Personalised subscriber onboarding results in higher engagement, retention for Washington Post

By Anjali Iyer

The Washington Post

Washington, DC, USA


Retention begins the moment a consumer expresses interest and becomes a subscriber.

It is at this early stage where The Washington Post establishes its relationship with subscribers and can make a positive first impression.

Investing in subscriber onboarding

Prior to launching The Post’s new subscriber onboarding journey in fall 2022, our practice was to send a single welcome e-mail immediately after subscription purchase. While the e-mail highlighted important subscriber benefits, it was one touchpoint that could easily be missed or overlooked in a subscriber’s inbox.

In 2022, we revamped the subscriber onboarding journey considering feedback from consumer research and analytical insights. We built a comprehensive onboarding journey with tailored e-mail messages over the course of multiple months utilising customer 360 signals and a journey builder.

This was a game changer as it unlocked personalisation capabilities at the subscriber level. Consumer research also indicated an interest in comprehensive news and interaction with our products and newsroom beyond the dominant headlines from the past few years, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Subscriber onboarding is important in achieving subscription marketing goals for growing consumption, reducing churn, and increasing customer lifetime value (CLV). It sets the tone on the overall relationship with new subscribers to achieve the several key objectives:

  • Positive subscriber experience: Onboarding is a way to introduce new subscribers to benefits and features, establish a relationship and build loyalty.
  • Reduce churn: Churn is the rate at which subscribers cancel their subscriptions. Effective onboarding can help reduce churn by providing new subscribers with the information and resources to build repeat habits and realise the value of their subscription.
  • Increase customer lifetime value: Subscribers who visit often tend to use multiple features and benefits, read newsletters, and have increased satisfaction and a high net promoter score (NPS), thus leading to higher retention rates, which is a key driver of CLV.

In this journey, we are focusing on consumption since it is a key driver of both subscription revenue and ad revenue. It directly impacts the willingness of subscribers to spend time with our premium content, drive higher traffic, interact with ads, and likely renew as they start to value content.

Our approach

We leveraged internal and external research combined with machine learning to build an automated new subscriber journey with defined success metrics. The journey has algorithm triggers to proactively engage subscribers to visit us and build everyday habits so we can increase frequency and recency of visits to drive revenue and lifetime value.

We know, based on internal research, that subscribers who have zero to two visits have a 15% lower retention rate compared to subscribers with more than 15 visits. Also, subscribers who use the app and visit more than 14 times have a higher NPS than others.

Different actions result in different journeys through the onboarding process.
Different actions result in different journeys through the onboarding process.

Guiding principles on the subscriber journey

We identified three key guiding principles on the subscriber journey:

  • Be subscriber-centric. It’s about them. In other words, we get to know their interests and their preferences about when they want to receive communications from us.
  • Be relevant. This builds strong relationships and loyalty.
  • Ensure consistent messaging across channels and devices.
On-site onboarding encourages readers to divulge their interests to further personalise content.
On-site onboarding encourages readers to divulge their interests to further personalise content.

Our current subscriber journey includes multiple e-mail messages designed to educate, engage, and inspire subscribers to act. Subscribers are given engaging content as they go through the journey in the first few weeks to drive recency and frequency of visits and, ultimately, build habits and loyalty. We have refined the journey to ensure that the right combination of actions work together at the right time.

The journey starts with recommended on-site onboarding actions and then smoothly transitions into triggered e-mail communications. The first step in on-site onboarding is for subscribers to select their interests, time of day, newsletter recommendation, and app download.

This is important personal data collection, as it helps us better understand customer needs and preferences to later make informed decisions to provide personalised experiences.

The first e-mail is a personal welcome note from our authors to build connections with subscribers by sharing the mission of The Post. It is powerful and a chance to share with subscribers what we believe in and an affirmation for why they are with us.

As the e-mail series continues, each subscriber receives tailored messages based on their individual actions. Our goal is to ensure that subscribers only receive information that is most relevant to their personal interaction with us thus far.

E-mail communication offers subscribers a lot of choices for engaging in the content.
E-mail communication offers subscribers a lot of choices for engaging in the content.

For example, in week one, the automated journey checks to see which onboarding actions different subscribers have completed. Subscribers who have not initiated or completed the recommended actions get targeted e-mails.

In the same week, premium subscribers who haven’t shared their associate subscription receive an e-mail encouraging them to do so.

In both scenarios, behavioral data is used to tailor the onboarding experience for personalisation at the subscriber level.

Over the next few weeks, e-mails are deployed highlighting content ranging from exclusive investigations and opinions to educating subscribers on WP Live events, gifting articles, and exploring The Post via other platforms like a podcast or TikTok.

The subscriber journey

This diagram is an example of what the subscriber might look like.

Many of these benefits and features were selected based on analytical insights. There is a strong correlation between these actions and retention. Analysis showed that subscribers who gift articles or attend WP Live events are less likely to churn. Our goal is to educate subscribers about these benefits in their early tenure to positively impact retention and customer lifetime value.

Measurement plan

We have identified our primary and driver metrics to gauge increase in engagement and retention to measure its effectiveness by implementing a control group.

Primary metrics are:

  • Article pageviews.
  • Total visits and days visited in 30 days.
  • Habit adoption (newsletter engagement, app downloads, interests, and author follows).
  • Retention over 90 days.


Since launch, our new subscriber onboarding journey has resulted in a 2% lift in retention and an increase in three-year CLV after 12 weeks.

Next iteration

To be relevant, journeys must constantly be reevaluated and enhanced. Our immediate next step is expanding to on-site and in-app messages, since not all subscribers can be reached via e-mail. To be effective, subscribers must be communicated to in their preferred channel.

Further experimentation is planned to understand what messages resonate on which channels, such as podcasts or audio listening.

About Anjali Iyer

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