Building B2C and B2B subscription revenues into the dominant revenue stream

When you have subscribers too how do you deal with churn rates – what is the best way to keep your customers coming back for more?

At FIPP World Congress in London two speakers tackled the subscription issue from very different perspectives.

Later Geoff Ramsey, chair and chief innovation officer, eMarketer, explains how to build a pure play B2B subscription business for the modern world.

First though Michael Brunt, chief marketing officer, and MD circulation The Economist, took the delegates through the opportunities that have enabled his company to grow a very successful business largely driven by subscribers.

The Economist

Michael kicked off with a quick history lesson explaining how The Economist was founded in 1843. Since then it has continued to thrive even though, as Michael admitted, it is not entirely immune to industry trends such as declining ad revenue. Michael said his presentation aimed to share how The Economist has reacted to the digital disruption of recent years.

Michael Brunt The Economist ()

He first displayed a chart that showed how The Economist’s global circulation has been relatively static in recent years, yet its gross margin has improved.

This has been down to a change in the way The Economist handles subscriptions. 

In 2006 subscriptions were, in Michael’s words, “a loss making entity designed to sustain growth in ad revenues by building audience that advertisers wanted to reach. Yet the last few years has seen the focus change and we have witnessed an unparalleled growth in subscriptions. They have been a key revenue generator” 

So, asked Michael, “why is an obscure journal founded in 1843 still thriving?” 

He gave five quick reasons for this:

1.   We are a smart guide to the forces that shape the future.

2.   We are a trusted filter on world affairs, we are finishable and we create the world every week.

3.   We advocate positive change – this doesn’t always resonate with views of the subscribers.

4.   We always take a global perspective.

5.   Our readers find our journalism valuable and are prepared to pay for it.

Michael then highlighted four pillars to circulation and profit growth.

1.    Migration from print to digital

2.   Charging more for the print and digital bundle

3.   Raising prices

4.   Investing in efficient scalable marketing 

To underline how things have changed Michael pointed out that half of new subscribers choose the premium print and digital bundle. This means that the average revenue per subscriber is rising.  

“Demand for The Economist remains high,”argued Michael, “which is important in an age of fake news. Also market penetration is still low meaning it can be scaled more efficiently.”

Michael added that he felt there were many reasons for optimism that The Economist could maintain, and possibly even exceed, its current growth levels.

“Content overload on other platforms means consumers get tired of endless streams. They then return to brands. Also there is a price elasticity in our subscribers. You can increase the price and not see significant churn. We believe in price rises infrequently, but for a big amount – say every three years.”

Michael then asked ‘who actually reads the Economist?’

He thinks they are interested in politics and business news and want a trustworthy source. They also want to be, and be seen to be, informed. They have a preference for high quality brands and are interested in travel, arts etc

This gives The Economist a huge potential market – 76 million people who have that criteria. So Michael believes that the company is far from saturating the market.

Next Michael asked “how then do you drive subscriptions?” In The Economist’s case it used to be print posters, Now the spend is on digital formats – such as interactive posters and TV. The Economist has also enjoyed a degree of success in placing provocative ads in associated publications and websites. These work well if the ad content is topical.

The ads are supported by attribution software as well as social media – which Michael believes is the cheapest route to new subscribers after paid search.


Next to speak on the topic of subscriptions and how they can be used to build a business, specifically in the B2B world in this instance, was Geoff Ramsey, chair and chief innovation officer, eMarketer.

Geoff Ramsey ()

Geoff kicked off by describing eMarketer as a B2B information service for businesses to understand what is happening online. It is primarily a paid subscription offering – 80 per cent of revenues are subscriptions based.

As Geoff explained “we exist because we understand that being in the digital age is like being in a forest overnight. You never know what will come at you next. Our mission is to help companies make more informed decisions in a world that is being transformed by digital.”

“By aggregating, filtering, organising and analysing essential data and perspectives from multiple sources we are able to deliver insights for clients to act upon.”

Geoff then ran through the history of eMarketer from its founding in 1996 through to its sale to Axel Springer in 2016

He then went through the lessons he has learned from running a B2B subscription based company.

  • Aggregation can be powerful and worth paying for if you provide value – Geoff says this is especially powerful if you look at multiple sources and shed light on them. No single source has the answer. This enables the company to provide a more objective and balanced picture of the digital landscape.
  • Important information should be shared as widely as possible, not hoarded by gatekeepers –  Information is power, but it needs to be given to everyone. In mid 2014 eMarketer pivoted from offering companies limited seat subscriptions to open access. As Geoff explained “everyone in the organisation can go in and get information directly. It has been a very successful tactic and now three quarters of companies are on this tariff.” It works well from an ongoing perspective too with companies using open access more likely to renew. Geoff pointed out that the number of individual users of eMarketer has gone up by 20 times in five years because of open access.
  • Trusted content is the cornerstone of the business – As Geoff highlighted the multiple source approach inspires trust. He added “there are things we refuse to do too to ensure trust levels are maintained. There’s no primary research, no vendor rankings, no sponsorship or advertorial content, no fake news.”
  • Our most important form of our marketing is our own content – Geoff said that eMarketer strives to distribute their content in as many places as possible. They receive 8000 plus global mentions in the media per month. This is supported by free products like a newsletter. This is also highly profitable as it is supported by ad revenue.
  • Information needs to pushed out – Geoff believes in the power of alerts and custom search.
  • Make innovation a part of your DNA and a daily mindset – “The tools can be as important as the content itself,” argued Geoff. “Innovation is as much about improving the stuff you already have built. What can we fix that’s broken?”
  • Understand your most critical metrics for success and rally your troops around meeting them – Geoff gave an example looking at usage and how this can help determine the probability of renewals as well as inspiring action to increase engagement.


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