At one point in news publishing’s history, acquisition may have been the end goal. Now acquisition is the point at which the customer relationship offers new potential for a lifetime commitment.
Retention is only half of the puzzle. No discussion about subscription retention is complete without also looking at acquisition, Patrick Appel, Piano’s director of research, said during the INMA Master Class on Digital Subscriber Retention last month
“That line between acquisition and retention is often quite blurry,” Appel said. “How a customer is acquired … has major implications for retention.”
It’s no secret that 2020 was a good year for subscription acquisition, he added. Active subscriptions grew at an average of 57.8% over 2019. For many larger companies, that number jumped to around 70%. And while much of the growth happened as a result of the COVID bump, Appel said the entire year was marked by an uptick in subscriptions.
“The first month after the pandemic was declared there was this audience surge and the subscription surge, but it was maintained throughout the year,” Appel said. “We believe the reason is not just COVID, it’s not just the news cycle, but also the industry maturing in terms of tactics and taking subscriptions more seriously.”
The actions of Sweden’s Dagens Nyheter support Appel’s observation. The COVID-19 pandemic was a significant driver of digital subscription growth for the company last year, but it wasn’t just the traffic bump that made a difference — it was the strategic way Dagens Nyheter handled it.
“When it comes to acquisition, we always mix strategies,” said Anna Åberg, the company’s managing editor. “We don’t just use one strategy, and we use more then one at the same time.”
That approach allows them to better customise their user experience, which in turn leads to better conversion rates.
Large news events — such as pivotal elections and the pandemic — provide the opportunity to expand the audience, but will only work in the long-term if the right strategy is in place, Martin Jönsson, head of the editorial development, said.
“I think that news, in many instances, is the gateway drug for people to get introduced to a new brand or to start trying out and creating these habits,” Jönsson said. “But it’s not what will make them stay on as content paying subscribers. It’s what you can provide when you have introduced people to your brand that really makes the difference.”
To increase engagement and reduce churn, Belgium’s Mediahuis segmented readers into four groups — fan, discoverer, strayed, and lost — and developed KPIs for each group. By doing so, Mediahuis was able to get a clearer picture of what to focus on to improve engagement for the different users, Hanne Hendrikx, manager of customer retention, said.
The engagement team looks at the four different groups of customers and crafts different ways to help engage each group.
“We use different tools such as newsletters, social campaigns, and pushes,” Hendrikx said. “We try to get the e-paper more into their attention. And also we try to serve them podcasts or puzzles just to make them use their subscription more often.”
The Nine team in Australia wanted a very considered approach to its engagement and retention strategy to improve churn rates. They identified three key areas to focus on: organisation, research, and output.
David Eisman, director of subscriptions and growth at Nine, said the most important step was to just start going things.
“We didn’t wait for perfect versions of [steps] one and two before we got going,” Eisman said. “We knew that when people start paying us, they want to hear from us. We knew that the stories behind our journalism were interesting enough that we could just start producing great comms and getting them in front of our subscribers, and we were confident that it would be worthwhile.”
Last year, Nine Publishing ran an engagement project on its subscribers to understand what subscribers wanted and to look at its audience gain during the pandemic.
Based on insights from the engagement project, the company found the three ways to best measure their success, Kristen Turner, Nine’s head of consumer marketing, said.
- Measure the retention rates in key tenure points, which for Nine is at 100 days, 200 days, and at one year.
- Check the engagement health of the content at low, medium, and high levels.
- Check the monthly churn percentage. What is the retention and attrition rates per month every year, and what times of the year were there dips or increases?
The Retention Point
Media players outside of news are also paying close attention to retention. Robert Skrob, author of Retention Point, pointed to Netflix’s analysis of the “hooked episode” — the episode at which at least 70% of viewers will finish the season.
In Breaking Bad, for example, out of seven episodes for a total of 248 minutes, Netflix discovered that if for viewers who watched the second episode, seven out of 10 would go on to finish viewing the entire season.
Netflix then had to analyse what about that episode kept viewers watching — was it a plot twist, a reveal, or going in-depth into a central character? What type of programming was it that got somebody hooked? Newspaper publishers are asking similar questions.
“If we know what is making those readers engaged, can we do more of it on purpose?” Skrob asked. “And are we measuring, one, engagement, and, two, what is creating that engagement, so we can focus more on it?”
INMA Researcher-in-Residence Greg Piechota wrote more about Skrob and his work here.
For more information about upcoming INMA Master Classes, visit here.