s something typically the local news source ‘owns.’ There’s not a lot of competitors in that space. You have the right to win.”

It’s not just about game results: features like “players to watch,” top 10 lists, analysis, and predictions can boost engagement. Introducing polls like “Athlete of the Week” can further enhance community interaction and even draw sponsorships. Car dealers and grocers, for instance, have been sponsors for many athlete polls at Gannett. And here’s a good example of how it’s done — make sure to include other links to encourage readers to dig deeper.

The art of the headline

You have mere seconds to hook a reader, and that’s the goal of a headline. They must be compelling, informative and reflect the story’s core message. “If you don’t know what your headline is while the story is being written, then you don’t know what the angle of your story is,” said Nash.

While writing headlines might seem routine, it’s an art that requires attention and practice. Effective headlines promise readers value, informing them precisely what they will get. SEO-friendly headlines can also be a game-changer, and tools such as ChatGPT might offer inspiration in crafting them.

Nash shared some tactical advice. “I’ve seen before in newsrooms where they had a Teams chat or a Slack channel totally dedicated to headlines, and so they spent a lot of time just thinking about what the headline was going to be and if it isn’t working, try something else. That means if a story is not getting the traffic or subscriptions that you expect it to get, change the headline.”

A few examples that were A/B tested

  • Original headline: Governor’s announcement could change summer plans for kids
  • Better: Governor just reduced restrictions on these summer activities
  • Original headline: With class sizes as high as 40 students, can Arizona schools keep kids healthy?
  • Better: Arizona class sizes are high. How will that work with the coronavirus?
  • Original headline: Phoenicia to get sister restaurant downtown 
  • Better: Restaurant to open in long-vacant Detroit building

Rethink your beat assignments

Instead of reconfiguring the entire newsroom, select one beat and make changes there. Be they high-converting beats like dining, prep sports, or growth and development, there’s value in dedicating resources to areas with the most potential. Doubling down on popular beats or reassigning roles to focus on high-interest areas can yield quick results.

“If you want to completely change your newsroom and reconfigure what you’re covering and what beats you have, that takes time, and we all know that. And so I’m a big fan of just picking off a small thing that has the ability to do really well, and then the larger changes can come behind it. I also think the ability to incubate things is really important. So how are you thinking about taking one beat and trying something new, putting specific KPIs or metrics around that,” explained Nash.

An example: If a college sports beat isn’t yielding results, consider changing it from game coverage to a columnist role, with analysis and opinion. Or drop that beat and instead establish a sports enterprise or sports investigator beat.

Go evergreen

Evergreen content is not only timeless but also drives consistent traffic and subscriptions. These stories have a longer shelf life and often cover highly searched topics. 

Planning is crucial, Nash said. “To have a really good evergreen strategy, you have to plan around it. You have to have someone who’s in charge of it. It doesn’t just happen naturally. Which of the editors is in charge of it? Have they created a planner, an evergreen calendar, so you know when to resurface things year after year?”

Whether it’s tips for winter driving, a guide to the best local patios, or information about National Margarita Day deals, evergreen content keeps readers coming back.

“People don’t care about what the holiday is and how it came about,” she said. “They care about where the best deals on margaritas in my community are on that day. Who has the best hamburgers in town on National Hamburger Day?”

Experiment with different story formats

Traditional long-form articles are one of many ways to convey information. Alternative story formats like FAQs, lists, guides, explainers and rankings have proven to attract more engagement and subscriptions. These formats often come with clearer headlines, making them more attractive to potential readers.

How does a newsroom get started with new story formats? Nash: “In some cases, they’ve challenged the entire newsroom to do it and given reporters a goal that 25% of your stories should be an alternative story format. And in other cases, they’ve said, let’s start with a team. If we have a features team, dining and restaurants and entertainment and all that, let’s see how they do with it and then spread it across a newsroom. There’s a lot of different ways you can do it, but I think there’s a lot of potential within alternative story formats.”

A few examples: