Subscriber retention during the downturn

By Shelley Seale


Texas, USA


In recent weeks, news publishers saw a significant COVID-19 bump in online subscriptions. One-third of the top 50 publishers offered free or discounted introductory trials. As the trial periods expire and the interest in virus-related coverage decreases, retention becomes the focus.

In a Webinar for INMA members on Thursday, Grzegorz Piechota, researcher-in-residence at INMA, presented a panel to discuss the following questions:

  • How do publishers retain the new subscribers attracted by the COVID-19 coverage when the interest wanes?
  • How do publishers save “slam-on-the-brakes” customers who experience extraordinary hardships, as the economy dives and jobs are lost.
  • How do publishers bring more cash and maximise revenue from wealthy customers who remain confident about the stability of their finances?
Panelists joined INMA to discuss how news publishers can convert traffic from the COVID-19 bump.
Panelists joined INMA to discuss how news publishers can convert traffic from the COVID-19 bump.

Panel guests were Matt Lindsay and Arvid Tchivzhel, president and senior director of product development, respectively, of Mather Economics; and Curtis E. Huber, senior director of circulation and audience revenue at The Seattle Times.

Unprecedented demand for news

Piechota shared updated statistics on the extremely high demand for news worldwide with the coronavirus. The demand for news in March 2020 doubled the averages from 2015-2020 and tripled the averages between 2005-2010.

“This is a good question for us: How long is it actually going to last?” he asked.

Looking at the life cycle of previous bumps from important news events, the median duration of the public’s interest is seven days, measured by Web searches. There are several scenarios how this happens, from slow build-ups and slow declines, as well as the opposite. There are also events with multiple peaks during the life of the story.

He shared information from a recent University of Oxford study that showed the news sources that people have turned to during the pandemic.

During this time of crisis, most people are turning to news media as an important source of information.
During this time of crisis, most people are turning to news media as an important source of information.

“It’s so amazing to see that in times of crisis, people actually turn to news organisations, and they turn to experts,” Piechota said. “There is something big happening with this coronavirus, which is the comeback of reason and expertise.”

Other research conducted by Piano with nearly 300 news Web sites around the world on the bump in online subscriptions. This found the peak of news traffic had already passed in mid-March in Europe and in late March in the United States. But the bump has been incredible, anywhere from a 15% to nearly 200% increase.

COVID-19 tactics to drive engagement

The funnel for effective strategies in driving engagement looks like this, from the top of the funnel down to the bottom:

  • Non-users: find and attract. Unlock all or some paywall content, SEO effort focused on daily updates, higher spend on social ads promoting most-read content, journalism mission and effort-focused brand ad campaigns, CSR campaigns, and top editors pitching to TV.
  • Anonymous users: find and engage. Registration wall to content and/or features, newsletters and apps with focused ad campaigns, and expanded coverage including live blog, Web TV, push notifications, daily charts, video summaries, podcasts, daily advice, or news for kids.
  • Known users: demonstrate value and convert. Free or discounted introductory offers, more original content locked, stricter paywall rules, on-site and paid campaigns targeting registered or heavy users, easy payment methods, and links to paid articles in social, push, and newsletters.
  • Subscribed: engage, nurture, value, and retain. Print-to-digital transition offers to win back print subscribers, printed codes for seven-day trial access, online activation campaigns for print subscribers, COVID-19 related on-boarding flows for new subscribers.

“The main focus of today’s Webinar is how to keep those new subscribers that we have just gained from the COVID bump,” Piechota said.

Seattle Times case study

Huber of The Seattle Times shared his company’s experience, saying the team looked at the past to help guide the future, “then we tried to determine what’s different in this particular situation than other times.”

The coronavirus surge in Seattle hit in late February, with the first death on February 29. By the end of March, the publisher was seeing start conversions four times as great as months in the previous year. As of Thursday morning, Huber said they had 12,000 digital orders.

“So our pace is not slow, we are still in 350%-400% of our normal volume. We’ve seen peaks of 600%-800% in key areas.”

With the paywall, Huber said there was some focus on making coronavirus information free to the public as a health and welfare service, but that was not necessarily going to be all the content.

“We decided early that all our coronavirus stuff would be in front of the paywall. We have a metered approach, and we have taken our meter from four stories down to three.” This does not include COVID-19 content.

“We believe the vast majority of all our conversions are not new readers,” Huber said. “These are people who have been with us, they have just been somewhere along the purchase journey, and this has helped them get there.”

The Seattle Times did not create any new products or newsletters, but rather focused on building habit and loyalty, as well as hooking readers into existing products. Most current starts are coming in voluntary, with only 35% coming from the paywall.

The Times also eliminated any subscription sales in March, as price was not a factor at that time.

“We spent time thinking early on: What can we learn from other points in time where we’ve had these big subscription surges?” Huber said. One such time was the Seahawks Super Bowl win. “We did learn a lot about how the particular starts were coming in and what the retention would look like.”

Avoid discounting and stress local news expertise to demonstrate the value of your brand.
Avoid discounting and stress local news expertise to demonstrate the value of your brand.

The key learnings from previous bumps were:

  • When the content is there, that’s the trigger. There is no need to lure people with discounts or special offers.
  • Local journalism and the need for unique, local information is a key differentiator. Users will pay for that.
  • Retention curves for these users are not much different than subscribers acquired during “normal” periods.

The Seattle Times conducted a digital survey of almost 7,000 of its new subscribers, using the data to better understand their motivations, behaviours, and attitudes. The main motivations to subscribe were:

  • Access to local news (84%).
  • Virus coverage.
  • Supporting local journalism.

Subscribers during the COVID-19 bump period tended to be younger than the typical subscribers and generally fell into three buckets:

  • Coronavirus-only consumers that are here, but plan to leave when they no longer need the coverage.
  • Subscribers who were on the sidelines or did not have a habit of reading The Times content, yet coronavirus coverage was the trigger for them to engage.
  • Local journalism supporters who see the value and importance of local and subscribed to support the newspaper.

“Lastly, what do we do with all this information, and how does it direct what we are going to do?” Huber posed. “The research really confirmed what our thinking was — that these were folks we just needed to build loyalty and habit with. How do we push coverage besides COVID to really broaden their relationship with us?”

Leveraging the insights gained help the team modify retention strategies in several ways:

  • Ongoing data review and surveying of users acquired, including adding a survey to the confirmation page.
  • E-mails from the executive editor thanking subscribers for supporting local journalism.
  • Modifications to the welcome journey e-mail series to thank them for supporting journalism and building habit with all their offerings.
  • Segmenting desktop notifications to drive connection to other types of content.
  • Revisiting strategies that tnow drives retention: recirculation, homepage curation, and newsletters.

“Desktop notifications have been heavy lifters for us,” Huber said. “We’re pushing them out regularly throughout the day. There’s no fatigue. And we’re just revisiting all our strategies and things we know around retention. Yes, we need to centrepiece corona coverage, but how do we make sure we’re driving them to other areas of the paper?”

Benchmarks from Mather Economics

Matt Lindsay and Arvid Tchivzhel of Mather Economics shared recent data from hundreds of news publishers. They have seen significant growth in volume, engagement, conversion, and subscriptions. They also found most publishers have increased their daily article production (though one-third have actually reduced content) — 15% of articles published in the last 30 days are related to COVID-19 coverage.

Publishers have seen growth in volume, engagement, conversion, and subscriptions during the coronavirus bump.
Publishers have seen growth in volume, engagement, conversion, and subscriptions during the coronavirus bump.

“We can see that the growth in engagement and the growth in users really being engaging on all kinds of content,” Tchivzhel said. ”We do see growth on the top of the funnel as well, about a 70% growth in new users. Most of the growth is coming from that fanatic, that loyal reader, but I think what’s also happening is you’re taking people out of that conversion funnel sooner than you would have under normal circumstances.

That led into a look at user behaviour and segments. Mather has observed three levels of content engagement:

  • 32% consuming COVID-19 content almost exclusively.
  • 45% consuming a mix of COVID-19 and other content.
  • 23% avoiding COVID-19 content.

“We see some interesting trends,” Tchivzhel said. “Certainly this content is getting out there, but there are people reading non-COVID stories. That’s still a big part of that conversion funnel and the reason people subscribe.”

Knowing this, a strategy might be to target each of the distinct audience segments with different, personalised messaging.

“My suspicion that the 32% [of COVID-19 exclusive users] will have a lower retention curve unless people take some tactics to engage them with the other content,” Tchivzhel said.

After the coronavirus surge, he said to expect a dip in growth. He used Super Bowl football coverage in the United States as an example. There is a ramp-up of activity after the playoffs, then conversions peak at and just after the game. Shortly after, there is a sudden drop in daily starts.

Lessons from the U.S. Super Bowl traffic spikes can be used to somewhat predict what the post-bump landscape might look like.
Lessons from the U.S. Super Bowl traffic spikes can be used to somewhat predict what the post-bump landscape might look like.

“I think the COVID-19 bump is perhaps a much more extended bump,” Tchivzhel added, “but we see similar patterns with natural disasters. You see these bumps, but what happens after that peak emotion or after a new normal is found — after the urgency is gone — we do see the bottom of that funnel disappear. With COVID-19, it’s a scale that we’ve never seen before in our data. But we do expect perhaps a return to pre-COVID levels. Obviously, we don’t know when.”

Future subscriptions are likely being amortized now, and publishers should understand the emotional motivation of these new subscribers versus traditional audience development and acquisition tactics.

That means, of course, that there is a need to refill the funnel.

“We do see new users. I think that also presents a pretty big opportunity,” Tchivzhel said. “The hypothesis is that we are taking these people out of the bottom of the funnel.”

The new user segment has grown by 17% on average across the industry. This presents an opportunity to apply top-funnel and mid-funnel tactics, such as:

  • Newsletter promotions.
  • Content promotions.
  • Brand awareness campaigns.
  • Registration campaigns.

Tchivzhel also advised to reduce new-start discounts during the spike in demand and increase promotions after the spike ends.

“Right now is the time to think about the next step. Right now there is not a problem with converting new users, which means there is probably less of a need for discounts. Right now is probably the time to focus on these new users and focus on nurturing them longer-term.”

Key tactics for digital subscriptions

Matt Lindsay discussed the takeaways from everything that had been learned to determine what the most effective strategies might be for taking advantage of the bump and converting to subscriptions.

“I think the saying going around is: ‘Don’t let a good crisis go to waste,” Lindsay said. “You can really use this time to take a good look at your business practices and policies and really evaluate them, and use this time to make some changes.”

Strategic implications:

  • Now is the time to focus on strategic business planning and focused business rules.
  • The growth in pageviews is not 1:1 to the growth in programmatic advertising (direct-sold ads have dropped).
  • The economics of the intelligent paywall now swing in favour of aggressive paywalls and premium content.
  • Print-to-digital migration will be a key focus area this year due to publisher pressure and consumer preference.

Mather’s immediate tactical insights and recommendations:

  • Anticipate a dip in subscription growth after the crisis abates.
  • Anticipate growth in churn after the crisis abates, especially for new subscribers.
  • Understand that content preferences are not all COVID-19 for your audiences and subscribers.
  • Create your retention and engagement touchpoints now so you are proactively deploying to your subscribers.
  • Conserve price discounts until after the spike in demand.

“Really maximise the number of sales attempts,” Lindsay advised. “Raise the percentage of content on your site that’s designated as premium or make less of your content free. You’re going to convert a lot of your low-hanging fruit early, so you need to start building those relationships with new customers. Communicate with them what your value proposition is.”

About Shelley Seale

By continuing to browse or by clicking “ACCEPT,” you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance your site experience. To learn more about how we use cookies, please see our privacy policy.