Advisor Matt Skibinski from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism presented attendees at the the INMA Consumer Engagement Summit in Miami on Friday with dozens of benchmarks, case studies, and best practices collected from 500+ news publishers.

He framed the discussion by first identifying a major challenge with any discussion of “engagement” — we don’t all define it the same way.

For purposes of the discussion, Skibinski defined engagement as “when readers find your content, products, and brand valuable enough that they are willing to pay for it.”

“Every other metric you are tracking is really just a way of finding some user behaviour that tells you that,” he said.

Advisor Matt Skibinski from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism provided extensive benchmark data to an audience of 130+ attendees at the INMA Consumer Engagement Summit.
Advisor Matt Skibinski from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism provided extensive benchmark data to an audience of 130+ attendees at the INMA Consumer Engagement Summit.

The benchmark data he shared through a deeply informative slide show was divided into three overall categories: national and major metro newspapers; local and regional newspapers; and magazines, digital only brands, etc.

During the presentation, Skibinski said this benchmark data should be viewed as “a diagnosis rather than a prescription” when comparing it against your own organisation. “Look at the health of your digital subscription business through these high-level and important metrics, then look where you can set your goals.” 

Some key benchmark data charts he shared included: profile of a likely subscriber, market penetration, optimising the audience funnel, monthly retention rates, pricing levels across the industry. A handful of overarching takeaways from the slides presented include:

  • The most successful digital subscription publishers stop 5%-10% of their digital audience with a payment gateway.
  • Stop rate is a very strong predictor of overall subscription sales, and the most common cause of a plateau is not stopping enough users.
  • As a general matter (and unsurprisingly) publishers with higher stop rates are selling more digital subscriptions.
  • There are two ways to increase a low stop rate: increase engagement or tighten the meter.
  • Publishers should also experiment with other levers of access control, including meter timeframe and meter targeting rules.
  • Because churn compounds over time, small changes in the rate can have a big impact on revenue over time.
  • The key to long-term retention is to engage all subscribers in your digital products effectively. The leading 10% of publishers have almost 2.5 times the engagement rate as the bottom 10%.
  • There is a significant correlation between subscriber engagement and retention.
  • Lifetime value is a key metric for ROI calculations. This metric is critical for making decisions about paid marketing spend, product investments, and even newsroom resource allocation.
  • The key types of content that drive engagement are: local, unique/distinct, and relevant to daily life.

Data can tell you what content will resonate with your most engaged readers, Skibinski said, and “there is a pretty strong correlation” between which content will drive a new subscription start and which content works to retain subscribers.

When asked what he believes publishers should focus on the most, Skibinski offered this: “Every publisher should be looking at some version of the occasional reader versus regular reader versus one-time reader breakdown over time. That’s where you can see you’ve improved engagement in a way that is measurable by behaviour.”

He also emphasised the importance of not getting overwhelmed with too many metrics at one time. Yes, take a top-line look at all the metrics combined, but then establish a strategic focus.

“Don’t look at 25 metrics,” Skibinski said. “Figure out where you need to focus and highlight that metric everywhere. Put it in e-mails, talk about it in meetings. This will be different from publisher to publisher. In many news organisations, there are so many numbers floating around, nobody knows how to make decisions based on them.”