Retrying payments will save subscriptions, and the COVID bump isn’t over

By Grzegorz Piechota

INMA

Oxford, United Kingdom

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Hi! This is Readers First, a newsletter for INMA members on reader revenue innovation. I am the researcher-in-residence at INMA. E-mail me at: grzegorz.piechota@inma.org

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See you today at my online meet-up

The three top priorities for news media companies in the post-COVID era are:

  • Strategic alignment around a reader-centric model.
  • Development of a conversion path.
  • Reader value growth.

These are the preliminary findings of the GNI Subscriptions Lab, a collaborative project in Europe involving INMA. Meet the Google and FT Strategies experts and learn more TODAY at the Readers First online meet-up on Wednesday, July 22, at 10:00 a.m. New York time. Book your virtual seat.

1. CHURN BENCHMARKS: News publishers could save thousands of subscribers by optimising payment retries 

Payment failures cost news media thousands of subscribers every year. Publishers could try harder to save them, an analysis of six months of payment data from MPP Global reveals.

Up to one-third of subscribers in the media and entertainment sectors churn every year due to the payment failures — and not because they wanted to leave. Publishers call this phenomenon involuntary, or passive churn.

The reasons for the payment failures range from subscribers forgetting to update card details, to lost or stolen cards, bank rejections, network errors, or subscribers exceeding credit limit. 

“Many of those subscribers could be saved. Publishers are not using retry tooling aggressively enough,” said Julian Morelis, chief commercial officer at MPP Global, a subscription and billing software vendor. 

At INMA’s request, MPP Global analysed six months of payment data by 13 millions subscribers to some of the world’s leading video streaming services, as well as news and magazine media publishers.

The analysis found 64% of those subscribers paid with credit cards or PayPal, the two methods for which payment success can be improved with retries after the first failed attempt.

Retry tools are less useful with other popular payment methods, such as direct debit or carrier billing, in which the payment is not authorised in real time and is always successful.

  • In the first six months of 2020, retries saved on average 4.5% of subscriptions to video streaming services but only 0.7% of subscriptions to publishing sites.
  • If we annualise the rates, broadcasters might save 53% subscribers at risk of passive churn and publishers — just 8.6%.
  • The average number of retries required for success was similar in both media sectors — 3.4-4.4.

Broadcasters try much harder to save their subscribers and set the maximum number of retries to 13.2 on average, while publishers set the maximum at merely 2.6 on average.

That makes a huge difference, as in the first six months of 2020, it took up to 16 attempts to get a successful renewal once the 1st attempt failed, MPP Global found.

Julian Morelis offered an advice to the INMA members: “For maximum performance, you should set retry count to at least 15 and allow grace access over a similar number of days.”

A recent poll of participants of the INMA Master Class on Digital Subscriber Retention showed almost half, or 44% of publishers, set the grace period at 14 days or fewer, which might have been too short to successfully save the subscribers.

When The Daily Telegraph in the UK surveyed its churned subscribers, it found more than half did not even realise there were any issues with payment. They never wanted to cancel. 

2. NEWS DEMAND: The COVID-related peak in online traffic has passed, but the bump is not over for some 

For some leading subscription news brands such as The Washington Post in the United States, the Financial Times in the UK, or Süddeutsche Zeitung in Germany, online traffic in June 2020 was still 30%-40% higher than in January.

INMA analysed changes in the number of online sessions to the top-50 news sites worldwide by the number of digital subscribers. For desktop and mobile Web traffic data, we used SimilarWeb. For the sample of the top subscription sites, we used the quarterly FIPP snapshot

The category of global news brands (such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or The Economist) peaked in March when online visits were on average 49% higher than in January. Still, in June they were 13% higher.

  • The best performers in maintaining the readers’ attention included The Financial Times (+41% in June vs. January), The Washington Post (+41%), and The New York Times (+28%).
  • The worst performer was the sports news start-up Athletic, which observed a deepening decline of visits due to the lockdowns and freeze of major sports leagues.

The category of national news brands (such as Bild in Germany, The Times of London in the UK, La Nación in Argentina, or Aftonbladet in Sweden) peaked in March, too, (+44% vs. January) and by June the bump was over (+3%).

  • The outliers include: Süddeutsche Zeitung and Handelsblatt in Germany (+33% in June vs. January), Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in Germany and Neue Zürcher Zeitung in Switzerland (+31%), and The Times in the UK (+29%).

Interestingly, the category of regional and local news brands (such as The Boston Globe in the United States, Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung in Germany, or The Toronto Star in Canada) managed to keep the interest of readers well after the March peak (+76% vs January) up to June (+36%).

  • The best performers include the U.S. titles such as The Minneapolis Star Tribune (+82%), The Seattle Times (+79%), Chicago Tribune (+33%), and one Canadian — The Toronto Star (+28%). 

This data confirms previous INMA analyses that showed the COVID-19 pandemic was an unprecedented event in terms of scale and length. The extended bumps in traffic worldwide though are not all linked to the pandemic. Depending on a country or region, other news events — such as mass protests and elections — attracted readers to sites, too.

Still, the spike in demand for quality news online in the first half of 2020 is nothing like what was observed in the past. The 2019 study on the lifespan of news stories found an average news cycle lasted only a median of seven days. 

About this newsletter 

Today’s newsletter is written by Grzegorz (Greg) Piechota, Researcher-In-Residence at INMA, based in Oxford, England. Here I share results of my original research, notes from interviews with news publishers, reflections on my readings. Previous editions are archived online.

This newsletter is a public face of a revenue and media subscriptions initiative by INMA, outlined here. E-mail me at grzegorz.piechota@inma.org with thoughts, suggestions, and questions. Sign up to our Slack channel.

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