Piano shares how publishers can improve retention in a post-pandemic world

By Paula Felps


Nashville, Tennessee, United States


As news brands look at how to encourage growth, Piano is helping them launch campaigns, bolster customer engagement, and drive personalisation. During this week’s INMA Webinar, Alexander Kreybig, director, strategic services/EMEA at Piano, covered some ways publishers can thrive in a post-pandemic world.

Subscription insights to drive engagement and conversion offered insight into what the current growth environment is for media companies and then looked at acquisition and retention benchmarks publishers can use in current times.  

Two years after COVID-19, the phenomenal subscription growth has slowed across the board, Kreybig said, giving publishers the smallest amount of growth since 2020. “Ad revenue growth is slowing and media companies are cutting costs, which is an unprecedented thing,” he said. He showed how active subscriber growth has dropped since the end of 2020, while churn increased amongst monthly subscribers.


Churn has continued increasing since 2020.
Churn has continued increasing since 2020.

“What we are seeing is increased churn in the first month for the monthly subscribers. When you look at churn as the age of the subscription ages or gets longer, those differences aren’t that big. So the biggest differences are in the first two or three months.”  

That means publishers must start implementing anti-churn tactics early on — even before the acquisition, Kreybig said. Ad growth is slowing, too, and Kreybig showed that ad growth in September 2023 is projected to be about half of the growth it enjoyed in September 2022, based on reports by MAGNA Global.


Advertising growth is slowing, and that trend is expected to continue.
Advertising growth is slowing, and that trend is expected to continue.

Offsetting the slowdown

What all these slowdowns are saying, Kreybig said, is that news publishers need to start using more sophisticated targeting to acquire new subscribers: “More segments, more different tactics to segment, which leads to a more complex paywall setup, which then leads to how to make those segments more universal.

“Focus on product value and churn reduction tactics; look at the whole growth from the acquisition but also from the retention side.”

Finally, he said, publishers should consider ads and subscriptions together: “These are two pieces of the same cake.”

When it comes to acquisition, looking at what is driving conversion is a good place to start, Kreybig said. Comparing the behaviour of subscribers for 30 days before they sign up can show quite a bit about what drives them to subscribe. Then, by comparing those aspects of their behaviour to those who do not subscribe, publishers can create a score to understand the likelihood of someone to subscribe based on their behaviours.

Piano calls that a likelihood to subscribe, or LtS score, and it provides a unique insight into conversions and what will drive engagement. For example, he said, they can see that specific articles are likely to draw conversions or that certain topics will draw them in.

“One customer told me in a discussion about personalisation that [they] have a section where [they] show evergreen content and it performs perfectly,” he said. “It’s not about the trending news necessarily but about the topics which are there.”

Another factor that can affect conversions are the devices they use, Kreybig said. Despite the fact that most traffic is coming from mobile devices, models show the propensity to subscribe is higher when the customer is on a desktop: “The conversion rate gap is quite high for mobile visitors,” he said. “It is three times bigger than desktop.”

Creating propensity scores allows publishers to determine what kind of CTAs to use for different customers; it informs how much content to allow them to see and whether to emphasise offers such as a trial or monthly subscription. Different segments can be grouped into clusters that have similar scores and then A/B tests can be run on those clusters to see what works.

When merging segments, he said, the questions to ask are:

  • Are the numbers significant enough?
  • Is the group large enough for A/B testing?
  • Is there enough lifetime value for the effort?

“Lifetime value is becoming a significant thing,” Kreybig said. “Lifetime value tells you … basically how much an average monthly or annual subscription is generating over a longer period of time. So if we break down by monthly, annual, and longer — how much do I generate and is it worth the effort?”

Improving retention

Once a publisher has segments and clusters, it can “experiment in a meaningful manner,” Kreybig said. He suggested starting with a hypothesis for why each user is not subscribing. Based on that hypothesis, develop a test to see if it changes their behaviour.

For example, for a mid-level group of visitors, the hypothesis may be that price or product fit are the barriers to entry. To counteract that, an annual trial, a survey, or a campaign emphasising the benefits of subscribing could be useful.

Free trials are leading monthly subscription models, but Kreybig said many publishers have found that free trials mean high conversion rates but also high churn. That’s why a focus on long-term subscriptions is increasingly important: “Certain publishers which we are working with, we are focusing heavily on annual subscriptions. So every campaign, everything you do … we are emphasising annual ones. It’s about retention.”

One more element affecting retention is passive churn, in which visitors didn’t intentionally churn but something happened with the bank or payment provider and ended the subscription. Kreybig suggested setting up payment retries and providing a grace period could improve that scenario.

Providing a personalised approach to subscribers can help retain those who may not have realised they churned.
Providing a personalised approach to subscribers can help retain those who may not have realised they churned.

“This is something which we are very intensely working on our product,” he said. “What we do is personalise during the grace periods when … you have insufficient funds.”

That can include sending an e-mail to the subscriber to provide another opportunity for payment.

“It’s not always possible, and it depends on payment providers and other things, but if you can, that’s a powerful thing to get them back because those visitors sometimes didn’t realise [they had churned].”

Although the industry is in a growth slowdown, Kreybig urged publishers to look for the user segments that are successfully converting and then create propensity models based on what they know about those customers.

“Experiment around that as much as you can,” he said. “Create your hypothesis and A/B test and analyse your churn. And if you can mitigate it [with] grace periods, use [them] as much as you can.”

About Paula Felps

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