This Australian news site doubled its paid subscriptions over the past year

CEO Will Hayward explains how the publication doubled down on original content and improved its marketing.

Welcome! I'm Simon Owens and this is my media newsletter. You can subscribe by clicking on this handy little button:

We are firmly in the era of paid newsletters, so much so that you can’t open up Twitter without seeing an announcement from a prominent journalist that they’re launching one. It’s a media trend so ubiquitous that nearly every major web platform -- from Twitter to Facebook to Google -- is entering the newsletter space.

But what about the paid newsletters that predated the current craze? Some media companies were prescient enough to leverage the intimacy of the inbox to generate reader revenue, and in that sense, Crikey was about two decades ahead of the curve.

The Australian news site was founded in 2000, and for most of its life it’s existed as a daily newsletter; every day at noon it sends a dense email containing seven or eight stories -- a mixture of original reporting and opinion. It eschews advertising and currently charges subscribers up to $199 annually. “As newsletters grew in importance, and people became more willing to subscribe to digital only news sources, we were well positioned to capitalize on that,” said Will Hayward, the CEO of Crikey’s parent company Private Media.

How well has it capitalized on the newsletter trend? Well, in the past year it’s doubled its paid subscriptions, growing from 10,000 subscribers to over 20,000. If you work in media, then you can likely appreciate that generating the same amount of growth in one year that you experienced in the previous 20 is no easy feat. So how did Crikey accomplish it?

In our conversation, Hayward was quick to point to the hard work of others on his team, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this growth correlated strongly with him joining Private Media. For the entirety of his career, he’s worked on the business side of media companies, getting his start as a sales executive at The Economist. For about two years, he ran BuzzFeed’s European business, scaling that team to about 150 people, and a few years ago he moved to Australia after his wife landed a job there.

Back in early 2019 he was brought on to Private Media as a consultant, initially to work on some of the other news outlets in its portfolio, but as his role expanded, he began to focus on growing Crikey’s business, and over the past year he’s helped push through a number of initiatives that contributed to its success. Here are a few that proved particularly effective:

More forceful marketing

Crikey actually has two daily newsletter products. The first is called the Crikey Worm and is sent out early in the morning. It’s completely free and consists almost entirely of aggregated news that links out to other media outlets. The second is the paid product that goes out around noon.  It’s much longer, clocking in at over 7,000 words, and publishes at least half a dozen original stories. A recent edition published eight articles on topics ranging from the Prime Minister’s economic policies to the collapse of an Australian corporate empire. 

The free newsletter is, by far, the largest driver of paid subscriptions, generating more conversions than any other channel. And yet Crikey has historically been timid in how it’s pushed the paid product within the free newsletter. “There was a very large audience of people who were engaging with our free products that hadn’t been marketed to particularly heavily,” said Hayward. “I think any other kind of business would have been a lot more focused on converting those people.”

So Crikey changed up its messaging strategy. “We looked at all the people that were exposed to the brand already, who were subscribing to the free newsletter, and put in place a fairly relentless marketing campaign to convert as many of those people as possible.”

A recent edition of The Worm, for instance, contains two separate sections of news aggregation, and sandwiched in between is a roundup of headlines and links to original Crikey articles. Clicking on any of those individual headlines brings you to an article where you’re almost immediately hit with a paywall that advertises a 21-day free trial. The newsletter also closes with another call-to-action asking readers to subscribe (more on this in a bit).

“I think historically we always felt like there was just that one big story that we'd break and it would convert many people,” said Hayward, “But actually, it's really about building a really good product that we think appeals to many people, putting it in front of them, and then making it easy for them to subscribe.”

Price experimentation

At $199 a year, Crikey is on the pricier end of paid subscriptions, and that cost presents an especially steep on-ramp for readers who might want to sample the outlet’s paid offerings. Though the company has always run various discounts throughout the year, its revenue team began to experiment more with testing out various price points, presenting different deals depending on where you’re encountering the content. Its front page, for instance, advertises a 50% discount for an entire year. On individual articles, though, a reader is pitched with the aforementioned 21-day free trial. Other times they might encounter a deal that offers 12 weeks for only $12.

One might expect high churn once a reader is transitioned to the full price, but Hayward argued to me that the goal with these discounts is to transform Crikey into a daily reading habit, which in turn makes subscribers less price sensitive. “Our view is that if you can just keep people coming through and keep putting a good product in front of them, you can manage that retention issue. If someone's subscribed for a year, that's enough time for them to really get to know the product, and they get attached to it.”

Positioning itself as the anti-Murdoch

It’s hard for people outside of Australia to understand the grip Rupert Murdoch has on the country’s media market. Sure, in the U.S. Murdoch’s empire spans from Fox News to The Wall Street Journal to The New York Post, but there’s still vibrant competition across every sector of journalism. “Murdoch is essentially the sole proprietor of national newspapers in Australia, which gives News Corp a very significant lever with which to influence whatever it wants to get done in Australia at any given point in time. If people in the U.S. or the UK think Murdoch has too much power, it's nothing compared to Australia.”

With this in mind, Crikey has leaned hard into stressing its independence from existing power structures. “A news product is, in part, a values driven product,” said Hayward. “So there is a benefit to saying to people, ‘this is very important work we do, we want you to support it. That is a valid part of the marketing mix.” 

This kind of messaging became especially important during the Covid shutdown, which threatened media business models in multiple ways. Crikey launched a Covid-specific newsletter and tailored its marketing so that readers understood that their subscriptions were crucial to its survival.

Doubling down on service journalism

Of course, the best marketing in the world won’t help a news outlet if the journalism it publishes isn’t compelling. In early 2020, Crikey hired Peter Fray, a veteran journalist with a long history in Australian newspapers, as its managing editor, and Hayward credits him in driving up the quality in Crikey’s reporting. It also helps that the publication isn’t beholden to advertisers. “There are a number of issues that media companies potentially don't touch because of conflicts of interest,” Hayward said. “We think there's a unique opportunity as a smaller, independent media business to report on those issues.” 

In the coming months, Crikey will be able to invest in its journalism even further. Not only is it generating more revenue through subscriptions, but it was also among the first Australian outlets to sign a distribution deal with Facebook. Hayward couldn’t get into the details, but he described it as a “multi-year” deal that would generate enough money to fund new hires. This will allow the site to bring on high-profile writers with already-existing audiences.

Over the next few years, Hayward will focus on drastically increasing the reach of Crikey’s content, which in turn will lure more readers into the top of its funnel. That goal, he said, can be achieved through a mixture of high impact reporting, new products, and even paid advertising. “The big challenge for us over the next year, two years, five years, is how can we get the Crikey brand in front of many, many more people, many more times a year.”

Hayward is convinced that once a reader is exposed to Crikey’s journalism -- whether that’s through a free newsletter, a social media account, or partnerships with major platforms like Google and Facebook -- then the conversion part is easy. Given his success record so far, I won’t be the one to bet against him.

Do you like this newsletter?

Then you should subscribe here:

Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.