Spokesman-Review increases subscriptions, decreases churn with better communication

By Kathleen Coleman

S-R Media

Spokane, Washington, USA


Great content and strategic planning between audience and editorial departments equal unbeatable engagement results. This is a simple but complex equation, but improved communication between two Spokesman-Review groups means more non-subscribers are becoming subscribers, and current subscribers are spending more time with the work produced by our journalists.

This is an interview with Tyler Pisani, Spokesman-Review’s digital audience and engagement manager, who describes improvements in and results from our recent audience efforts.

The Spokesman-Review promoted women in its newsroom before publishing a special edition honouring women in the community.
The Spokesman-Review promoted women in its newsroom before publishing a special edition honouring women in the community.

How did you arrive at this approach, and what hurdles did you face in getting this programme launched?

Pisani: When I came to The Spokesman-Review, our subscriber e-mail programme was very generic. We had an onboarding series that consisted of just a couple e-mails, and the same creative was sent to everyone.

My initial goal was creating a more engaging, targeted, and creative onboarding series for our subscribers. We have learned through our own testing and in speaking with industry peers that higher engagement leads to a lower churn among subscribers. This was my mindset as I worked to redesign our onboarding e-mail series.

The biggest challenge when building the automated series was ensuring our data points were correct. We first segmented users by their delivery. Digital-only subscribers were sent down one journey, while print subscribers were sent down another.

This was one of the most important parts of our change, because it allowed us to use more specific verbiage in our communications. This change gave us the opportunity to speak with digital subscribers about the digital product and benefits, while simultaneously allowing us to speak about delivery and the physical newspaper with our print subscribers.

The current onboarding e-mail series for both journeys is eight e-mails over 105 days with additional journeys such as EZpay and eBilling solicitations running parallel to these based on individual subscriber data.

What message(s) resonate most with subs for both acquisition and engagement?

Pisani: We have found that our subscribers respond best to content-based communications, specifically when we highlight specific sections or journalists in the e-mail communication. Our most recent acquisition campaign was a four-part series with each e-mail highlighting five reasons to subscribe.

This e-mail series had a conversion rate about eight times higher than our average e-mail campaign and nearly three times the next closest campaign in 2020.

The story on the engagement side is very similar. We do our best to feature our journalists whenever possible. An example of this was our most recent engagement e-mail promoting the women in our newsroom two days before a special Sunday section honouring women in our community and highlighting the passage of the 19th amendment.

This campaign resulted in a return to our Web site, two days later, by 22% of the subscribers that opened the e-mail.

We also sent this e-mail to non-subscribers with the goal of moving them further down the acquisition funnel through engagement. There was no specific offer attached to this e-mail, but .84% of the users who opened the e-mail had subscribed by the day of the special section.

How did you approach targeting? Did you do A/B testing with various segments?

Pisani: Over the last 18 months our targeting has become much more effective and direct thanks to our partners at Mather, Inka, and Naviga. For example, we launched a pay metre on our Web site slightly more than a year ago. This pay metre is segmented by a user’s propensity to subscribe and by content preference.

Being the hometown newspaper of the Gonzaga (University) Bulldogs and just up the road from the Washington State University Cougars, our highest converting digital segment was readers of NCAA content. We were able to leverage this data and target these users with more direct messaging about our collegiate sports content. During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, we were able to accurately identify users who were reading free COVID-related content and provide them with different metre levels, Web site messaging, and targeted, content-based communications.

We A/B test everything we can. At any given time, we likely have three to four A/B tests running, including subject lines, e-mail content, pay wall verbiage, and metre settings. A recent example is a change we tested with our first-time visitor segment. After doing some research, we came to the conclusion that a significant amount of users who were being identified as first-time visitors were actually returning users who were using a private browser or had cleared their cookies.

We tested the differences between providing unlimited access for the first 24 hours before being resegmented into the appropriate content and usage segments and presenting a hard paywall after just one article with the users being resegmented after 24 hours.

This test resulted in a change to our paywall from the former to the latter. Surprisingly, by limiting the amount for the user to one article on their first visit, they were just as likely to return in the next 30 days as a visitor who had unlimited articles on their first day.

Finally, tell us about the great results.

Pisani: The increased attention directed toward our digital subscribers over the past two years has made a drastic improvement in retention. Our digital churn rate dropped from 49.19% in 2018 to 32.62% in 2019 and is trending even lower for 2020.

The changes to our onboarding series have increased our e-mail open rate by 5% and our click rate by 2%.

On the acquisition front, thanks to better targeting and better collaboration with our newsroom, we have increased our digital starts via e-mail through three quarters of 2020 by 119% when compared to the full year of 2019, with the goal of reaching the 150% mark by the end of 2020.

We have also been able to identify the effectiveness of our digital onboarding series. We can identify that those subscribers who have opened at least one of the e-mails in our onboarding series are about 13% more likely to become engaged and 2.2% less likely to permanently stop in the first 105 days.

About Kathleen Coleman

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