Industry Insight

The Hardest Part with Digital Subscriptions is Keeping Them

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What leads people to pay for a digital subscription to a newspaper? A ton of thought and energy and data analysis have gone into that question in recent years amid the big shift from chasing ad-supported page views to reader revenue. What kinds of stories spur conversion? What marketing tactics are most effective? What kind of pricing?

The next question, equally, or perhaps more, important, is what keeps them subscribing?

It’s important as a separate conversation because the answers can be very different. Heavy discounting can bring subscribers in the door. More consistent pricing from the beginning can mean far lower cancellation rates. Once-every-six-months blockbuster investigative stories can bring a lot of new subscribers in the door. More consistent and comprehensive coverage of routine local stories could be more important in making subscribers feel like their ongoing subscription is worth it.

The whole industry took notice over the summer when the Los Angeles Times reported adding 52,000 new digital subscriptions in the first half of 2019, but netting an increase of only 13,000 due to churn.

Veteran circulation directors will point to a reduction in churn percentage being just as valuable as growth in new subscribers, and potentially a lot less expensive to accomplish.

Data. News organizations have done a lot of work analyzing what types of stories ultimately get a reader to sign up for a digital subscription, and even a new subscriber’s reading history leading up to that decision.

But the types of stories that are read by logged-in subscribers could be more instructive when it comes to retention. What’s the diet of a satisfied subscriber? What are the habits of subscribers who cancel?

I’ve argued before that news organizations should be developing a robust customer-relations management database for subscribers in the way they do for advertising clients. What do you know about them beyond their credit card number and address? How often have they heard from you? Are they even opening your emails?

Engagement. At a basic level, if a subscriber is consistently engaging with your content, they’re less likely to cancel. Newsletters and other engagement by email has been a focus in trying to convert readers to subscribers. Building a more premium newsletter product specifically designed to engage people after they subscribe could be a key to retention efforts.

Giving readers “inside” information about the workings of the newsroom, and inviting them to participate in your process for developing story ideas and sources could be seen as a perk for subscribing in addition to a point of engagement that might support retention.

Stretched newsrooms have been slow to carve out resources for this kind of work, as the tradeoff means less capacity to produce the journalism that is prompting people to subscribe.

But a Northwestern study on digital newspaper subscriptions showed that “less can be more,” that more attention to a tight curation of your best and most relevant work is more important than flooding readers with as large a volume as possible of local content.

User experience. More focus on the experience subscribers are having, versus simply what kind of content you are producing, is a resource issue that cuts across a news organization’s entire operation.

The newspaper industry has suffered a lot of self-inflicted damage over the past 10 years in bungling the literal delivery component to print newspaper subscribers, and outsourcing customer service, making it more frustrating to complain about that delivery. Circulation bills are confusing, and sketchy on purpose in many markets, to hide extra fees and fine-print “opt-out” sections that end up inflating the cost of a subscription far beyond the advertised price. Tactics that were ramped up as overall volume declined.

The industry is carrying some of those bad habits over to digital, tacking on “sign-up fees” not tied to any kind of real expense, and being less than transparent about the nature of introductory pricing and automatic renewal rates. And if you can sign up for a digital subscription online, why do you have to make a phone call to cancel? It’s not about what’s intuitive or convenient for subscribers. It’s about making it difficult for people to know how much money you’re really getting out of them and making it difficult for them to do anything about it. It’s not a good formula for a long-term relationship of trust with subscribers.

And a great user experience requires marketing, tech and editorial to be aligned. When will major newspaper chains figure out the basic issue of keeping digital subscribers logged in? Or how to stop sending constant subscription marketing offers to people who have already subscribed?

Matt DeRienzo has worked in journalism as a reporter, editor, publisher, corporate director of news for 25 years, including most recently as vice president of news and digital content at Hearst's Connecticut newspapers, and previously serving as the first full-time executive director of LION Publishers, a national nonprofit that supports the publishers of local independent online news organizations.

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