Gannett uses contests, social media to reengage “zombies”

By Phil Schroder


McLean, Virginia, USA


Zombie: A person who has no energy, seems to act without thinking, and does not notice what is happening.

Whether we call them zombies or sleepers, there has been a lot of chatter recently in the digital media space around these types of subscribers and how media organisations need to engage better with these readers. For most companies, these users are generally defined as users with no activity in the last 30-90 days, but this may vary by organisation.

Gannett has managed to reengage readers who have drifted away from the publication over time.
Gannett has managed to reengage readers who have drifted away from the publication over time.

Axios recently reported that “over 43% of digital media subscribers become inactive the day after they subscribe, according to a new report, up from 39% in 2021.” While this can be a scary number, news publishers need to be thinking about how they reengage this cohort and bring them back to the site.

We know there was enough interest at some point for the reader to purchase a subscription, and now we just need to find that right catalyst to get them engaged again. We know the kind of content these readers were reading when they subscribed. From there, we can try to serve them similar content again. We also know what platform they were using to access the site: desktop, mobile, or app. This can be very useful as we work to understand the best way to engage them again.

Since these users are not coming to the site, how can we contact them?

E-mail is not normally a great option. If your organisation is like many publishers, these readers are already getting newsletters and other e-mails. However, they are not opening these, or, if they are opening, they are not clicking through.

An interesting point worth considering: It would be valuable for a publisher to cross-reference their list of zombies against their newsletter opens. If a zombie is still opening newsletters and your organisation is doing long-form pieces, then maybe they are getting enough news from the e-mail newsletter itself. This would be a great addition to your analytics library.

Even though normal e-mail newsletters may not get a zombie to return, contests promoted by e-mail are a great way to bring these readers back to the site.

In the last year, we have had several large subscriber-only contests here at Gannett. From George Strait to Eric Church to the Lumineers, we have been able to partner with concert organisers to give away tickets and prize packages to various concerts. We also just finished up an Amazon gift card giveaway as we ramped up to Prime Day.

We have seen great success here at Gannett with these contests and giveaways:

  • This year, 43% of our subscribers that have come back to the site from our retention efforts have visited for these types of contests.
  • These users then ended up with an average of 11.5 pageviews per user.
  • Zombies made up 14% of this audience as well.
  • These users who had not visited in at least 90 days ended up consuming 10.4 pageviews per user.

Another great way to engage with these users is through social media

We have tested this for quite some time and are seeing great results. We have used social media partners to post this content and run some testing on our own.

The critical piece to doing this on your own is to be sure you have a tool like that can identify what content is trending on your site and then break it down by subscribers or non-subscribers. The advantage of doing your own social media management is that you can have complete control over what is promoted and the financial resources you put behind each promotion.

We target two cohorts of users on social media to drive them back to the site: zombies and at-risk subscribers. At-risk subscribers are those who are on the verge of becoming zombies and have very low engagement. We see less than US$1 spend per unique visit back to the site and each of these subscribers is viewing at least 3.5 stories when they come back. We also analyse this down to a market level so that we can make constant tweaks as needed to improve engagement and our cost-per-click.

These may not be perfect solutions to reengage zombies, and there are more tactics that can be applied to bring subscribers back to the site. However, doing nothing is certainly not the right approach to shrinking this cohort and improving churn.

About Phil Schroder

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