3 media companies share how they manage the reader subscription journey

By Josefin Olevik

Stockholm, Sweden


Getting the subscribers to stay — or at least to win them back — is all we ever wanted? 

During last week’s INMA Media Subscriptions Summit in Stockholm, three of the world’s most successful media companies shared their subscriber journey obstacles and hits along the way.

NZZ’s Briefing newsletter

Nashua Gallagher, head of customer journey management at at the Neue Zuercher Zeitung (NZZ) in Switzerland, told the audience about a well-establlished conservative newspaper, founded in 1780. Their values are high-quality and well-trusted journalism. 

NZZ's 60-day onboarding journey involves offers and a newsletter.
NZZ's 60-day onboarding journey involves offers and a newsletter.

“We saw the costumer journey through a whole lifetime — from seeing your parents reading the newspaper by the table as a child, through the student life and so on,” Gallagher said. “There is audio, video, your friends talking about an article, or you see something on social media. We must make an answer for all these occasions.” 

NZZ created a hard paywall 2020, all the content locked in. That immediately generated quite a few subscribers. Gallagher shared next steps and how her team had to try to understand who was paying and what subscriber behaviour looked like.

They built a lot of shiny models but didn’t really know how to use the data. And how would they go from measurements to action?

“We made this 60-day onboard journey, with strategic points of different character,” she said. “It was offers, three-for-one, and we also made our NZZ Briefing newsletter. And we could see that the letter had an assisting effect on 15% of our new subscribers in 2021.” 

The NZZ Briefing newsletter coms every morning and every night, presenting the top news of the day as a way of navigating through information and making it easier for the consumer to go on to the right spot in the NZZ universe. The next step was to put a price on the newsletter. So, after 77 days as a subscriber of the free e-mailed newsletter, there are different offers for the readers to pick. 

Now the NZZ Briefing is one of the more important tools to continue to tweek in the customer journey.

The Guardian’s personalised donation ask 

Jesse Wilkins, senior growth manager at The Guardian, has a well-known and very different route to reader revenue. The seventh-biggest news media company in the world has chosen the open way, pioneers in the voluntary payment section. 

“We put the message at the end of the article, when the user has got value from what he just read,” Wilkins said. “At that time, he´s emotionally ready.” 

The Guardian determines its readers "supporter motivation" to urge them to donate.
The Guardian determines its readers "supporter motivation" to urge them to donate.

Some of the ideas came from Wikipedia, which uses a similar model. They both try to find out what messages are useful and why people would pay for what they can get for free. In customer surveys, The Guardian has repeatedly asked its readers these questions and has got a stable list of reasons. 

But high ambitions and saving the free press do not always convert to paying. The Guardian still has to find the right words to reach their users. So they tried to speak to the readers in their own language, meaning a person interested in climate change would have a message on that subject. And a football lover would get an inquiry made by the in-house cartoonist. 

It worked. 

Another measure has been to feedback the readers on their consumer patterns.

“We congratulate the top readers, acknowledging them on how many articles they´ve read,” Wilkins said. “It´s been working very well. The more they realise they read, the more they are willing to pay.”

Message to readers of The Guardian are personalised based on what they are reading.
Message to readers of The Guardian are personalised based on what they are reading.

There are people who are not comfortable being mapped in this way, and there is a button you can push for not being registered, he said. Collection of data always must be balanced against the reader’s sense of integrity. 

“We also ask people to let us remind them to pay next month,” he said. “They can choose to let us do that, and it has been popular. In summary: We are politely nudging towards a recurring payment.”

Nikkei’s young reader offer 

Mio Kataoka is product manager at Nikkei, one of Japan’s biggest news media companies, focused on economic and financial journalism. Nikkei was the first in Japan to offer digital subscriptions, starting in 2010 and has been in the cutting edge since. 

Today Nikkei has 2.4 million subscribers, 800,000 of them digital — numbers most news meda companies can only dream about. 

Nikkei could see, through meticulous measuring, how young people jumped free one-month trial offers, but also how they all left when the period was over. The company’s primary group of readers are in their 40s and 50s with an average churn only 2.4 %.

“At least the young readers were interested,” she said. “We could see how they wanted to try us out. But how could we make them stay?” 

By segmenting subscribers by engagement, the team could see the young readers were also the least active users. Cross reading with churn it was obvious: The more interaction – the less risk of quitting.  

“As we were interested in young light users we invited them, in readers groups, to tell us what they wanted and why they didn’t take part in our content,” Kataoka said. “We learnt they found the articles too complex and had difficulties understanding them because they lacked the background knowledge.” 

Nikkei then started a new concept, called “Think!” — invitting already known experts in different fields to give a background of the text in a commentary field connected to the article.

The "Think!" addition fills out information young readers need to feel engaged.
The "Think!" addition fills out information young readers need to feel engaged.

The think! project turned out well. Young people did read the expert additions, and it made them more engaged and loyal. It was mainly the light readers using it, and the retention rate among those readers went up to 93% — spot on target.  

Kataoka also discussed a failure. As a way of trying to win back the subscription dropouts while the iron was hot, they offered a 20% discount immediately linked to the cancellation.

But somebody tweeted it, it got widely spread, and the effect was that 25% of the loyal users canceled their subscription and took the better offer.

About Josefin Olevik

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