We asked news publishers to tell us how much potential value they thought different retention strategies could have. This was independent of whether the publisher was doing these things or doing them well. The results show what aspects of subscriber retention are considered most important.
This allowed us to identify gaps — or areas that might be valuable of which many publishers are not taking advantage. In the chart below, the orange bars identify the retention activities that publishers considered most valuable. The blue bars indicate what percentage of publishers felt they were proficient at each. There is a lot of room to make up.
Below we explore each of these nine strategies in more detail, one at a time, to see how publishers are handling each one and where there is room for making productive change.
Collect information about subscribers’ interests and behaviors
One obvious strategy for retaining subscribers is to pay attention to what they are telling you. That means gathering feedback and tracking subscribers’ behavior and interests, both individually and collectively. And then adapting your content strategy and business practices to serve those subscriber needs as best you can.
For example, the Wall Street Journal recently created a cross-functional team to identify what specific user actions by new subscribers within their first 100 days indicate likelihood to renew their subscription. The effort, nicknamed “Project Habit,” identified some intuitive actions like subscribing to a newsletter or downloading an app. But also things like loyal consumption of a particular topic or author, reading recurring features such as a weekly column, and reading features stories beyond finance or politics.
In our study we found a huge share of publishers (86%) agreed that collecting information about their subscribers’ interests and behaviors was fairly or very valuable. However, they rated their proficiency as just moderate.
We asked about five specific tactics that might be used to learn about subscribers.
The most commonly used tactic (by 86% of the respondents) is to track what content is being read online by subscribers. That practice is nearly universally employed by most types of news publishers, with the exception of the smallest newspapers (of whom still a majority, 67%, are employing).
The least-used tactic is asking readers to complete a survey (only 25% do this). This low response could be due to technical obstacles real or perceived which is keeping organizations from using this approach to learning.
We found that online-only, for-profit publishers were more likely to employ most of these tactics.
One exception is that online-only publishers of any type are less likely to have customer service track reasons for non-renewal.
The smallest circulation papers are less likely to use any of these methods for learning about subscriber behavior, with one exception: small papers are actually more likely than others to have their customer service departments track the reasons customers didn’t renew (83% vs 74% of all publishers).
Identify subscribers who are at risk of cancellation
One great way to reduce subscriber churn is to determine in advance which subscribers are at highest-risk of nonrenewal, and then intervene.
The Arizona Republic realized that almost half of its paid digital subscribers were not visiting their website at all in a given month. They found that group accounted for 50% subscription stops each month. They used analytics to guide content changes that cut the share of unengaged subscribers from 42% to 26%, increasing retention as a result.
In our study, this strategy of identifying at-risk subscribers was one of the biggest areas where publishers could improve their tactics.
Publishers tended to rate their proficiency at identifying at-risk subscribers as “not very” or only “somewhat” proficient. More than half (52%) of publishers are “not very” or “not at all” proficient at identifying at-risk subscribers.
But 84% say it would be at least “fairly valuable” and 38% say doing so could be “very valuable.”
This suggests that one of the biggest technological needs for publishers is to implement more sophisticated and integrated CRM software that links all subscribers’ identities to their digital engagement. This would enable publishers to see which subscribers are NOT signing in or visiting their products.
Such technology would also help address a related need — the ability to model “churn propensity.” Which behavior patterns by a given subscriber should cause a publisher to worry that a customer is likely to cancel a subscription? To learn that requires the technology to trace subscribers’ behavior backward in time after they cancel subscriptions, and find patterns in that behavioral data.
We did find, as an exception, that larger news organizations are more proficient at doing this than smaller ones. Large newspapers (with a circulation of 200,000 or more) all felt at least “somewhat proficient” at identifying subscribers at risk of cancellation. This difference supports the idea that access to technology and resources is a driver of this gap.
We asked about two specific tactics that publishers might use to learn about subscribers — identifying subscribers who are not engaged with your online content, and identifying those who are not engaged with your other products and platforms.
Fewer than half of all news organizations said they do either of these. This was a question that yielded some interesting open-ended responses, in which publishers described in their own words methods they were using to identify subscribers at risk of cancelling. Here are some of those:
- “We have a predictive churn model which uses many inputs.”
- “We identify trends in losses. For example, we have a drop in monthly subscribers in months 5 and 6, so we do a more intense onboarding campaign in month 4.”
- “A comprehensive predictive churn model that scores every user every week.”
- “We track customers who are outside of their normal payment renewal pattern.”
The smallest newspapers (below 50,000 circulation) were even less likely to do these things — fewer than 20% of them employ either tactic of identifying disengaged subscribers.
An outlier in the other direction is the large-metropolitan newspapers, at which 100% said they identify subscribers who are not engaging online.
With reducing churn and increasing retention as priorities for many news organizations, being able to identify the subscribers who are most at risk will be critical to overall success with digital subscriptions.
Limit involuntary churn caused by credit card expirations
There may be nothing a publisher can do to keep a subscriber who really wants to cancel. But a good share of lost subscribers are people who were willing to continue but their automatic-payment information failed.
Nearly all the publishers we surveyed said that being able to fix payment errors due to expired credit cards is valuable to them (95% said at least “somewhat valuable,” while 37% said “very valuable”).
But most organizations rated themselves only “somewhat” or “fairly” proficient at doing this.
We asked about four specific tactics that might be used to update expired credit card information.
The most common tactic (employed by 59% of publishers) is to send emails asking subscribers to update credit card numbers. About the same number of publishers (57%) use software to automatically update credit card numbers whenever possible.
Less common is to show subscribers a notice about expired card information while they are on the publisher’s website (only 33% do this).
Welcome, engage and onboard new subscribers
Subscribers are more likely to renew if they are aware of all the benefits of their subscription, and feel personally connected to the publisher’s brand.
A thorough and thoughtful onboarding process to welcome new subscribers is one great way to maximize your chances of retaining them. It is especially important for new subscribers who start on a short-term trial and will soon have a decision to make.
In short, this boils down to building habits. The print newspaper nurtured a morning habit. The evening newscast nurtured a habit. A familiar thing, at the same time, every day. The world of digital news is noisier and less scheduled, but there are still many ways that publishers try to establish habits in their readers’ lives.
In our study, 87% of publishers place at least a fairly high value on welcoming, engaging and onboarding new subscribers. They also rated themselves as fairly and somewhat proficient.
One exception is smallest-circulation papers felt less proficient, only 34% felt more than somewhat proficient, compared with 62% of all publishers.
We asked about four specific tactics that might be used to welcome and onboard subscribers.
Almost everyone (90%) encourages subscribers to sign up for their newsletters and 78% send a welcome email. Those tactics were common among all types and sizes of publishers.
However, only minorities of publishers send educational information about how to use their products (46%) or send personal notes from a person in the newsroom (43%). Small newspapers are especially unlikely to send educational materials about their products (only 25% do so).
Encourage existing digital subscribers to renew
Another important strategy for retaining subscribers is to actively invest in strengthening your relationships with each individual subscriber, so they are happy to renew when the decision comes.
Publishers largely agreed that this is a high-value strategy (86% say “very” or “fairly” valuable). And most feel they are moderately proficient at doing so. But only 10% feel “very” proficient.
We asked about six specific tactics that might be used to maintain strong relationships with each existing subscriber.
Today a dissatisfied subscriber is just as likely to vent their frustration publicly on Twitter or Facebook as they are to call or email the publisher directly. So for publishers, addressing those complaints requires someone to monitor social networks and respond to concerns and complaints. This was the most-commonly embraced tactic in this area, with 78% of publishers doing so. Responding to social media posts is notably less common at large metro newspapers (just 40% do so). That may be a matter of scale — as audience size and market size grow, the ability to monitor and respond to a large volume of social chatter becomes more difficult.
Other commonly used tactics include about 7 in 10 publishers saying they use marketing campaigns targeted at recent cancellations to try to win them back, and that they occasionally email existing subscribers to remind them about the benefits of their subscription.
Still common, but a bit less so, is that 60% of publishers will train their customer service representatives in methods to “save” a subscriber (if possible) when they ask to cancel a subscription.
There are two tactics that a small number of publishers are using. Both deal with targeting their digital subscribers based on their user behavior and how they are engaging with the content and products. Only 31% of publishers target low-engagement subscribers with marketing campaigns to re-engage with content before their renewal date. And only 23% send individual subscribers personalized messages reminding them about which content and services they have used.
Measure and test initial subscription promotions or offers
One of a publisher’s best tools for adding new subscribers is to offer an introductory discount. But what kinds of initial promotions will lead to subscribers you can actually retain after the trial expires?
This is a key question, and was the second-biggest area of need we found among publishers.
Many publishers say they have little evidence about which introductory offers are effective. This aspect of retention strategy had the lowest proficiency rating among all 9 we studied. Although 80% of publishers think testing their initial promotions is at least “fairly” important, there is highly mixed and inconsistent confidence in whether they do this well.
On this subject, as was true with identifying at-risk subscribers, the large newspapers are more proficient than are smaller newspapers or online publishers. In the most extreme case, a majority of online-only for-profit publishers say they are “not at all proficient” at this.
We asked about a few tactics for introductory offers.
Most publishers offer introductory price discounts (69%) and different options for billing frequency (59%). Many also offer free trials (41%).
One way in which we think publishers could improve their ability to measure and refine initial subscription promotions is to focus on the initial pricing.
The nearly one-third of organizations who do not yet test introductory prices would benefit from doing so. And for those who are already using introductory pricing there are opportunities to test different elements of the pricing.
For example, how the price is expressed? In terms of cost per week, or per month? If an introductory price is $1 for the first month of service, it could be expressed as $1 for 4 weeks, $1 for 1 month, 99 cents for 4 weeks, etc. These framings have different impacts on consumer psychology and may result in different rates of conversion and post-trial retention.
Testing different discount amounts could also affect not only conversion at the beginning, but the retention rate as well. With a highly discounted rate, there may be a large number of new subscribers, but less likely to renew than those who would accept at a higher trial-period price.
All aspects of introductory pricing and promotions have the potential to affect retention rates and should not be tested in isolation.
Free trials are another tactic to pay close attention to.
These are often with digital entertainment services like Netflix, Disney Plus, or Spotify, but sometimes also used in news organizations. As an example, a 30-day free trial that begins with the consumer providing credit-card information is much more valuable than trials that begin with no payment information. With a credit card on file and ready to charge at the end of the free trial, it is especially valuable for a publisher to engage the user during the trial with thoughtful onboarding that explains all benefits and services. The trial with credit card information on file will most likely have fewer people sign up, but convert at a higher rate.
Free trials without a credit card could get more people since there is a lower commitment upfront, but then the publisher needs to work harder during the trial to onboard, engage and demonstrate value since the conversion is not automatic.
There is not necessarily one right or wrong choice, which is why testing to see results all the way through to retention after the trial is important.
Finally, a third important variable is the frequency of billing or length of subscription term. We found 6 in 10 publishers (59%) let subscribers choose between several options of billing frequency (such as monthly vs. annual).
Online-only, for-profit organizations ranked the lowest for offering billing frequency options, at just 17%. One factor may be that annual billing is more commonly used in legacy print news organizations that have print circulation where annual billing cycles are the norm.
Offering various billing cycles can be a smart tactic, as it gives each consumer a way to express the level of short-term or long-term commitment they are comfortable with. You may use pricing incentives to make an annual subscription more attractive, because subscribers who agree to longer terms tend to retain at higher rates. Analyzing the expected “lifetime value” of a given subscriber can help you calculate the tradeoffs between lower prices and higher retention rates.
Offer subscriber-only benefits
For a certain kind of subscriber, the decision to maintain their subscription is all about cost versus value.
In earlier research, API identified this group as the “Thrifty Transactors.” Their interest in subscribing is driven by a combination of utility (news they can use) and relevance (reflects their sensibilities and interests). They are very price-sensitive and need to feel their purchases are high value.
For those kinds of people, publishers can benefit from offering extra benefits that are exclusive rewards for subscribers. For example, the Greeley Tribune in Colorado partnered with local restaurants to create a dining discount card program.
We found that publishers don’t see this strategy being quite as important as some others, but still one worth trying. And most feel not very proficient at it.
We asked about seven types of subscriber-only benefits a publisher might offer. By far the most common is to give subscribers access to exclusive content (62% of publishers do this). That could be “hardwalled” news stories available only to subscribers, or other special content.
But fewer than half of publishers employ any of the other types of benefits, such as discounted access to events (46%), meetups with the staff (31%), or discounts on local products and services (27%).
One difference among types of publishers is that mid-sized newspapers (50,000 to 100,000 circulation) had 80% offering meetups with subscribers and employees. But on the whole, this area of strategy is not highly used by most publishers.
Track what content subscribers engage with
The core appeal of any news product is the content. If people perceive the information to be unique, compelling, entertaining and useful, they will subscribe. If not, they won’t.
So one of the most fundamental ways to retain subscribers is to make sure the content continues to serve them well and reach them. To do this, you have to know what subscribers are reading or not.
The most-advanced version of this involves personalization to give each customer unique recommendations or experiences informed by their past behavior.
The publishers in our study ranked themselves overall as mid to low in their proficiency at personalizations. Only 4% said they were “very” proficient. But they did think it was highly valuable to track what content subscribers engage with.
We asked about four specific tactics that might be used.
Using analytics to track what subscribers as a whole are reading is a tactic that is used by 89% of the respondents.
Far fewer are using the following tactics the involve more sophisticated personalization to the online behavior of each digital subscriber.
Large newspapers (in this case, the two groups of 100,000 circulation or higher) are more likely to recommend email newsletters to subscribers based on what content they have engaged with. 80% of them offer personalized newsletter recommendations, compared to just 41% of all publishers.
Use metrics to evaluate churn
If you can’t measure something, you stand little chance of getting better at it.
That old wisdom holds true when it comes to subscriber retention as well. To keep churn under control, a publisher needs to have the right metrics at hand to spot problems quickly and monitor improvement.
On this subject, we found publishers lack confidence. Just 6% said they were very proficient at measuring churn. Most (83%) agreed it would be a very or fairly valuable thing to do well.
We asked about three specific tactics that might be used to calculate metrics related to retention.
60% of respondents calculate the Lifetime Value for their digital subscribers, meaning the total amount of money a customer is expected to spend not just this year but in their lifetime. Such a metric takes the long view by balancing current prices, future price increases, and the probability of retention.
Also more than half (54%) of publishers say there is a shared understanding by employees across the organization of their goals for retention and whether they are meeting them. This is important to ensure everyone who has a role to play in subscriber satisfaction and retention can play it well.
Only 28% of publishers segment subscribers into groups based on their estimated risk of cancellation.