Roughly a decade ago, when Jay Senter and Julia Westhoff moved back to their hometown in Kansas, they noticed the metro area news sources were providing no consistent coverage of local government and schools where they lived in northeast Johnson County.
Senter and Westhoff, who first met working at their college newspaper and are now married, decided to launch a publication of their own; the Prairie Village Post (the Shawnee Mission Post’s original name) launched in 2010.
And despite initial success, within five years, the couple found themselves “wringing every ad dollar we could out of the site.”
So in 2017, the couple decided to move away from ads and donations and erect a subscription paywall. Now, just 3 years later, the Post has over 3,000 paying readers (for context: Shawnee Mission school district, the site’s namesake, has a population of just over 200,000 people) and is a model for hyperlocal newsrooms across the country.
As Senter explained to Nieman Lab a few months after the paywall went live, “Nobody goes into journalism because they want to cater to advertisers and deliver them as many eyeballs as possible. …We were going to have to get some revenue streams from readers at some point.”
But shifting from just ads to a reader-as-subscription-customer model required a whole new set of tools and technology – ones that weren’t easily available at the time. Indeed, the initial paywall provider Senter and Westhoff used came with a $1,500 setup fee.
“We found a provider at the time that worked fine, fulfilling most of our needs.” relates Senter.
But the digital tools needed to collect emails, maintain a subscriber list, manage content access and login, and run a metered paywall needed to be top-notch, as well as integrated. And they just weren’t.
“[We used] at least three or four different platforms in sort of this patch-worked, jerry-rigged- ‘okay this system is collecting emails, and then we can migrate over here’ kind of thing,” Senter said.
For both readers and staff, the biggest source of friction was that none of these tools talked to each other. “Scrubbing the list” was a twice-a-week affair. This meant that, two times per week, either Senter or Westhoff had to go into each platform’s list of subscribers and make sure it matched up against the two or three additional platforms, manually editing each row, cell, or field of text.
The husband-and-wife team shared a hunch that they were missing the opportunity to reach a significant portion of readers who were visiting the site.
“None of these systems talked to each other,” Senter says. People might be a paid subscriber and then visit a different platform and not know what they were entering their email for.”
“100% revenue growth over six months”
After several years, and trying a variety of tools, Senter came across Pico, which manages email newsletter signups, account logins, payments, and the content paywall in one system. It seemed to solve the major pain point of using several platforms to deal with one issue, so he decided to give it a try.
Since switching to Pico six months ago with the help of a Pico Certified Developer Web Publisher PRO, the Shawnee Mission Post has nearly tripled the rate of new trial acquisitions, and has seen its overall subscriber base increase by more than 15%.
Senter points to the tool as a key factor in streamlining the Shawnee Mission Post’s user acquisition, digital subscription, and email opt-in processes.
No longer having to migrate email addresses is a boon, leaving more time to focus on growing the publication, and reporting. And Pico’s support team is always available when the occasional reader issue they can’t take care of themselves does arise: “We know we have access to a fully responsive support team.”
But the improvements weren’t just limited to the publishers; the number of complaints about login and password issues have dropped almost completely.
“The one-click signups with Facebook or Google or via email magic links – that was a huge reduction of friction for our users. Before, we had a system that was email and password which was often frustrating for them.”
Tripling paid subscription growth
Switching to Pico six months ago proved to be fortuitous, as it’s allowed the Post to take full advantage of the current news environment to capture more free and paying subscribers – indeed, Shawnee Mission Post has tripled its rate of new paid subscriber growth with Pico. A fully integrated, streamlined email signup, login, and payment system – “That’s something that came right out of the gate from day one with Pico, that wasn’t there before. That was really the big win for us.”