News publisher focus on data and current subscribers hinders growth

By Greg Piechota


Oxford, United Kingdom


Growing subscriptions requires more than clicks. It requires understanding who our reader wants to be as a person, says author Rob Skrob in an interview with INMA.

Rob, who wrote the bestselling book The Retention Point, made a case for a chief subscription officer at a recent INMA conference and will do a master class for INMA in onboarding new subscribers. In between these events, I spoke to him.

Greg Piechota, INMA: You attended our Media Subscription Summit in Stockholm in March. What do you think is the most common mistake publishers make that slows down growth?

Rob Skrob, author: The key mistake I see with news publishers, which hinders their ability to build reader-focused revenue, is not attempting to build relationships with readers. 

In the past, when news media were mostly ad supported, they had many advertising representatives who built relationships with potential clients. Some specialised in the local auto repair shops, others in real estate agents, or in furniture shops, and their primary job was to meet the customers, understand their needs, and tailor offers to grow ad revenue. 

However, with the shift to reader revenue, publishers lack a corresponding apparatus for building relationships with readers. 

INMA: Why do you think that? Editors are staring all day at dashboards and studying what readers click on.

Rob Skrob: Data doesn’t give you the full picture because only a small proportion of your subscribers and your potential market is clicking. Many subscribers actually don’t click that much, but yet they still might value their subscription. Relationships are what counts. And to grow the business, publishers need to understand the needs and motivations of those who do not click, or subscribe, as much as those who do. 

INMA: How would you envision a reader representative role?

Rob Skrob: The key is listening more. We need to go out to readers and learn about their needs, make them feel seen and understood.

If we do it, we will realise that there is not one reader but likely many types of readers. There is a business owner, a politician, a pensioner, a student, and they all have different mindsets and try to accomplish different things. 

With today’s technology, we can meet people online, e-mail them, or use countless other tools to foster a connection. Then we need to tailor journalism and experience to the needs of readers, and make the subscription more than just an exchange of articles for money. 

INMA: OK. I hear that publishers focus too much on user data and too little on user research, and too much on subscribers and too little on non-subscribers. 

Rob Skrob: What I am advocating is a mindset change: Rather than focusing on ourselves and what we produce, we shall focus on our readers and their needs.

In general, people are busy and overwhelmed. They don’t need more content. Every hour, there is more content uploaded to YouTube than any of us can watch for the rest of our lives. 

INMA: So, why would you subscribe to the news?

Rob Skrob: Well, you would subscribe because it’s helping you become a person you want to be. It makes you feel connected to the community. It makes you feel like you know what’s going on. It helps you feel seen and valued.

I am afraid that after 30 years of digital disruption and transformation, and endless cost cutting in the media, many readers may feel left behind. They found pieces of what they used to get in their favourite newspaper — connection, inspiration, recognition — somewhere else.

Growing subscriptions requires more than clicks and data. It requires understanding who our reader wants to be as a person. When we realise that, we will change our journalism, our products, and our marketing.

INMA: What should publishers do once they understand readers’ needs and get them to subscribe?

Rob Skrob: They should build the relationship, and the most powerful strategy is a seven-day e-mail onboarding sequence. This helps improve retention and trial conversion rates.

Instead of e-mail, you can do in-app demos, educational videos, or send welcome kits by post, but e-mail is the simplest tool, easiest to measure and quickest to implement. 

During the onboarding, you want to prove to new subscribers they made the right choice. You want to get them up to speed with the conversations in the community. You want to tell them about useful features that they likely never heard about. You want to show them who else is subscribing. And based on what you know about churn reasons, such as being too busy to read, you want to flip those into reasons to stay, for example, by showing how you can save their time. 

INMA: How should publishers adapt their subscription strategy to the current economic climate?

Rob Skrob: This climate should be a wake-up call that the digital strategies of the last 30 years aren’t working. We cannot be paid by the click anymore. Publishers need to make the mental leap from ad-supported thinking to reader-supported thinking. In Stockholm, I saw publishers who made that jump, and after a few years of pain they saw the focus on reader relationships not only paying off in subscription success but helping with advertising too.

Want to master Rob’s seven-day e-mail onboarding sequence? Join the virtual INMA Subscriber Growth Master Class on June 8-29. Click here to register.

Greg’s Readers First newsletter is a public face of a revenue and media subscriptions initiative by INMA, outlined here. Subscribe here.

About Greg Piechota

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