Gannett’s fresh onboarding process indicates new subscribers are more engaged

By Phil Schroder


McLean, Virginia, USA


Reducing churn is one of the most critical areas for any subscription-based business.

As news publishers, we can’t just wait until a subscriber indicates they are ready to leave or their payment method fails. We need to be proactive with our subscribers and take steps to ensure they are engaged with our content and have an affinity for our brands.

Onboarding is where the fight to stop churn should start for any modern publisher

But what is onboarding and what does it entail?

Onboarding should be a process of welcoming a subscriber to their paid subscription and educating them about all the benefits that are available to them. We want to ensure subscribers get maximum value out of their subscriptions while leading them along the path to further engagement.

The onboarding process is a multi-faceted effort designed to help subscribers get the most out of their subscriptions while encouraging deeper engagement.
The onboarding process is a multi-faceted effort designed to help subscribers get the most out of their subscriptions while encouraging deeper engagement.

But how do we do this? E-mail is typically the first tool that comes to mind, and one that most publishers are very familiar with.

However, onboarding should really start at checkout, with on-site messaging communicating features and benefits the subscription brings. This is in addition to excellent content from your journalists. This is really the time where we as publishers should be building a relationship with subscribers.

Another common question is: How long should the onboarding period be? That answer can vary depending on the organisation, but common feedback indicates it should be anywhere from 66 to 100 days.

According to a research study by the University College of London, it takes 66 days of repeated action to form a habit. In fact, the research suggests that 66 days is merely the average. The full range is between 18 and 254 days. It may take a long time for people to establish a habit — so it’s best to start on day one.

Gannett research

We wanted to change the way we looked at onboarding, so we conducted research in this area. These are some of the key insights that came as a result:

  • Onboarding begins at the end of checkout.
  • Subscribers want actionable benefits.
  • Subscribers are onboarding themselves.
  • Morning newsletter is the top onboarding e-mail.
  • Immediate active personalisation is expected.
  • Subscribers want us to pay attention.
  • Highly engaged subscribers can churn quickly.
  • Low-quality/high-volume ads make a bad first impression.
  • We have one week to prove we’re worth it.

Onboarding really consists of three key areas as well:

  • In-product onboarding and engagement: This focuses on driving users to easily understand benefits and engage with our sites. From inline modals within content to personalised confirmation screens, this is where the journey can start.
  • Cross-platform personalisation: This can be an e-mail journey highlighting benefits, an SMS thanking a subscriber for becoming a member, or even a personal phone call for certain cohorts of readers.
  • A focus on exclusivity: It is critical through all of this to highlight the exclusive content accessible only to subscribers and an explanation of how subscriptions help fund newsrooms.
New subscribers receive multiple messages tailored to their subscription type.
New subscribers receive multiple messages tailored to their subscription type.

A new onboarding strategy

We launched a new e-mail onboarding journey last summer and have seen great success. The journey ranges from 10 to 15 e-mails, depending on the type of subscriber that starts.

It is customised for print vs. digital, or in-app vs. Web site. The journey also ranges from 62 to 75 days for our various brands. One key component of every journey is a 30-day survey designed for us to learn how our subscribers are using their subscription and to ask if they have any early feedback to share.

Other key elements are a welcome e-mail, an app-download e-mail, and an e-mail highlighting our e-newspaper. Every journey ends with information about how to manage subscriber accounts while providing contact information, if needed.

Not only do we use e-mail in our onboarding journey, but we also utilise social media in a unique way. We do not feed content to every new subscriber, but we specifically watch for any subscribers in their first 90 days who have not engaged in the last seven days.

We are harnessing our customer data platform (CDP) to serve these audiences to Meta. The data updates every hour so we have the most accurate audiences available. We also use a content feed from our content analytics partner to serve the latest trending content to this important cohort of readers.

Key metrics

With all of these efforts, we want to be sure we track key metrics so we know where we can make needed changes or improvements.

Some of these key metrics include:

  • Number of active days/frequency of site/app visits (considering daily active users [DAU], weekly active users [WAU], and monthly active users [MAU]).
  • Content pageviews per user.
  • Time spent per session.
  • Newsletter signups.
  • E-newspaper logins.
  • Breadth and depth of topics read.
  • App downloads.
  • Share bonus subscription.
  • Reduce active churn rate.
  • Improve churn rate at first pricing step up.

Since launching some of these new efforts, we have seen success as mentioned above. Our e-mail onboarding journey click-through rate is nearly 100% better than what we saw in our previous journey.

Our cost per unique click on social media dropped by 20% from previous social onboarding efforts. Users who engage with our content ads are coming back to the site at more than a 20% better rate than what we see with other social campaigns.

All these metrics combined tell us we are on the right track as we continue to iterate and improve onboarding for our subscribers.

About Phil Schroder

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.