Disappointing digital subscription numbers have nothing to do with content and design and everything to do with clunky online sign-up experiences that unnecessarily lump print and digital together.
One of the dirty secrets of the news industry is the radically different performance of digital subscriptions company by company.
Throw out the New York Times and Financial Times – who nailed the product, design, and user experience – and you have a heart-stopping performance chart that looks like an analysis of a boom and bear financial market.
This fact has gotten lost in the foggy data being communicated by publishers.
When a publisher reports, say, 50,000 “digital subscribers,” liberalised rules by audit bureaus deflect the fact that there are free offers and print subscribers getting “connected” to their digital accounts included in the accounting.
What looks like success or progress may, in fact, be under-performance thrown into a muddy bucket of related numbers. Some of the announcements read like carefully crafted wordsmithing by attorneys!
What media company executives tell me privately, across the industry worldwide, is the radically different performance in digital subscriptions has nothing to do with content or design. It has everything to do with a very poor user sign-up experience online.
The consumer expects Amazon. Instead, they are getting a clunky registration process that is the product of poor engineering.
The reasons for the poor engineering of the digital sign-up process are:
Print design for a digital world: Print people designing and engineering for digital. There are too many print people touching digital (and not enough digital people touching print) in the news industry. Either change the people or outsource this process.
Legacy systems not talking with each other: Obsessed with delivering a perfect “print + digital” sign-up experience, publishers can’t get their back-end databases to talk with each other efficiently enough – and that back-end difficulty is getting translated to the front-end.
This is especially true of print and the legacy components behind print, which are difficult to integrate into the sign-up process.
This second point is what most exasperates publishers, who know full well that an imperfect sign-up process online is costing them thousands upon thousands of registered users and paid subscribers.
They describe back-end legacy systems as a jumbled mess, forcing them into work-arounds and tricks.
Suggesting that they blow up today’s systems and start from scratch produces glazed looks like you’d expect from a veteran returning from war, behind which are:
Exhausting internal politics.
An enduring culture of “never fail.”
And the realisation that work-arounds are quicker but imperfect to the point that the company’s digital subscription process will never work without a single database with a single view of the customer.
My instinct is that the operations, sales, research, and marketing executives tasked with making these systems talk with each other (much akin to a Mandarin-speaker talking to an English-speaker through a translator) are banging their heads against the wall, while CEOs and senior management somewhat understand there is a problem but can’t get a clear bead on the solution.
The pressure to make “print + digital” work “good enough” now in the sign-up process is trumping the path to meet the customer’s high bar of minimum expectations.
There should be nothing holding us back from an online experience that allows for Web, tablet, and smartphone digital-only subscriptions. Hooking print subscriptions onto that process is holding most publishers back today.
Thus, there is no mystery why the signup experience is so poor. The reasons are plain.
There appear to be at least two solutions:
Single CRM: First, move to a single CRM system. This is long, hard, tedious, operational work that requires deft political maneuvering, leadership from the top to cut through people’s pet projects, and a lengthy timeline. This has been a need for two decades, and it has become an urgent necessity as we wade further into multi-platform waters.
Create a clear digital funnel: Second, emulating the FT and New York Times, create two clear funnels: one for “print + digital” and the other for “digital-only.” There is great pressure to include print with everything, yet the reality is we are leaving money on the table by not providing a clear, simple funnel for those who prefer digital-only.
Industry leaders like the New York Times, Financial Times, and Gannett have found that up to three-quarters of digital-only subscribers today have never subscribed to their print editions!
By failing to create a clear and simple path for digital natives in the sign-up experience, we are losing those paid eyeballs in the nanosecond that they realise we can’t deliver a quick Amazon experience.
In discussing “newspaper anywhere” bundled subscriptions with Italian, French, and British publishers in recent weeks, they wondered aloud how they get to a bundle without a history of print home delivery.
They are looking at the wrong problem.
At least in 2013, print – and the legacy systems gumming up the ability to deliver a unified customer experience – is holding back publishers from delivering the promise of “one brand anywhere.”
Those European publishers have the cultural freedom to create a digital-only subscription process unencumbered by legacy print systems. Let print catch up to digital down the road, not vice versa. Create an unparalleled experience with the user in mind and not how to make legacy systems work.
No evaluation of success or failure can be made without creating an Amazon-like sign-up experience. Create a clear path to this for digital-only subscribers.
Earl J. Wilkinson is executive director and CEO of INMA. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter at @earljwilkinson. This post is part of The Earl Blog at INMA.org.
Earl J. Wilkinson is executive director and CEO of INMA. In his interactions with INMA members worldwide, Earl has one of the broadest views of newspapers of anyone serving our industry today. He is a trendspotter and a leading advocate for cultural change, transformation, and innovation. This blog represents his unique view of the emerging global news media industry.