STAT journalist Helen Branswell put out her first tweet about COVID-19 on 31 December, 2019. Just days later, on 4 January, STAT’s home page had the story front and centre, and in the same month, the team did their first virtual event around it.
With an efficient team of journalists and a niche focus on the health segment, STAT managed to stay on top of things when the rest of the world fell into chaos in the following days. To date, it has published about 1,300 pieces of content – live or written – about COVID-19 with a team of just 22 reporters. Before COVID-19, its average traffic was about 1.5 million unique visitors, in 2020 it was 7.7 million. In March 2020, it peaked at 23 million.
— Helen Branswell (@HelenBranswell) December 31, 2019
But could that end up being a flash in the pan once the world returns to normalcy? The STAT team says they haven’t been carried away by the traffic numbers.
“A lot of it was one-time visitors,” says Angus Macaulay, Chief Revenue Office at STAT about the traffic surge in 2020.
“The number we really pay attention to is how many people are hitting our paywall content and ultimately converting. Because we always look at the longer term of what we are building our business off,” he said during WAN-IFRA’s Forum Francophone event about digital subscriptions.
Macaulay attributes part of the spike to STAT’s COVID coverage which was early, extensive, authoritative, in-depth and free. The brand became a trusted source for other media and was cited, linked or mentioned across the globe.
“That changed as newsrooms got up to speed,” Macaulay says. “Now, the interesting part is looking ahead.”
As Macaulay puts it, when the world completely upended in 2020, STAT was in a unique spot. It had an edge over other publishers because the foundation had been laid long ahead of time.
“We thought of STAT right from the beginning as a brand that was going to cover health and medicine with the authority of some of the more narrow niche media brands like The New England Journal of Medicine for example, but with journalistic ambition of brands like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Politico and so forth,” Macaulay says.
He notes that they knew from the get-go that subscriptions were going to be the foundation of STAT’s business. STAT has a hard paywall and about 50 percent of its content is accessible only to subscribers. The team hopes to raise it to 60 percent by the end of the year. Subscription rates are currently $35 for a month or $349 for a year.
“We do a fair amount in corporate subscriptions. It now represents about 25 percent of our business, and we are looking to continue to grow that,” Macaulay says.
Although the pandemic exposed the brand to the general public, STAT’s core business targets those who are in the healthcare ecosystem.
One of the keys to STAT’s success, Macaulay says, is really understanding the addressable market size.
“We knew we were going into a market that was growing overall,” he says. “We did a lot of work not just understanding the size of the market, but how many people within that market are content consumers and how many are willing to pay for content.”
STAT introduced its paywall a year after launching. During that first year, the team made a real effort to understand their readers – who they were, what was the profile of those already subscribing, who was not paying yet and so on. This has been another success factor.
“We wrote it down in a 20-page document that we shared with every reporter, business person, engineer and so forth. We tried to understand by segment who these people are, their career, education, their needs, what they need to do in their job, in their career, in their health ecosystem to succeed and how do we help them win,” Macaulay says.
Another important element has been the credibility of the journalists associated with the brand. Macaulay notes that from the beginning the plan was to hire a small but really authoritative team of journalists who already had a large base of followers and were ahead of stories. This helped STAT in building credibility as a new brand.
“There are other things we look for as we bring people into the team and this would be being adept at a lot of media platforms. This ensures that their voices are getting out to the readers wherever the reader wants to hear us or read us or engage with us,” Macaulay says.
Macalauy has no doubt that 2020 was an incredible year for STAT and traffic numbers were great. But what he considers more important is that it enabled to put a stamp on the brand as an authority and a trusted source of information.
It increased the brand awareness among the broader healthcare industry, accelerated the opportunity to expand into adjacent markets within healthcare and opened possibilities that are global in nature for the brand. But he isn’t carried away.
“It will fade from the national conversation as COVID ultimately retreats due to vaccines and behaviour changes. That’s where we will continue with our core business model, which is the core health audience and the subscription based business,” he said.
So what’s the future course of action for STAT?
“During COVID, one of the challenges we had was that our subscribers still were in the business of making medicine for cancer or for Alzheimer’s or for heart disease,” Macaulay says. “There still needed to be reporting on that. That’s where we will – and are – shifting our focus.”
In 2020, there was a strong growth in monthly subscribers, but Macaulay notes that they also see more churn with monthly subscribers than annual ones.
Given that the lifetime value for annual subscribers and corporate subscribers is significantly higher than monthly, the team is encouraging subscribers to commit to an annual or corporate subscription.
The paywall ratio
One of the metrics that the team pays close attention to is the paywall ratio, the percentage of users who hit the paywall.
Overwhelming the reader with COVID-related content would mean that s/he might not even get to the paywalled content. STAT’s user experience has been designed to prevent this.
“Our goal is to get the paywall ratio up to 25 percent. It is something that I look at in balance with the unique visitors. But ultimately we will see our uniques drop probably a bit in 2021. What I will be watching for is that the paywall unique number is not dropping,” says Macaulay.
The team is also looking at what can be done to keep the monthly subscribers, at the very least, for another 30 or 60 days. For STAT, most of the churn happens within the first 90 days. It is currently offering the first 30 days for free, but Macaulay says they will experiment with different trial periods in the coming days.
Part of the strategy also includes targeting individuals at risk of churning, understanding their behaviour and looking for ways to engage them.
“We are trying to make sure people are being exposed to content that is most relevant to them, continuing to add value to the product, ensuring people can see and experience that value, and reactively, as people are trying to cancel, trying to re-engage them to get them back on board,” Macaulay says.
Customer research and knowing what the reader expects is another major focus area going forward.
The brand is also looking at new product areas.
In March 2020, it launched in partnership with Applied XL a dashboard that enables one to look at COVID data in real time. One of the first of its kind, it encouraged the brand to accelerate its data products.
“This is where you will see us continue to expand and where we will go deeper within our markets with more self service tools,” Macaulay says.
The final piece is community.
“Community for us is taking that next step from presenting content and having people read it and subscribe to it,” Macaulay says.
“In this ecosystem a lot of people want to interact with each other, work with each other, sell something to the other person and so on,” he adds. “So the next step for us is to not just cover more areas or provide more data products, but to see how STAT can also be a convener and a connector.”
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