For a couple of months, Mediahuis’ four Belgian news media brands (Het Nieuwsblad, Gazet van Antwerpen, Het Belang van Limburg, and De Standaard) have been working on reader activation. It’s a fancy term that brings some structure to our efforts to stimulate and monitor the use and reading habits of subscribers.

It’s remarkable how much thinking goes into this topic. It is my impression our retention marketing thus far has limited itself with some kind of artificial boundary of commercial activity and doesn’t include editorial and content marketing. What I mean is that reader activation is a job where, for the first time, a retention marketer has to collaborate closely with the newsroom to obtain higher figures and reduce churn.

So what is reader activation exactly? Simply put, it’s the comprehensive efforts we put into the reader to maximise the use of what he or she has paid for. At Mediahuis, we focus primarily on use by the digital subscriber (we lack information on use of the print subscription). In this group, we want to see 65% per day consuming content or a bundle (download) or reading a paid article. These have the same value in our metrics.

Mediahuis wants to see 65% of its digital subscribers engaging in its content each day.
Mediahuis wants to see 65% of its digital subscribers engaging in its content each day.

They are two types of subscribers: a full digital subscriber and a digital subscriber who receives a Saturday newspaper as well.

The first step we take is onboarding. All subscribers get the grand tour of the platforms: apps they can download, newsletters they can receive, information on how to log in and read paid content, and information on how to listen to podcasts and use personalisation tools. If subscribers don’t open the e-mail and we don’t see any activity from them on our platforms, we send a reminder after seven days. If there is no response, we call these subscribers to help set up the first step.

If the other settings are OK (account, payment details, etc.), we basically leave them alone until the subscription renewal date.

Reader activation steps in during this void. We specifically target subscribers with a set of content marketing tools to get them to read as much as possible.

At Mediahuis, we identify three segments: lovers, readers, and non-readers. Lovers have downloaded or read what we can “plus articles” more than five times a week on average in the past six weeks. Readers download or read between one and five times, and non-readers haven’t been seen on our platforms in the past six weeks.

In our reader activation steering groups, we monitor traffic data of the different segments. These visit segments mostly come from internal recirculation, newsletters, and direct traffic — three sources that can deliver better results if well managed. For example, the morning newsletter is an important traffic source of subscriber traffic. The more paid content you integrate in this news update, the more opportunities are generated to get the activation numbers up.

Second, we also look at what type of content is read. No surprise here: Subscribers are mainly interested in fresh, newsy content. We notice this by keeping track of the article tags; whether national elections dominate the news, or Boris Johnson or Ariana Grande, these stories lead the reading list of paid articles. However, we notice service content is also a big draw. Certainly, the crossword puzzles are popular for Belgian subscriptions, so we can start making more of them and begin recirculation of these pages.

Subscribers want newsy articles and entertainment like crossword puzzles.
Subscribers want newsy articles and entertainment like crossword puzzles.

How about content marketing? In the steering groups, we’re starting to use more targeted communication tools like Cxense. That’s where a retention marketer and a publishing coordinator from the newsroom come together. The latter brings in the list of not-to-be missed articles, and the marketer integrates them in floor ads to promote the next article to subscribers. Gazet van Antwerpen also successfully started using Web notifications to promote the editor’s picks-of-the-day, first-published print or digital news articles. Once again, the more paid content you promote, the more opportunities to click you create.

Het Nieuwsblad, one of the popular national titles in Belgium, also creates a personalised newsletter on Sunday, which generates a nice number of clicks. Sunday is a really good day for some leisurely long reading. At Nieuwsblad, which has a freemium Web site, the publishers aim for a minimum number of plus articles on the homepage. This is an attempt to convert non-subscribers and tempt subscribers into reading more. Instead of having breaking news or amusement dominate their news feeds, they pay a lot of attention to dedicating space to long reads, analyses, and opinions on the Web site. They mix it into the news feed and avoid putting it somewhere in a blind corner.

Other mechanisms will follow, as personalisation tools develop and customer insights become more robust.

One insight that is already very obvious is the correlation between readership intensity and subscription renewal. A reader that reads is a reader that sticks.

At the beginning of the year, Mediahuis analysed renewal figures and categorised the above segments with their respective retention rate. The analysis measured the number of subscribers with a renewal date from June 2018 onwards and their reading behaviour, expressed in the number of reading days in the six weeks prior to renewal.

We found there is a considerable gap of churners between the lovers and non-readers. For example, at Het Belang van Limburg, a digital subscriber in his first year renewed 34% of the time if he didn’t read and 77% if he was an active reader. The renewal rate more than doubles! The same type of subscriber renewal rate was between 41% and 78% at Gazet van Antwerpen and between 67% and 86% at De Standaard. For subscribers with Saturday’s print edition, the numbers go up to 81% for Gazet van Antwerpen.

De Standaard's renewal figures, categorised by activity segment, offer insight into reader engagement and renewal rates.
De Standaard's renewal figures, categorised by activity segment, offer insight into reader engagement and renewal rates.

This package of stimulating measures should have a positive effect on these figures. We are creating a new playing field and, once more, a hybrid collaboration between commercial and editorial profiles. That makes reader activation an even more interesting challenge.