Practical digital subscription tips from international publishers

Digital subscriptions tips from international publishers

Digital subscription marketing excellence is driven by doing hundreds of tiny things a little better.  And by exhaustive testing.  The Audiencers Subscription Festival in London in June was a great source of new ideas that have been tested by international publishers and are worth adding to your marketing tool box.  Most were news media or general titles but some were niche and specialist, so certainly worth considering. 

Here are my favourite tips from the day

1. Build intermediate engagement for long term value

Start with registration, or newsletter signups.  Lifetime value is better for customers who started with a simple commitment before paying to subscribe. Consider allowing only registered users to view comments. Or reduce frequency of marketing messages for logged in users. One publisher started their free reg journey two years before offering a paid option and now have hundreds of thousands of subs.

2. Create subscription tiers

Whether signing up for a commercial subscription or an altruistic donation, allow people to select a level of commitment that suits them. Offer a premium tier including access to exclusive content or events, or fewer ads.

3. Learn what content drives subs

Analyse which content drives a good number of subscribers (five or more?) and make it more prominent on your home page.  Track content behaviour by category and test leading with relevant content in marketing.  Invest in opinion, analysis and useful content. Share stats on what articles drive subs with editorial teams.

4. Understand what motivates members and supporters

Non-profits that are asking for supporters or donations can still apply marketing techniques.  Be clear about what motivates your supporters (e.g. investigative journalism, unheard voices, purpose) by asking them directly, and echo their phrasing in your marketing messages.  Tailor your requests to suit the content of the article where they appear. 

The Guardian generates 40% of their supporter income from their long form requests at the end of articles (called “The Epic”).  Content is related to the article and is sometimes authored by specialist journalists who readers will recognise.  Make the request for money/ support clear and simple.  But allow people to select the level of support that suits their budget and allow them to request a “reminder later “ to reduce fatigue. Track the number of articles (and category of articles) they read and use this to personalise the request for support. The copy used in on-screen requests can be repurposed for email marketing.

5. Test smart features on user journey

Try everything possible to make a subscriber purchase journey simple.  Some publishers make it possible to subscribe without leaving the article that prompted the sub.  Making it easier to unsubscribe can in fact improve retention rates.  The Guardian built “choice cards” right into the end of their supporter request copy to reduce clicks. One publisher varied the proportion of paid vs free content shown on the page for different user segments.  They found that “locking” more content for certain segments could increase subscription rates. 

6. Invest in building a community to drive loyalty

Consider limited access to comments to subscribers only.  Some publishers actively encourage their experts or journalists to participate in comment section or run live online Q&A with subscribers.  One moved to real names only for commenters and quality improved.  Involve readers in long running stories with call-outs. One publisher invited their top 20 commenters to a day in the newsroom with journalists. 

7. Analyse what causes churn (and retention)

Target different subscriber segments that may be at risk of lapsing. If you have got a group on a low legacy rate it might be easier to renew them at that rate and not risk the churn. Make a special offer to monthly subscribers to convert them to annual. Respond to “voluntary cancellations” with an informal message (e.g. Please don’t leave us) and a strong offer – you can save 5-10% this way.  If a payment method has expired, try a push notification if no reply to emails. For subs with zero or low online activity, test a social re-engagement with an editorially-led message to entice them back.  Track articles viewed by category so you can tailor retention messages with relevant content.

Other publishers tackle churn by enhancing their onboarding process.  Can you track what engagement activity (e.g. newsletter signup, app downloads…) signals better retention and then prompt new subscribers to take these actions?  Or help them build a regular habit around their favourite content or features?  Some publishers can tailor their retention message sequence or choice of channels to suit different segments (e.g. Gen Z may respond better to in-app messages than emails).

Next steps

If you are embarking on a digital subscription journey and would like to learn from the experiences of other publishers, just get in touch for a chat over a real or virtual coffee.

To swap ideas and best practice with your specialist publisher peers, you can request to join the Speciall Media Group on Linked In. It’s free but invite only, no suppliers or vendors.

About the author

Carolyn Morgan has acquired, launched, built, and sold specialist media businesses in print, digital and events. She now advises niche consumer and B2B publishers on developing new products and digital revenue streams as a consultant and NED.

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