Acquiring new subscribers is one thing, keeping them quite another

by Anton Jolkovski | February 13, 2018

At the Webinar “2018 in Paid Content,” Jungkvist, Senior Advisor to the Schibsted Media Group in Sweden and Expert Advisor at WAN-IFRA, acknowledged the importance of “chasing volume” – getting masses of new sign-ups. However, he said, publishers eventually reach a plateau, with the same numbers of subscribers coming as leaving.

In Europe, some newspapers have up to six years’ experience with paid content, and churn is a major problem. “The focus on chasing new subscribers has been at the cost of product development and driving engagement,” said Jungkvist. (Editor’s note: the recording of the webinar can be accessed here.)

At a newspaper that has a monthly churn rate of 15 percent, the average lifetime of a subscriber is only half a year. That rate is not common, but many newspapers have 10-11 percent, “which is still quite a lot,” said Jungkvist. He said a realistic goal is 5-6 percent, which means a subscriber has an average lifetime of about 1.5 years.

The key to reducing churn is to persuade existing subscribers to stick around by engaging them far more deeply. Some methods that can be effective are these:

  1. building a better user experience,
  2. incorporating personalisation strategies,
  3. deeply analysing users’ behavioral data and adjusting the editorial content to reflect what paying subscribers actually want to read; and
  4. directing users to your app.

“Apps are the best anti-churn channels!” said Jungkvist. Users tend to have high levels of engagement with apps and can in some cases customise the notifications received on their mobile phones – provided they are reminded to do so.

Note: Jungkvist will lead a workshop on reducing churn rates on 9 April in Copenhagen, the day before Digital Media Europe. More information is available here.

The Reuters Institute found that on average, a user has only 1.5 news apps, he said. “Perhaps they have a local one, a national one… but you must fight to be the app. It’s extremely important for volume, for engagement,” said Jungkvist.

User app experience often lackluster

When a user has subscribed to paid content in an app, their experience should clearly reflect that fact, he said. “I opened the New York Times app. My name does not appear… The same for the Washington Post. In a lot of other apps in Sweden, I can see my name when I’m logged in,” he said. Personalization also helps give the user a good experience. “In some apps you can customize what kind of alerts, notifications you want. It’s not narrow – it’s sports, business.

“On the other hand, Omni, the Schibsted app, takes it many steps further. There I can follow specific news events, follow a certain football team or political party or whatever. I can easily get all the articles that I am interested in.”

In general, publishers should educate subscribers about the value of their offer, rather than assuming they will realize it for themselves. Introductory information for new subscribers should include these items:

  • help with finding their way around the content,
  • a clear way to tell which content is paid and which is free, and
  • encouragement to explore their subscription possibilities.

“The work to start engaging the user and minimizing churn starts on the first day the person subscribes. You need a week for the ‘onboarding’ process, showing the user what the subscription really is all about, what kind of premium articles or segments could be interesting,” said Jungkvist.

Trade useful information for user data

Obviously, when it comes to engaging users, the more you know about them, the more effectively you can address their wants and needs. Most users are reluctant to provide information about themselves, but there are a few ways publishers can get valuable data:

  • require users to provide information as part of the registration process,
  • create personalization functions only for users who provide information,
  • and offer local news and weather reports to users who activate geolocation.

Geolocation has proved to be a successful tactic in Sweden, said Jungkvist.

Jungkvist leads the Paid Content & Reader Revenue course in the WAN-IFRA Media Management Accelerator. More information is available here.

Personalization should be implemented with a strong awareness of its limitations and the need to educate users about it. Said Jungkvist, “I don’t believe in total personalization. People want to be surprised, at least people who are using trusted brand media,” as opposed to niche sites that people visit in order to confirm their own points of view.

He said when personalization is offered, “Part of the reason users don’t use [it] is that publishers don’t have an onboarding process where people are asked to choose areas of interest. It’s important to help users use personalization.”

Editor’s note: Media24 in South Africa has taken a noteworthy approach to personalization, offering users both common and customized feeds in a single app powered partly by machine learning and artificial intelligence. More information is available in the WAN-IFRA Report “Best Practice in Digital Media – Profiles of the 2017 World Digital Media Awards winners.”

Drive a culture change in your company

Newspapers, which typically have been slow to implement changes, are finding that they need to introduce a much faster pace of product development.

At Schibsted, “Traditionally, we have had a lot of testing and learning, testing and learning – be very quick to shut it down if it doesn’t work. I have seen quite a few newspapers doing that as well. But to a certain degree it’s more costly today,” said Jungkvist, because only a team of data-science specialists can find out why a particular product failed or succeeded.

He said another positive characteristic of the Schibsted corporate culture is a readiness to share test results internally, so departments can learn from one another.

At all publishing houses, he said, editorial departments must become aware of the need to get users to pay for their content. “Instead of just being proud of having the ‘big story’, journalists need to be proud of creating stories, columns, or whatever, that people pay for. They need to have the attitude, ‘Our company’s future is all about getting paid for content.’ Many newspapers are far, far from that,” Jungkvist said.

The above slide from Jungkvist’s presentation shows the importance of analyzing users’ behavior in detail.

The graph at the left shows “what drives people to a site. It’s mainly breaking news. You want to be updated about what is happening. Then you choose some other element that you’re especially interested in.”

The graph at the center shows “what is driving conversion. That is not the same thing as what’s driving people to an app or news site. It’s content and how it’s presented; we’ve learned quite a bit about that.

(Referring to the graph at right) “The next step: Tracking the people who subscribe. They have another way of engaging with a news site.”

Jungkvist concluded, “If we have focused so much on conversion and not on analyzing what is driving engagement among our subscribers, and segmenting that into quite a lot of different behavior types, it’s very hard to find what we can do to drive engagement.”

He urged, “Use analytics to see which stories are performing well and which stories actually convert users to paying subscribers! Use the different data points, analyse the different segments of subscribers. Depending on your behavior, you would be presented with premium articles we think your segment would be interested in.”

Interactivity is another effective means of driving engagement, he said: “You want to involve people in polls, invite them to participate in investigations. Experiment!”

Note: WAN-IFRA’s series of reports on Smart Data contains a great deal of useful advice on maintaining relationships with customers.

Report 1: How to make data work for your news organisation

Report 2: Building valuable relationships

Report 3: Sustain relationships by improving customer experience

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