Q&A: David Gurian-Peck, Vice President of Subscription Growth & Planning at The New York Times
This week, The Idea caught up with David Gurian-Peck about subscription strategy and what he looks to for inspiration.
Can you tell me about yourself and your role at The Times?
I oversee our subscription growth strategy. As the name suggests, it means I’m lucky enough to work on any number of projects affecting the growth of our subscription business, which is the most important area for the company going forward. Specifically, my team is focused on our pricing strategy, which is the different prices and discounts we have in the market, and the bundling strategy, which are the different packages we put together. We also help identify and size any other major opportunities that can help grow the number of subscribers we have and the amount of subscription revenue. It’s a deeply quantitative and strategic role that works very closely with the operational team, who is actually executing against our strategy.
As for my background, I’ve been at the Times now for a little over five years in a variety of roles. They have all revolved around that same theme, combining strategy and quantitative rigor with a focus on the subscription business.
You started this team — what was its genesis?
We really wanted some of that strategic and quantitative rigor fully dedicated to the subscription business. We’ve had a company strategy team for a while, but the head of Consumer Revenue at that time, who became my boss, wanted an opportunity to bring that detailed quantitative understanding of the different business drivers into the team and have it not as an outside, internal consulting type of team but really as part and parcel of the operation. We started with a focus on pricing strategy and have expanded its scope in size over the past few years to tackle more projects related to the growth of the subscription business. It started as just me, and now it’s a team of me plus three others.
Can you talk a little bit about how your team approaches pricing and discounting strategy?
First is understanding the business objective we’re trying to achieve, and so in our case, we’re very clear that our number one focus is continuing to scale our subscription business. We have our sights on getting to 10 million subscriptions by 2025, up from the 4.7 million we have today. At the same time, it can’t just be purely about the volume of subscriptions, but also making sure we have sustainable economics behind that. So a lot of the work is understanding the trade-off between volume and long-term revenue prospects.
The second piece is understanding what works well and what can drive volume and long-term revenue. That means we’re doing a whole host of experiments that broadly revolve around understanding consumer psychology. For example, what makes people more likely to click on one package versus another? Or, what makes an effective introductory offer? That’s the type of testing and analysis that my team and a lot of the teams here have been working on.
Could you give an example of some of the experiments you’ve done or the kinds of insights you’ve gotten from experimentation?
A few years ago, we had a lot of really rich short-term discounts, maybe 99 cents for one month or 99 cents for three months. At the time, they were pretty effective at getting people to subscribe, but as you might expect, the retention on those types of offers was poor. One of the first things I did in this role was switch the focus to offers that not only work well in getting people in the door, but also retaining for the long-term and maximizing long-term lifetime value.
Another thing we’ve been doing is trying to test and understand the full willingness to pay for The New York Times. We have had a lot of success at the lower end with an offer we’ve had in the market now for the past year, where it’s a dollar a week for the first year and then stepping up to full price [$143/year for a one-year, basic digital subscription].
What are the most important metrics that you look at to increase subscriber acquisition?
Honestly, everything we do here is built on the bedrock of our journalism and making sure that we’re providing journalism worth paying for. A lot of things we’re looking at are, first and foremost, audience and engagement metrics. How many readers do we have and how frequently are they coming back? How broadly are they reading? This gives us a sense of the health of our reader pool, and then from there we get into increasingly more granular metrics at different points in the user journey. We track how many relationships we’re building by getting people to register, how good we are at converting these different types of readers to paying subscribers, and how well we are retaining and monetizing them.
User journey and building direct relationships has been a major focus for us over the past year, so we’ve focused on getting people to register as opposed to having a large pool of anonymous readers we don’t know. We have teams here focused on understanding the right combination of incentives and friction to get people to register: How many articles do we offer for free? What types of articles? How is that messaged?
How you think about the bundling strategy for different subscription products?
We want to align the bundles with the value that consumers are going to receive. We also want to set them up to take advantage of the broader demand curve and different willingness to pay for different subscription products.
For example, back in 2011, our initial digital subscription bundling strategy was really based around devices, so there was one price if you wanted access to the Times on the web and the smartphone app, and it was a different price for web and the tablet app. Since then, we’ve realized that’s not really how modern media subscription businesses are set up.
A couple of years ago, we shifted focus to the different services that we have. That means we have our basic digital access package that includes pretty much all of the standard news content, and then additional packages based on incorporating other stand-alone subscription products (NYT Cooking, NYT Crossword). It also means adding the ability for additional people to log in and access the Times and things like that which are aligned with the value that we’re offering to readers.
How you decide what content is subscriber-only and what is accessible to non-subscribers as well?
We’re trying to build out a host of related subscription businesses. It all starts from user need and building a product worth paying for, which we’ve seen with Cooking and Crosswords. We’ve launched Parenting, so it’s the next vertical in that vein, and we have teams focused on trying to figure out what comes next. Ultimately, we’re building a lifestyle suite of products and figuring that if each of them are successful businesses on their own — things that people want to engage with, have a daily habit and subscribe to — then we can also find ways to bundle them together in different combinations.
Broadly, we play in areas where there is an opportunity for a degree of reader habit, where we see a need in the market, and where we feel that we have differentiation and brand permission where it makes sense to enter that space. So, cooking is one clear example where we had all of these recipes, a rich history and a rich brand in that space, but not the digital product and user experience to match it. So the team there built this incredible product, which I love and use all the time, with a great user experience around those recipes and that has now turned into a highly successful subscription business.
How do the Times’ new initiatives around TV and streaming with shows like The Weekly and Modern Love fit into the subscription strategy?
What’s great about a number of things that we’ve done along those lines over the past year or two is that they’re potential businesses in their own right. Advertising businesses, such as in the case of The Weekly or The Daily podcast, are also opportunities to tell the story of The New York Times and help people understand what we do, why it’s important, and why that’s worth paying for. So all of those are really helpful extensions of our brand and getting the Times in front of more people, which are things that we ultimately believe will help us reach more subscribers towards that 10 million subscription goal.
How does your team think about international audiences?
We know international is going to be a big part of that incremental subscription growth, as it is today. Today, international is about 16% of our subscriber base. We see a lot of untapped potential given the number of educated English-speaking people around the world interested in high-quality news and journalism. For us, it’s about making sure we have the product experience that’s going to highlight the content that’s most relevant for these types of readers. There are obviously differences there by market, as well as the right pricing based on the individual market dynamics as well as our place within that market.
Are there trends or new technologies that you’re excited about as they relate to subscription strategy?
One thing that’s great in the broader industry context is the growing focus on subscription businesses. Whether it’s large media platforms that have decided that advertising is not sustainable, or all the new subscription services, there is a general recognition that content should be worth paying for and of the value of aligning the business with the readers that you’re serving. Ultimately, that’s going to be helpful to build the broader market for paid news and paid journalism. We view those largely not as threats but as opportunities helping grow that market.
What is the most interesting thing you’ve seen in media from organization other than your own?
I look to two things for inspiration. One, knowing that we have the largest digital news subscription business today, we’re often looking at what other larger subscription businesses are doing. What can we learn from the Netflixes, Spotifys, Amazons, Apples of the world? Two, what some of the younger, digitally-native content companies are doing, where subscription is built into the business model and the products from the get go. I look at things like The Athletic, The Information, and Stratechery, which are really all built around those direct relationships and the subscription business. I think there’s a lot those companies can teach us as well.