It is kind of surreal hearing a couple of professional tennis and basketball people sounding just like the 100+ news media types at INMA’s Local Reader Revenue Symposium — talking about trying to convert and retain subscribers, reduce churn, reward loyalty, and monetise the relationship.

But that’s exactly the way it was with Kent Schacht of the U.S. Tennis Association (USTA) and Satwant Singh of the National Basketball Association (NBA) on stage Wednesday as part of Media Innovation Week 2019 in Hamburg.

Kent Schacht of the U.S. Tennis Association (USTA) and Satwant Singh of the National Basketball Association (NBA) share the membership and engagement challenges of their sports organisations.
Kent Schacht of the U.S. Tennis Association (USTA) and Satwant Singh of the National Basketball Association (NBA) share the membership and engagement challenges of their sports organisations.

It makes one wonder how publishers might approach things differently if they treated readers like fans of the game — whatever that game may be. That was probably the point.

“Everyone thinks of us as being about the U.S. Open,” said Schacht, the USTA’s senior director of data strategy and customer engagement. “What they don’t realise is that the other 50 weeks of the year were all about driving tennis participation in the United States. We are a non-profit mission based organisation. We are very much focused on a mission that is promoting and encouraging the sport of tennis in the United States. We’re trying to get our professional players to think about marketing the game, to grow the game and encourage participation. That is not what we’re known for but is really what we do.”

In newspaper terms, it’s sort of like the difference between long-time traditional print subscribers and the young, new digital audience.

“Over the last few years, we’ve been working very hard to make a transition, make a change, in how we reach that new audience, how we focus on that customer experience, but also not alienating the whole group of valuable customers we had already,” Schacht said.

“At the core of what you’re trying to do — it’s all based on content,” he told the media audience. “For us it’s all about programmes and services. That’s our content.

“Our membership model has been successful, but it’s been sort of a pay to play model” in which members pay a recurring fee to play in USTA leagues and tournaments. “We’re trying to change to some sort of rewards engagement” where customers will engage through a value-based platform that creates and rewards engagement with the game.

“We need to make our customer experience better for our players. We try to use the word engagement and not membership. So we asked what do successful engagement models around the world look like?

“First we need to connect around passion. As you probably know, sports fans are incredibly passionate. They’re not necessarily just passionate as fans of players — they’re fans of playing the game.” When you bring people together around shared passions, he said, it makes it easy to build communities and develop network effects.

Singh, as director of direct-to-consumer strategy and retention, is focused on reducing churn on the NBA’s League Pass direct-to-consumer subscription video service.

According to its Web site, League Pass offers live and on-demand game viewing on personal devices, customised broadcasts, enhanced mobile experiences while viewing live games, and specialised condensed viewing options. Subscriptions range from US$120 to US$250 annually.

So in newspaper terms, it’s a paid premium upgrade from just tuning into the games on television or online.

While Singh provided the INMA audience with some subscription and retention rates and other current statistics for the service, they were not for publication or reference. Suffice it to say that, despite fan enthusiasm around professional basketball, League Pass subscribers sign up and cancel like for any other product, for a wide variety of reasons including just the time of year. 

“Retention rates as a whole are not typically easy to move,” Singh said.

The NBA is pursuing a number of tactics in a focused effort this year to try to counter churn, he said. These include enhanced promotion and special offers for subscription packages that demonstrate higher retention rates, implementing a Text Me the App widget to encourage more installs (which correlates to greater retention), using e-mails to encourage behaviours within the first seven days of a new subscription (which data indicates improve retention), and issuing emails from customer service in response to specific churn and cancellation indicators.

Later in the afternoon at the Local Reader Revenue Symposium, Matthijs van de Peppel, director of marketing, data, and customer care at NRC Media, closed out the day’s discussions on managing churn and subscriber relationships with an overview of strategies at his Dutch publishing house.

Matthijs van de Peppel, director of marketing, data and customer care at NRC Media, shares how the company maintains long-term subscriber relationships.
Matthijs van de Peppel, director of marketing, data and customer care at NRC Media, shares how the company maintains long-term subscriber relationships.

It is a now-classic story of NRC’s shift in 2015 from hunting short-term circulation to growing long-term subscriber relationships. The accompanying chart shows a decline of 15,000 subscribers per year dramatically reversing to a now-average yearly increase of 8,000 readers. 

 

 

Long-term relationships have a two-way value, van de Peppel said: “The customer is not king. He gives value to us and we give value to him.”