The Future of Media

A conversation with: 

Kate Ling

Director of Content Strategy & Communications
E&E News

Newsletters, Paywalls, and Sustainable Revenue? Pepperidge Farm Remembers.

There's no shortage of media companies jumping into subscriptions — from The Daily Beast to TechCrunch and The Information — but what lessons can be learned from early pioneers of digital subscriptions? In this interview we speak with E&E News, which has provided digital-only subscriptions for two decades, and learn how they acquire subscribers.

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Interview Key Points

  • Encourage people to share content. Word-of-mouth is a key acquisition channel.
  • Find the people who need your content to do their job; build advocates
  • Free content trials can help identify good leads for sites with paywalls
  • It’s critical to provide user-friendly subscription trials. Make sign up easy.
  • Ensure alignment between what your trial offers and what people want
  • Perceived value comes down to quality of content and user experience
  • For editorial teams suspicious of analytics — analytics complement experience
  • Stay true to your brand and your target audience

Full Interview Transcript

Patrick Costello
Kate Ling
E&E News

Patrick: Hi, everyone. I'm here with Kate Ling of the E&E News team. Thanks for joining today, Kate.

Kate: Sure, no problem.

Patrick: To start off, I was wondering if you could share an overview of E&E News ?

Kate: E&E News is a subscriber publication that covers energy and environment issues based here in Washington DC, but we have reporters all over the country, and also look into key international issues. It depends almost exclusively on subscriptions for our revenue. We do have a little bit of ad revenue, but we are very different than most of our colleagues in that sense in the journalism world. It has helped us certainly ride a lot of the ups and downs that the rest of the industry is experiencing, but it has its share of issues in terms of my particular job of getting content out there, and making sure that the right people are seeing it.

Patrick: What do you focus on day-to-day as director of content strategy and communications?

Kate: We produce almost 20 to 25 original stories a day. I am in charge of trying to get them out there, even though they're also behind a paywall, or at least, most of them are behind a paywall. I try to make sure that the right readers are seeing the stories or signing up to get free trials in order to see the stories. Or if people aren't signing up for free trials or can’t read them, at least the stories are getting referenced by more mainstream media or other places where they'll pick up and actually start conversations. Then I also am in charge of the day-to-day communications of the company. Our branding and our presence in the media world, and in the energy and environment community. Other companies, maybe not in the journalism world,  their biggest issue is content in terms of what they want to post and provide to the world.For me, it's a lot more about, "How do I make this really interesting content as interesting as it can be, but also filter it a little bit?" Because there are different audiences both within what social media platform that I'm using, or other types of outreach versus what our subscribers and readers want.

Patrick: Could tell me a little bit more about your subscription offerings, as well as your free trial and how the two play off one another?

Kate: First off, it's important to understand E&E News is made up of five publications. We have three publications that come out in the morning, E&E Daily, Climatewire, Energywire. E&E Daily focuses more on politics on Capitol Hill. Energywire focuses on the transformation of the energy sector, so you have fracking, and its utilities, and cybersecurity. Then Climatewire focuses on climate change, and the politics, and science, and business that is affected by climate change. Those come out in the morning, then we have a fourth publication, Greenwire, which is our largest publication. It comes out around 1:00pm, and it covers the gamut of energy and environmental issues. Also natural resources and public land is a very important part of that. Then at the end of the day, E&E News PM comes out, which is a wrap-up of anything that came out late that people need to know before they head home for the day.

Each of these publications you can subscribe to separately, but what we like to do is, in order to get the full understanding of what's happening in the energy and environment area, we encourage subscribers to get them all. We will offer a certain discount if you're getting all five of the publications, or two together. It's also how we build on our subscribers and our readers to create more revenue in that we may hook someone on Energywire, and they're really interested in that. Maybe they just want to subscribe to that, but then we keep working on them and show them Greenwire actually is very much in their interest, and they're missing these stories by not subscribing to Greenwire. Then add Climatewire, et cetera. While you can subscribe to each of them separately, we very much push subscribing to them all, and actually feel like we provide a better experience and product if someone subscribes to all of them, as opposed to each one individually.

Patrick: Are you focused on organizations as your primary base of subscribers?

Kate: Ultimately, yes, we like to have companies, organizations, federal agencies subscribe on IP addresses so that they're getting one subscription for their full company or agency. But we, to begin with, it's almost easier to work with individuals. The key is to find that person who will be your advocate within the organization. Make sure that they are happy and satisfied with what they're reading, and get them to say, "Oh, my colleague needs this, or my other colleague needs this." Start building that network up, so that eventually you have a core group of readers within the organization. They're pretty loyal. They will, when the accountants, take a look at the numbers and say, "Why are we subscribing to this?" More often than not, we have these strong advocates who come in and say, "No, don't touch that. You cannot touch that. We need this for our job." It's especially true in the federal agencies and the congressional side. A lot of-those people also transfer to other places and carry our brand and our name over there. That's also a great way for us to find new groups and new companies, and new subscribers.

Patrick: Well, from firsthand experience, your content was instrumental to me when, many moons ago, I worked in the energy industry. I was a loyal reader, and it was very important to my job function to have access to your content. How do you get people into your acquisition funnel? You mentioned that you have free trials, and you mentioned that you have initial champions that you go after, but how do you go about getting folks into that funnel?

Kate: That is probably one of the biggest hurdles that we face, especially with the paywall. We do open a few stories up every day, and certainly encourage people to share those. Often, word of mouth is probably our biggest acquisition channel. Twitter probably is important for us in terms of spreading the word, but I think often people are doing what they often do on social media, which is reading the headline and not actually clicking on the link. If people do click on a link and come into the website and hit a paywalled story, they can get 24-hour access to anything on the website if they sign up for a free trial. We just started doing that maybe two years ago. Before that, people would have to go through an onerous process of signing up for a trial that took days.

Sometimes only a few hours, but sometimes it would take days. It was just not very user-friendly at all. We undertook a process of making sure that our user experience for trials was much better and much faster, so that people could access the content. That is our ultimate sales tool, is our content, because we associate it with, "People are addicted to candy. Once they try candy, they keep wanting candy." We think of our content like that. It's most important for people to see the content in order to get them in. Another thing that's actually, works really well for us is the emails that we send out with all the headlines listed for that publication. We've been sending those out since we started the company back in 1998. We're still privately owned by two individuals. They decided that they would start a digital-only publication, which back in the day was a big thing because everyone was still sending out newsletters, especially up on the Hill.

They decided that they would send the publication headlines so people could use that as a jumping off point and pass around stories. It’s old fashioned, although I think old is becoming new again with what people are doing with newsletters these days. It was definitely a first version of that, which we've kept with, because most of our subscriber click-throughs are from the publication emails and not from the website itself. We're actually working on a better system for people to then jump off from those first stories that they look at, and then jump through and look at other, similar stories. We don't have quite the resources of The New York Times, and Washington Post, et cetera, to have those suggested stories. That's something that I personally am really gonna try to work on a little bit more.

Despite thinking about all that and saying our email publications being, the top way to get into our content, I do wonder if we're reaching a saturation point as far as newsletters go. It is very interesting to hear so many people talking about newsletters as a way to get people to be loyal to your brand and to your content. I'd say that the free trials are a great way to get people to the content, and let us see who's actually serious about subscribing, because that's something that is important for our sales team. They have to be mindful of their resources and time. Having a free trial helps us find those good leads.

Patrick: Are you using newsletters in conjunction with free trials to get people to register with you?

Kate: We aren't. What I meant was that ... We don't send a newsletter out, what we send out are the headlines of the publication, the headlines of the stories that are in the publication that day. What I was saying was that those are like newsletters in that they provide the quick hit, "This is what you need to know," for this publication, and that instant access, so you don't have to go searching around the web or searching around social media for the stories. They're all lined up right there in front of you. In a sense, they are like newsletters. Some people do actually even refer to them as newsletters, which was a thorn in our side for a while until newsletters became cool again. But we don't actually produce any newsletters, per se. Now, we are rethinking that interaction of the user experience of how the publication headlines are presented to them.

Maybe they need to be more than just a list of headlines. Maybe they should have a little bit of an intro or some personal, personalized experience with them. We are looking at that, but that's  what I meant by our, "Newsletters." They aren't the newsletters of our, what our competitors or some other people in the industry are doing.

Patrick: To what extent is it important for you all to cultivate brand awareness as part of getting people to come through that trial and then ultimately the conversion process?

Kate: It's pretty important. I took this job about two and a half years ago. That was one of the first things I did was, we refreshed the brand because we had a serious issue that people actually had confusion about our name. They didn't now, for instance, that Greenwire, and Climatewire, and Energywire were all under the same news organization. People referred to us as Greenwire, or our full legal name, which is Environment & Energy Publishing, or they just called us E&E. To this day, people still do sometimes just refer to us as E&E, but I said, "Okay, we need one name, and many people refer to us as E&E News," and we went through this whole thing. First of all, making sure that there's, even within our subscribers and people who know us, making sure that they're all using the same name was key.

So that again, as we depend on word of mouth, people are referencing the same thing and not saying, "Oh, I read Climatewire." Then someone else is talking about Greenwire and they don't realize that they're all from the same company. Then further afield for people who haven't heard of us at all, it's pretty important to make sure, especially in this day of fake news and people not really knowing who to trust, that we are clear about who we are and where we're coming from. We faced one issue of people often thinking that we're actually part of the trade press, or we're completely funded by the business side of things. Or, we actually have the other issue also, where people think that we are part of the environmental movement, and that we are one-sided in that way. In some way, we're doing things right if we're getting both confusions where people think we're either shills for the industry or shills for environmentalists.

But it's important that people understand that organizations like The New York Times, and NPR, and Vox, and Washington Post, and all these larger, mainstream media depend on us, because we provide the facts, and real news and information instead of a one-sided take on it like some other organizations do. That's something that I'm still working on in terms of our branding and getting our name out there, but a lot of that has to do with when the mainstream media does cite us, making sure that they're describing who we are correctly. Which can take up a good amount of my time sometimes.

Patrick: I bet. You mentioned that you've got a lot of mainstream publications who depend on the work that E&E News is doing. I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit more about that.

Kate: Sure. We have a lot of subscribers who are mainstream media. Certainly NPR, the main hub subscribes to us and most of their member organizations. The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN. They all use us to track things that are happening that maybe a general audience wouldn't care so much on energy, environment. But we're able to provide the details, and so then when something big does happen, we often are the ones who first report it, but then they will pick up on the story and report it, sometimes giving us credit, sometimes not, as happens in the journalism world.

If you can reconstruct a story, you don't necessarily need to give credit, although it is bad form, but it happens all the time. It's true. Often, we'll report a story, and a week later, NPR is finally airing something on the radio. I'm shouting at the radio, "You're so late on this story," and, "Why aren’t you citing us? You know this came from us," but that's what happens.

Patrick: Wow.

Kate: That is a little bit of my job, too, to make sure we get credit where credit is due if it's possible. But yeah. It makes sense, the mainstream media doesn't have the people. We have 60 plus editors and reporters covering these issues day in and day out. Most mainstream media, if not local newspapers, have teams of 10 maybe at most covering these issues. They just can't get into the weeds as much as we can. We just wish they would credit us a little bit more.

Patrick: Well, it is interesting, just from a broader industry perspective that you all produce content that you sell subscriptions to, and some of the folks who piggyback off the work that your team is doing produce content, but they may not be able to monetize it as a subscription like you. How do you feel about that? Seeing that there is interest in purchasing subscriptions for content that you're producing, but at the same time, people may not be willing to spend what would cost 10 bucks for a cocktail on a monthly subscription for quality content.

Kate: I mean, it's a big conundrum for sure, obviously, that the whole industry is facing. It is slightly different for us.People question that we are an expensive product. People have to pay a good amount to subscribe to us — the average person is not subscribing to E&E News — but that's part of our brand in some sense. We get in the weeds and provide a really high-value product that the general audience, they definitely would want to know a lot of what we write about, but not necessarily everything that we write about that our subscribers need to know for their job. The industry that's generally facing subscriptions where they are looking, still, for numbers as opposed to specialized audience members with specific skills, I guess is the word I'm looking for here.

But when they're trying to look at people paying for subscriptions, it is what you're saying, which is, "How can we say, 'Pay what you would pay for a cocktail, or a couple cups of coffee a week'?" I think that's a different ask than what E&E is facing. I mean, I think the sell is the same, however, in the sense that it's content and user experience. How can we make this useful for your everyday life? If it's our content which is useful for your everyday life, which is your job, and is really important in how you get paid every day. Or useful for your everyday life if you're just more of a general audience person who just likes to be an informed citizen and know what's going on, and can act on things when it's necessary. Whether it's voting, or joining community meetings, or just understanding that going to this local restaurant is going to make your life that much better, I think that's the key.

That's something that we're all struggling with. It's creating the content, and then creating the user experience with that content. It's no longer just the content itself. That's where obviously we've moved beyond print, but now it's just print on a website. How else can we do this so that it's useful? I thought The New York Times move to doing news roundups on Alexa, or how they took The Daily podcast, and took What Else Do You Need to Know? They're taking that and turning it into a voice command, "Play What Else Do You Need to Know," and you get a quick rundown in what the day, what's happening in the day. It'll be a really interesting thing to watch. I could see that being really useful for people, especially as these voice-activated technology becomes more widespread. Being able to access people in that way, again, making the user experience easy.

I'm still trying to figure out how applicable it could be for us where details are really important, but I think it could be very interesting and useful for our readers, even though they're a little bit different than the normal, general audience. It's still ease of use and user experience.

Patrick: You brought that up a little bit earlier too, ease of use and user experience. What order of magnitude of trial conversion improvement did you see when you went from the previous clunky trial approach you mentioned to the more streamlined approach that you mentioned?

Kate: We certainly saw a much higher jump in terms of our trial users, in a good way and a bad way. I mean, in a good way, we obviously saw the numbers grow and we had a lot more people trying. It was something that we were aware of, that the downside was it would be slightly harder to pick up where the good leads where. Also, we would have people abusing the system. So far, actually, it hasn't been too bad in terms of fake emails. Most people are putting in good information. We're able to pick up on the leads through their readership.

We have a private system that was built to alert us to various things as far as our subscribers go. It can alert us if there's particular high readership on a trial, and the sales agent will then pay attention to it. But we certainly saw an uptick in terms of the number of people reading and exposed to our content, which I think is important. Now it's about the best way to capitalize on that, which is what we're working on.

Patrick: What best practices are there for ensuring you maximize the number of trials to actual conversions?

Kate: Best practices certainly are understanding what this person wants from the experience, what they want from the trial. Thinking about how you can separate people out, and this is something we're working on. We haven't quite gotten it down yet, but someone who just wants to go in and read a story, and get out. What do you want, if that's all they want, what do you want to get in return for that? Whether it's they just remember it being very reader-friendly and good content, or whether it's you would like to have an opportunity to reach out to this person again, even though you're not really sure how much they're into the content. Versus someone who goes in, and reads one story, and then signs up for getting the emails every day or signs up for a listserv.

I think understanding the people coming in and understanding each segment of the readers that are coming in, and know what's the most important thing that you can get out of their experience. What they can get out of the experience is probably the best practices that we're looking at. I think that is something that we personally, as a company, need to be better at, but I think overall, that's what we're seeing in the industry. People who are doing that well are getting more loyal readers and they're willing to try other products. If their company already subscribes or their organization already subscribes, what else can we do to get this person to be an advocate for us, even outside of their own company?

Whether it's posting something on Reddit, or Twitter, or Facebook, LinkedIn, or at conferences, or on panels. That's the next frontier, at least for us, but that, I think the best practices would be making sure that the person coming in is getting what they want.

Patrick: Having a successful subscription business relates to the idea of “making something that people actually want,” that they attribute as necessary for their work or the things that they're interested in. A must-have as opposed to a nice-to-have. That seems to tie pretty deeply into your loyalty. Simply put, in the startup community, they say, "Make something people want" — a Y Combinator mantra.

Kate: Yeah, I think so.

Patrick: Could tell me a little bit more about your past experience as a reporter, and to what extent that's impacted how you approach your work now? Both in terms of getting brand visibility and more subscribers.

Kate: I was a reporter for about eight years. It certainly helps me understand a lot of the, I guess, angst when it comes to being a reporter. Trying to do your job, but also making sure that your work is getting out there. It's really about content. That's something that I've started to understand towards the latter part of my career, and then transferring over into this position. I do hold a special place in my heart for the reporters, obviously, and making sure that their hard work is living up to its potential. That it doesn't just die after sitting on a website page.

I have a lot of work ahead of me on that, especially for our reporters, but they have a lot of expertise, and a lot of knowledge that they can't always put into a story, or a written story. How else can we tap that expertise while also making the experience better for the readers? I understand the reporter frame of mind because I was a reporter. Also, the editor's frame of mind. I think that's something I've run into a little bit in talking with other audience engagement content strategy folks, is the ability to bridge the gap between the editorial side and the business side. Really understanding, or trying to understand where people are coming from. Coming from the editorial side, I certainly understand where they're coming from and where the hangups are, or where I could probably come at it with a certain angle. Then they'll understand what's happening, because there is definitely a gap in understanding a lot of times.

What else needs to happen with a story other than writing a story or reporting on a story? What else is important for the content? Why do stories get read or content get viewed or not? What is the data all about in these analytics? Why are they important? Are they important? As a company, we've survived for obviously 20 years, so not a whole lot of analytics, but even the last five years where analytics has become king, especially in the digital world, we still don't have a lot of analytics. Which I'm a little ashamed to say of, but in some sense, I'm also very proud of, because we're able to figure things out and still, I guess, keep the human instinct for the news instead of necessarily chasing the news. I think that has been very important in terms of our providing great content. Now, if we can combine that with the analytics and the data, I think that could be a great combination. That's something that, on the editorial side, I think they're just starting to come around to.

I think they're very suspicious of it, which I've heard echoed in other newsrooms, too. I think it's about trying to get them to understand how it can help them not dominate all their honed experiences they have. I guess that's the main thing is my experience as a reporter has helped me understand their mindset. Then also, my news sense, which I think is helpful, especially when you're trying to write content that's engaging. Whether it's social media posts, or trying to figure out what pictures will work. Then also sorting out what news of the day you want to engage in or not. I'm pretty conservative overall. We're a conservative organization when it comes to communication or interaction in the greater social media world, but it is obviously important to do. I think I have a good sense of when to or not to, because of the news sense that I had to have as a reporter.

I think that's another important background that gave me a leg up in terms of doing this particular job.

Patrick: That's really interesting and that makes a lot of sense that it would give you certainly an advantage and better sense of where to head, and how to handle certain things. Thank you so much for sharing that. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today.

Kate: Okay, great. Yeah. No problem at all. Yeah, it's been an interesting ride. I'm certainly up for learning a whole lot more about this new frontier of user experience, and content, and how we can maximize that interaction.

Patrick: Absolutely. It sounds like you're already on the right path with some of the new initiatives under way, and some of the changes you all recently made.

Kate: Well, we hope so.

Kate Ling

Kate Ling leads E&E News' content and communications strategy. She directs E&E's audience and product development, marketing campaigns, media relations and brand awareness. She previously spent more than six years as a Greenwire and E&E Daily reporter covering Congress, the Energy Department, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, science research and technology commercialization. A Denver, Colo., native, she covered Congress for Colorado's Greeley Tribune and local politics for The Colorado Statesman. She has a bachelor's degree in political science and humanities from Yale University and a master's in journalism from Northwestern University.