Address users as individuals

“Every relationship starts with a conversation. One of the challenges we’ll be facing this coming year is how to communicate with users in an effective way in order to shift them through the stages of the loyalty funnel.”

Over the past year, more and more publishers opened their eyes to the beauty of direct user revenue and subscriptions. But today its potential is far from being reached. Although subscriptions are not a simple answer to declining revenues, as some people hope, the potential is massive and largely untapped.

I recently randomly landed on an article page of a site I’ve never visited before. After reading two or three paragraphs, a banner asked me if I wanted to become a subscriber: “Pay only $4.99 every month and get our best stories…” Thanks, but no thanks. Randomly attacking anonymous first-time users with products and offers is very 2008 and has been overcome even by third-class e-commerce sites. In 2018, we will see less and less of this scattershot approach. Many of us who have ambitions to grow our subscriber base will personalize our loyalty funnel and find new and better ways to target potential subscribers.

How? Some suggestions: Let’s think of subscriptions like dating, where the goal is to build a sustainable relationship with a user. In the ad-driven era, users have been treated like random Tinder dates: one-night-stands we were quick to drop. To regain the willingness and trust from users to eventually pay for content, we’ll have to change the way we treat them. A person who is identified as a potential subscriber needs to be addressed individually. Let’s take it to real life: When we meet someone new we’re interested in, it’s almost never a good idea to ask this person straightaway if he/she wants to start a relationship. Better to suggest we get a drink. Translated into the subscription space, this low-barrier first move can mean: “Learn more about us by following us on Twitter.” Next time, we meet we can dare to suggest to subscribe to a newsletter. No? Okay, this person only consumes sports content? The sports newsletter might work. Check. Next stage — it’s getting serious now, so we can promote our the app. And so on. Eventually, this person might convert into a paying subscriber. Step by step.

Every relationship starts with a conversation. One of the challenges we’ll be facing this coming year is how to communicate with users in an effective way in order to shift them through the stages of the loyalty funnel. When 98 percent of online users consume content completely passively, this is tricky. The real estate on sites where this conversation can happen are banners, that users largely learned to ignore, traumatized by crappy display ads. Facebook is one way to communicate with users, but we won’t do the mistake again to put all our eggs into that one basket.

2018 will teach us to get into conversations with users in order to shift them through the funnel.
In the end, this might not result in a completely subscriber-backed business for the entire industry. Not every content site is built for a subscription business, and there will be publishers who experiment with subscriptions right now who will figure out that it’s not the right business model for them. But on the way to this conclusion, we can all learn a lot — if we’re willing to address users as individuals.

Pia Frey is cofounder of Opinary.

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