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A journalistic lesson for an algorithmic age: Let the scientific method be your guide
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Jan. 12, 2023, 10:09 a.m.
Business Models
LINK:  ➚   |   Posted by: Laura Hazard Owen   |   January 12, 2023

Many news organizations and other companies have been highly reluctant to let users cancel their subscriptions online, despite FTC pressure and the fact that people haaaaate talking to customer service.

But what if refusing to allow subscribers to cancel online is not only annoying, but also actually counterproductive?1

The Minneapolis Star Tribune is working to hold on to subscribers with a position focused solely on subscriber retention, WAN-IFRA noted Thursday. One counterintuitive way to do that, the Star Tribune found, is to give subscribers the option to cancel online.

Toby Collodora joined the Star Tribune in 2019 as its first senior manager of retention and engagement. The paper now has 100,000 digital subscribers. “Our goal is discuss retention as often as we discuss acquisition,” she said at WAN-IFRA’s World News Media Congress last fall.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Star Tribune found that allowing online cancellation, as it started doing in December 2021, hasn’t resulted in more cancellations. Instead, it may actually be helping the paper keep more of its subscribers who are on the fence. The Star Tribune’s “total online save rate” is 18.5%, while the “call center save rate” — where you have to talk to a person who tries to persuade you to stay — is only 8.8%.

While allowing online cancellation initially raised some concerns that more people might cancel, Collodora said they’ve implemented a low-tech solution where users enter in some simple information, such as their name, email address and answer a short series of questions to help identify what kind of subscription they have.

“That information is then used to present an offer, sometimes it’s a price-based offer, sometimes it’s a different offer such as somebody is experiencing a problem with their digital account, we offer that somebody will give them a call back or send them an email to try to resolve that technical problem, and then of course that entices that person to retain their subscription with us,” she said.

The best indicator that a subscriber will stick around, the Star Tribune has found, is when they renew for the first time:

While Collodora is the person in charge of Star Tribune’s retention efforts, she said they also spend time talking about how retention is part of the job of everyone who works for the company.

For example, she said, “we talk about what each person in the organization can do to get a subscriber to make that first renewal payment. That’s really something we focus on because once a person makes their first renewal payment, they are far more likely to retain. It’s our single best indicator.”

You can read the full post about the panel here.

  1. In fact, our 2021 survey on cancellations suggested that this might be the case. “Oppressive cancellation policy that requires calling customer support to cancel,” one respondent wrote to explain why they canceled their subscription to the Chicago Tribune. ↩︎
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