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Times, Star Tribune, AJC share effective retention practices

By Carly Price


Austin, Texas, United States


During presentations at the INMA Consumer Engagement Summit in Miami on Friday, several news media companies talked about how they have revamped retention programmes and shared a range of successful practices. A common thread was improving the customer experience.

Chris Duncan, managing director at Times Newspapers Ltd. in the United Kingdom, said his company has reduced digital churn rates by 10% in 24 months and improved its save rate from 35% to about 50%. This was accomplished by shifting the top-line focus to providing “lifetime service” for individual customers over a 25- to 30-year period.

 Chris Duncan, managing director at Times Newspapers Ltd. in the United Kingdom, explained why his company stopped covering breaking news and shifted its focus to what customers value more.
Chris Duncan, managing director at Times Newspapers Ltd. in the United Kingdom, explained why his company stopped covering breaking news and shifted its focus to what customers value more.

“We looked at why people were leaving,” he said. “We weren’t delivering enough value where people would pay when there was so much free content. In the UK market, the BBC produces to a high quality standard, and 98% of our readers use it on a weekly basis.

“We looked more at the psychology of our readers. They want to be well informed, not just know facts. They want to be rounded and able to talk about a lot of subjects. They told us they wanted to be confident they could repeat what they read in The Times — so social currency.”

They also expressed a desire for information about where to travel, what to read, etc.

What was the end result of this examination?

“We effectively retired from breaking news,” Duncan said. “Our readers didn’t really value it. So why compete on something our customers didn’t value?”

The Times moved to publishing a few releases of highly valuable content each day rather than constantly rewriting breaking news stories in an attempt to compete with dozens of other news enterprises.

“Then we stated thinking outside the bill,” Duncan said, looking at lifetime value of a customer, thinking about the first point of the customer experience, which usually is before a subscription is secured. Sometimes people will interact with the brand for years before.

They began identifying potential subscribers and treat them like $10,000 lifetime value customers from the beginning. They created a registered access programme (two free articles per week in exchange for an e-mail address) so they could talk to those individuals — and the surprise was this actually reduced churn.

“We thought it would go up when giving away a lot of free content, but with a hard paywall, you bring people in with a one-month trial and then [they read the one story they want to read], but they disappear,” Duncan said. “This allowed us to get rid of those ‘one and done’ readers and removed them from our churn base.”

While some people assume the longest tenured customers would tend to be the most engaged, this is not necessarily true.

Habit delivers the highest return. New, young subscribers can become habitual customers very quickly. This is another way to think about value, Duncan said. News media companies sometimes maintain heavy emphasis on “super fans,” but that can’t be the only focus.

Personalisation is another way to add value, and news media companies now must compete against an overall trend in personalised customer experiences. Duncan touched on the subject of machine learning and how it will make personalisation easier for media companies in the future.

Louis Deering, senior digital marketing manager for Star Tribune in Minneapolis, Minnesota, explained that his company was an early adopter with its paid content model, rolled out in 2012. It later hit a wall with new subscribers, but 2017 was a good year: average weekly digital-only starts increased 110% year-over-year.

At the same time, average weekly digital-only stops increased 46% and churn increased 18%. This led to the question: “Do we have a retention problem? Depends on how you define problem,” Deering said.

To re-evaluate its approach to retention, the team focused on three things:

  1. Choosing the metric: Is churn the right metric to determine if retention tactics are working?
  2. Understanding why subscribers cancel: Look at subscriber feedback and user data for answers.
  3. Determining what tactics will bring the best ROI: Building new core competencies takes time. Is retention really cheaper than new acquisition? “For us, we weren’t sure that was necessarily going to be the case,” Deering said.

To attack this “problem,” the news media company shifted focus from churn and retention to customer lifetime value. A focus on best practices in retention is still quite present as a strategy — it’s just now put in the context of lifetime value. Retention opportunities were mapped out with a focus on ROI.

“The first clear place to start for us was pricing and billing,” Deering said. “That is something we had a lot of control and understanding over, and we could quickly execute tests and see results. Activation was another area — making sure users got logged in on devices. This is not a very large number [of people], but they are very likely to churn and it’s very easy to solve.”

Deering and his team took a deep dive into retention offers. After a US$0.99 cent-per-month sale, they compared performance of three follow-up rate offers: US$9.99 per month, US$14.99, and US$19.99.

The results:

  • Retention rate for the US$9.99 rate was 41% higher than the US$14.99 price.
  • Lifetime value was highest for the US$14.99 price.
  • The $19.99 offer had almost no difference in retention to US$14.99.

The team also tested quarterly billing versus monthly billing. The one-year retention rate for quarterly billing was 28% higher than the monthly billing group — 39.4% retention for quarterly versus 30.7% monthly.

Something that didn’t work well was thank you cards. Something that worked a little, but needs more targeting was boosted articles on Facebook.

The team is now in the road map part of the journey: taking the data, activating it, using it, and keeping the lifetime value always top of mind.

“If all you have is an acquisition hammer, everything looks like a nail,” Deering said. “We need to broader the retention toolkit.”

Kelli Dakake, senior manager of consumer revenue for Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC), talked about her company’s “Love the One Youre With” customer journey initiative. During the past year, the focus has been on quality journalism to engage and acquire, then “treating our subscribers like gold” to keep them.

Kelli Dakake, senior manager of consumer revenue for Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC), emphasised the customer relationship and service as a key retention strategy.
Kelli Dakake, senior manager of consumer revenue for Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC), emphasised the customer relationship and service as a key retention strategy.

With customer service as the emphasis of the retention part of the journey, AJC conducted a comprehensive audit of all customer touchpoints “making sure every touchpoint has a consistent voice,” Dakake said.

AJC examined how every interaction impacts reader engagement and retention. Staff looked at the importance of channel mix, relevance, frequency, and value: “It’s all about the perceived value of the product we are offering,” Dakake said. “What are they getting on top of the content?”

They learned 70% of AJC subscribers were registered for digital access, but only half were really engaged. “We have put a lot of resources into that engagement” and now 70% of those subscribers are actively engaged, she said.

E-mailed newsletters have been a key piece in this engagement strategy. “The more they engage with and open newsletters, the more likely they subscribe,” Dakake said, adding that the focus now is on measuring the performance of each newsletter. The team started with 48, but eliminated six that weren’t meeting the criteria for adding value.

In July 2018, the company also introduced AJC Hub, an online destination for customers to manage subscriptions and preferences; engage with content, e-paper, and newsletters; and find loyalty events, contests, deals, and discounts.

Coupons are something that has long been successful for adding value for AJC print subscribers. With the launch of AJC Hub, it became possible to offer this same value to digital subscribers. Dakake said they now offer more than 100 discounts to digital subscribers, from car rentals to restaurants and local businesses.

Loyalty events also have been a big focus, ranging from a partner event with a local history museum to a luncheon for loyal subscribers to a TV station tour. These activities make subscribers feel special, and the newsroom is starting to see the impact and importance of loyalty events, Dakake said.

AJC revamped its pricing strategy to focus more on retaining the most loyal subscribers. In addition, there has been a big push to get more subscribers set up for autopay. A surprising 45% of subscribers were still receiving printed bills. Now they get an e-mail that encourages them to sign up with AJC Hub and go digital with payments.

To reduce stops, AJC established a white glove team that provides more personalised attention for those choosing to cancel. “We have a live data feed that goes to this team to contact them immediately after they stop,” Dakake explained. “Over the past year, we have contacted 42% of stops and saved about 35% of them.”

About Carly Price

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