David Kirkpatrick

The Boston Globe: An inside look at launching a paid content site

June 7th, 2012

The Boston Globe has been in the content business for a long time. The newspaper published its first edition on March 4, 1872. Now in the digital age, it offers a free online version. At the end of last year, the company decided to include a premium, subscription-based digital version as well.

This blog post reveals an early, inside look at the approach The Boston Globe is taking to launch a paywall, complete with an honest look at a few bumps the marketing team hit along the way.

Peter Doucette, executive director of circulation, sales and marketing, The Boston Globe, will present further information about the newspaper’s marketing efforts at the MarketingSherpa and MarketingExperiments Optimization Summit in Denver, June 11-14.



The marketing challenge for The Boston Globe is maintaining two Internet offerings, one free and one paid.

Peter says the issue is to grow digital consumer revenue while at the same time maintain and grow digital advertising revenue.

“In the end, how do you take a prospect and turn them into a customer?” he asks.


STEP #1: Value proposition discovery

For this website launch, the initial 90-day plan involved looking at different marketing channels to promote the premium website and then defining the value proposition for each channel.

The team looked at the behavior, motivations and expectations from different sources of traffic. These included visitors who went straight to the premium website at BostonGlobe.com, redirects from the advertising-driven site at Boston.com, subscribers of the print version of the newspaper, or people who arrived via a pay-per-click ad.

The first round of testing for The Boston Globe focuses on the value proposition for each of these channels where prospects are reaching the premium website. The key performance indicator tracked is conversion to subscription for the premium website.

The team will refine the message for each channel based on the value prop tests’ results to improve that final conversion number.


A snag in the plan

Peter says the team experienced one roadblock when the company went ahead and launched the new subscription-based site before the testing program went into place. This occurred despite the implementation of testing and optimization being part of the initial planning.

“We launched because we were technically able to from a product perspective,” he explains.

The problem with that approach was neither the overarching marketing plan nor a defined value proposition were in place. To make things worse, it became clear once the testing program was developed that the physical architecture of the site had technical issues. These issues required significant work for the underlying testing system to integrate with the website.

He says this cost The Boston Globe time and energy making the technological changes as well as conducting what he describes as a “retrofit” on the marketing and sales on the subscription website.

One example, the marketing message required retooling because the initial marketing didn’t convey the increased value of the cutting-edge technology features the premium website included.

Peter states, “I think we did things a little bit backward, and now we’re at the point where we can really start benefitting from the testing program.”


STEP #2: Promotion and testing

Once the site launched, however prematurely, The Boston Globe immediately began a wide range of promotion activities, including:

  • Print advertising in the newspaper
  • Television advertising
  • Radio advertising
  • Online display ad campaigns
  • Pay-per-click campaigns
  • Direct mail to former print newspaper subscribers
  • Email campaign to the current database
  • Offer free-trial periods for the new subscription site

The initial testing focuses on two areas: value proposition and the channels used by visitors to find the new paid site. Early on, the team noticed people had different levels of motivation and expectations depending on the channel – the print newspaper, the free website, PPC ads, etc. – they used to get to the subscription website.

With those different channels now identified, testing will help determine the best way to interact with visitors finding different channel landing pages. The value prop testing is integrally tied to this process because each channel will be marketing with its own specific value proposition.


STEP #3: Building a testing culture

Peter adds that the process of creating the testing and optimization program, along with launching an entirely new business model at the company, creates what he describes as “cross-functional awareness.”

“On some level,” he says, “I think it’s given different business units a broader understanding of what it takes to build a customer base.”

On creating and testing a new business model Peter states, “How do we harness expertise (in this new area)? How do we build and number these new competencies? This whole process is starting to change the way we do business.”


Related Resources:

Page Optimization: How to start optimization testing and get executive 

Landing Page Wireframe: Why focusing on ‘one variable at a time’ doesn’t work

Conversion Rate Optimization: Minor changes reduce cost per conversion 52.9%

Optimization 101: How to get real results from A/B testing

Page Optimization: Radical redesign leads to 3,566% increase in conversion

David Kirkpatrick

About David Kirkpatrick

David is a reporter for MarketingSherpa and has over twenty years of experience in business journalism, marketing and corporate communications. His published work includes newspaper, magazine and online journalism; website content; full-length ghosted nonfiction; marketing content; and short fiction. He served as producer for the business research horizontal at the original Office.com, regularly reporting on the world of marketing; covered a beat for D/FW TechBiz, a member of the American City Business Journals family; and he provided daily reporting for multiple LocalBusiness.com cities. David’s other media and corporate clients include: USA Today, Oxford Intelligence, GMAC, AOL, Business Development Outlook and C-Level Media, among many others.

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