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BREAKING: The ways people hear about big news these days; “into a million pieces,” says source
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Dec. 5, 2018, 10:13 a.m.
Business Models

Get rid of the content no one reads. Offer surprises and “candy.” And other tricks for retaining subscribers.

“I am not saying we shouldn’t do vegetables. But for the financial health of our organizations, the rewards are candy. If we’re not taking the vegetables and dipping them in caramel, we’re making some hard choices.”

If news organizations want to attract and retain subscribers, they need to look to psychology…and nudge, nudge, and nudge again: That’s one big takeaway from a recent summit on engagement. And here’s another idea: What if you simply got rid of content that readers don’t read?

INMA’s November Consumer Engagement Summit (led by 2016 Nieman Fellow Grzegorz Piechota, currently INMA’s researcher-in-residence) looked at how newsrooms can move people from readers to subscribers to lifetime customers; that summit was summarized in a recently released INMA report. Here are some key bits and recommendations.

News organizations say engagement is important, but they don’t always allocate resources that way. INMA says “consumer engagement is the most important factor in consumer revenue success,” but when it ran a survey of 60 companies ahead of the engagement summit, it found that 59 percent of them spent less on engagement than on consumer acquisition. The Financial Times is an outlier here, spending three times more on engagement than on acquisition, and INMA says “best practice [is] heading towards investing between three to 10 times [as much on] engagement [as on] acquisition.”

Pick an engagement metric and stick with it. The Financial Times, for instance, defines engagement as “recency + frequency + volume.” The Wall Street Journal focuses on monthly active users. The Telegraph in London focuses on total subscriptions. Lenfest’s Matt Skibinski defines engagement simply as “when your readers find your content, products, and brand valuable enough that they are willing to pay for it.”

— Figure out how to build habits, says Charles Duhigg, New York Times columnist and senior editor and author of bestsellers like The Power of Habit. Duhigg:

In our industry, we should look at what rewards readers are giving themselves. When you study analytics on readers or customers, what kind of content are they looking at? What are they doing with the website that isn’t captured in your model? What rewards do they give each other?…

The New York Times, for instance, has a model where we look for people visiting at least twice a week and looking at three different topics. Once they do that, we know it is someone primed to get them into a subscription. They are developing a habit on their own and shopping for rewards.”

Duhigg talked about the power of emotion in building habits. Hate-reading is habit-forming; is there something more positive that can replace it?

‘If we look at the last two years, the amount of anger in the news has boosted our traffic,’ Duhigg said, referencing coverage of U.S. President Donald Trump. ‘It is the most high-arousal emotion on earth and nobody expects they are going to enjoy it. The trouble is the kind of arousal we most dislike when we can anticipate it is anger — the emotion news usually causes. If you say to somebody “Would you like to be angry?” they will universally say no. Then they read something on Twitter that makes them outraged, they will share it and read it again and again. We have to find other emotional rewards to deliver something sustainable.”

News media’s historic emphasis on selling their products with an ‘eat your vegetables’ mentality — expecting people to buy because reading the news is ‘what’s good for you’ — lacks this emotional reward. Said Duhigg: ‘For the health of the nation and the world, the vegetables are important. I am not saying we shouldn’t do vegetables. But for the financial health of our organizations, the rewards are candy. If we’re not taking the vegetables and dipping them in caramel, we’re making some hard choices.’

The Wall Street Journal, for instance, measures “active days” — the number of days a reader engages with content. Its “Habit Project” focuses on “16 different engagement opportunities” that make subscribers stay on the site longer.

Nudge, nudge, nudge. When Canada’s Globe and Mail began emailing subscribers with the highest propensity to churn, it reduced churn by 140 percent. Emailing subscribers who hadn’t logged in for 30 days reduced churn by 27 percent.

— What if you just…got rid of the content that nobody reads? The USA Today Network ran an internal campaign designed around this concept: “Stop doing things readers don’t want.” It built a tool called Pressbox to show its journalists how their stories are doing based not just on pageviews but on “volume, engage time, and loyalty (return frequency).”

By examining the ‘bottom half’ of content that wasn’t performing well, they were able to determine that only six percent of the audience was reading that content.

‘We could eliminate half of our journalism and our traffic really wouldn’t change — if we replaced it with nothing,’ said [Josh Awtry, senior director for news strategy at USA Today Network]. ‘What if we replaced that with content readers really wanted? We knew early on we didn’t just want it to be about pageviews…We are publishing 2.7 percent less monthly while the article pageviews have gone up.”

The UK’s Times Newspapers, meanwhile, decided to get rid of content that simply duplicated what was already available from the BBC, which 98 percent of Times readers already use on a weekly basis. “We effectively retired from breaking news,” said Times managing editor Chris Duncan. “Our readers didn’t really value it. So why compete on something our customers didn’t value?”

People like surprises. The Atlantic tries to find random little rewards for subscribers, said Emilie Harkin, the company’s senior director for customer marketing and growth. Two examples: Sending a reader a baby present, and recreating a digital version of a special Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. newsstand print issue for digital subscribers.

$9.99 > $14.99. At least in the experience of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, which tested three follow-up rate offers after a $0.99/month sale. Here’s what they found:

— Retention rate for the $9.99 rate was 41 percent higher than the $14.99 price.
— Lifetime value was highest for the $14.99 price.
— The $19.99 offer had almost no difference in retention to $14.99.

The team also tested quarterly billing versus monthly billing. The one-year retention rate for quarterly billing was 28 percent higher than the monthly billing group — 39.4 percent retention for quarterly versus 30.7 percent monthly.

Another example of little things helping: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution improved retention by setting up a campaign to get subscribers set up for auto-pay. Forty-five percent of its subscribers had still been receiving print bills.

The full report is available to INMA members here.

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     Dec. 5, 2018, 10:13 a.m.
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