On September 28, API hosted an online discussion on tactics for retaining subscribers. Many publishers are recognizing the critical need to invest more in subscriber retention — “Retention is the new acquisition,” says Gwen Vargo, API’s director of reader revenue. However, subscriber churn is a problem that has plagued the newspaper industry for years.

API is dedicated to examining this issue, and recently produced a benchmark study that looks at nine key strategies publishers are using to retain subscribers. The valuable insights surfaced from that study formed the basis for the September 28 discussion, which examined retention strategies used successfully by Newsday, a daily newspaper serving Suffolk and Nassau Counties in Long Island, N.Y., and The Spokesman-Review, a daily newspaper serving eastern Washington.

For those who weren’t able to attend the discussion, we’ve summarized two key tactics here. The full recording of the event is also available here.

How tweaking its online cancellation process helped Newsday retain subscribers

New consumer protection policies from credit card companies and some state governments, like California and New York, require that customers who purchase a subscription online be able to cancel it online. This has directly impacted many news publishers, who make it notoriously difficult to cancel subscriptions in the hopes of clinging on to subscribers.

In early 2020, Newsday created an online cancellation option for digital subscribers. However, they wanted to encourage subscribers to rethink their decision to cancel, something customer service representatives are trained to do when subscribers cancel by phone.

Over one-fourth — 29% — of subscribers who start the cancellation process do not end up canceling their subscription.

So Newsday created an “online cancellation flow” that emphasizes the benefits of a subscription and gives subscribers the choice to “change their mind” or “continue to cancel” at multiple points in the process. At the first point, if subscribers elect to continue with the cancellation process, they are asked to give their reason for cancelling and again are given the option to continue. If they do, they are presented with a “save offer” that presents a custom discount off what they’re currently paying for their subscription. They can accept the offer, or “continue to cancel.” If the customer still elects to cancel, they are presented with one final “Are you sure?” page.

The cancellation flow has been remarkably successful in deflecting cancellations, said Erik Zenhausern, director of acquisition and retention at Newsday. Over one-fourth — 29% — of subscribers who start the cancellation process do not end up canceling their subscription.  However, the save offer leaves room for improvement: Just 2% of subscribers accept the offer, with an average discount of 35% off their current rate.

Zenhausern said his team plans to test offering bigger discounts, and create a dynamic pricing model that is based on digital subscribers’ engagement levels. They also plan to add a chat feature to the cancellation flow, so that subscribers can connect to a customer service representative if they want to. Newsday’s goal is to save 50% of cancellations.

How The Spokesman-Review’s email onboarding series reduces churn

When people subscribe to The Spokesman-Review, they get a series of “welcome” emails that:

  • explains how their subscription works and how to make the most of it
  • introduces them to Editor Rob Curley
  • introduces them to the customer service team
  • points them to stories they may be interested in
  • makes sure they take advantage of subscriber discounts on things like movies, car rentals, concerts and hotel stays.

The series has resulted in a 5% decrease in subscriber churn, and increased engagement among new subscribers by 10%, says Pat Leader, director of audience and consumer revenue at The Spokesman-Review.

The goal is to have all subscribers signed up for two or more newsletters, because that has a strong correlation with retention.

The emails are spread out over the first 105 days after a new subscription starts. The first email, which includes the terms of service and links to the online subscriber portal and the customer care team, has an open rate of 41%. The second, a letter of thanks from Editor Rob Curley, has a 40% open rate. Curley’s letter links to high-performing content, showcasing the best of the Spokesman-Review’s journalism, and explains the newspaper’s mission.

Some emails in the onboarding series are tailored to individual subscribers. Subscribers who are subscribed to fewer than two newsletters, for example, receive an email that showcases all Spokesman-Review newsletters. The goal is to have all subscribers signed up for two or more newsletters, because that has a strong correlation with retention , says Leader.

Another email is targeted to disengaged subscribers, and contains “stories picked just for you.” Remarkably, it has a 33% open rate.

Two emails in the welcome series, sent at the 50 and 105-day mark to all subscribers, contain a short survey asking about the quality of content, customer service, and subscription features. On a scale of 1 to 5, subscribers have delivered The Spokesman-Review an average 4.6 score.


The full recording of the event with Newsday and The Spokesman-Review can be watched here. If your news organization would like help improving its subscriber retention strategies through consulting, advice and other resources, or if you would like to be kept informed of future reader revenue-focused events, please contact Gwen Vargo, API’s director of reader revenue, at gwen.vargo@pressinstitute.org.

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