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Aug. 22, 2018, 2:18 p.m.
Business Models

So your news organization has real, paying digital subscribers. Now how do you keep them?

One finding: “Need-to-know material converts (related to how to live your life, understand the world), while nice-to-know (guides, arts, reviews) converts badly but is key for retention.”

Raking in first-time subscribers is one thing. Getting these paying news readers to stay paying is another.

A new WAN-IFRA report walks through several case studies of news organizations (note: mostly European), that have found some success retaining their paying subscribers, through an elusive combination of consistently offering readers the news experience they want, and tracking relevant metrics to address problem points that might lead them to unsubscribe.

Easier said than done; we hear you. The news organizations represented in the report range from national to local-level outlets, and their paywall and audience growth strategies run the gamut. Many of them have the backing of a significant editorial, tech, analytics, and sales teams. Still, here are several ideas to steal:

“What does a subscription to X really do for me?”

Access to good, walled-off content isn’t necessarily enough to keep subscribers: “It’s about understanding what it is that your customers value and providing more of it. The information is found in your user data; how they behave on your site, what value they extract and how. Are your personalization efforts moving the needle? Are users engaging with your app push notifications? Are they consuming new types of content, and if so how did they discover it?” The benefits of subscription don’t only come in the form of premium stories on a website. It might be a special newsletter or a separate app. It might be access to more functionalities and features for browsing readers. It might be the promise of actually useful personalization.

Several of the publishers interviewed for the WAN-IFRA report are finding that the types of stories that get a lot of readers to sign up as subscribers are then also the types of stories they’re more likely to consume once they’re a subscriber: “What converts and what retains is pretty much the same thing,” Pål Nedregotten, CDO of the Norwegian local media group Amedia, said. “It’s basically about local value. If we provide local value for any given audience segment that we’re targeting, we will most likely have success.”

This, however, is not true for Schibsted-owned Svenska Dagbladet, which has found that “need-to-know material converts (related to how to live your life, understand the world), while nice-to-know (guides, arts, reviews) converts badly but is key for retention.” It’s been pushing cooperation between editorial desks: “For example, a series of articles on the Swedish housing market from the financial point of view (the Business depart- ment) and the psychology angle (the in-depth section within the Arts/Culture department).”

Don’t assume that to attract and engage subscribers, your organization must consistently drop expensive-to-produce investigations (or that that’s the only way to convert readers):

In the fall of 2017, the Swedish news company MittMedia launched comprehensive property sales coverage using this technology and a partnership with Google. For every house sold in all its local markets, the bot identifies an angle (e.g. the most expensive house sold this year in village X), creates a short text, and pulls an image from Google Streetview. In Sweden, names of buyers are a matter of public record, which adds to the value of this content. Not only has this type of content generated several hundreds of new paying subscribers, it’s also the most consumed type of content by existing subscribers.

“Traditionally, we’ve only reacted to churn once it’s happened. It’s of course much more powerful to be able to pre-empt it.”

The German daily Welt has implemented an internal “loyalty score,” which makes it easier for all parts of the organization from editorial to marketing to tech to understand where the organization is losing people. (Die Welt first launched a metered paywall in 2012, but overhauled its model and relaunched under a premium model in 2016. It has 80,000 digital-only subscribers.) According to Welt, half of their customers leave in the first three months, after which the rate of unsubscribing rate drops dramatically.

“We are convinced that the easier it is for people to subscribe and unsubscribe, a bit like on Netflix, the more likely it is that they will come back to us.”

French daily Le Figaro, which launched its paywall in 2015 and now has 88,000 digital-only subscribers, looks at how new visitors to the site behave for six months or even up to a year before ever pushing a tailored subscription offer to them. It’s also rethinking what to do when someone subscribes through an offer, then unsubscribes (then resubscribes, then unsubscribes, and on and on). Le Figaro also asked those subscribing to answer a few questions at the end of its subscription sign-up process, and found that 43 percent of those people didn’t plan to buy a subscription when they came to the website, but ended up signing up due to a specific article — meaning many of these readers wanted to read that one story, and never intended to stay subscribed in the first place.

“There’s a structural change in how the younger generation behave, and it makes how we used to measure churn irrelevant in many cases,” Gilles Corbineau, director of eBusiness and digital subscriptions, said. “We monitor how many subscribers we keep every month, the number of days a subscriber stays with us, and the number of days between two subscriptions. In other words; people subscribe to a promotional offer and cancel several times, but at some point the time lapse between two subscriptions shortens, and they finally stay with us. We’ve seen that after four subscriptions, which are not necessarily back-to-back, they tend to become loyal subscribers.

“Of course, we also need to work on ways to get out of the pure promotional subscription trap,” he added. “We need to test different offers, maybe based on editorial packages, for example during election periods — anything that can drive other reasons to stay than the promo prices period.”

The full report, which costs €250 for non-WAN-IFRA members, is available here.

Photo by Grant Hutchinson used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Aug. 22, 2018, 2:18 p.m.
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