Subscriber retention and habits go hand in hand

In addition to their massive COVID-19 coverage efforts, news publishers are seeing the current crisis as an opportunity to drive subscriptions, in different ways. In this article, written before the crisis, Nikolay Malyarov, CEO & Chief Content Officer at PressReader, examines how developing habits in readers can lead to greater subscriber retention.

by WAN-IFRA External Contributor | April 2, 2020

“Every habit was formed because people got rewarded for it, at least in the short run,” Seth Godin, Entrepreneur, best-selling author, and speaker.

From brushing our teeth to dropping in at Starbucks for our daily jolt of caffeine to checking our mobile phones at least 50 times a day, we’re all creatures of habit.

We’re very aware that we have habits (some good, some bad, and some irrelevant), but few of us realise that habits, by their repetitive nature, actually help make our brains more efficient.

When faced with a new problem or challenge, the neurological activity in our brains increases, which, in turn, raises the brain’s fuel requirements. It’s why our brains require 20 percent of our entire body’s energy resources despite its small size relative to other organs.

When we engage in habitual behaviour, our brain’s cognitive load is reduced, freeing up our mental capacity and allowing our brain to focus on other tasks. It explains why, when we drive our car from point A to point B, we often find ourselves in autopilot mode and often can’t remember parts of the journey later on.

So what’s this got to do with reader retention?

According to research by the Medill Local News Initiative at Northwestern University, if you want to retain a subscriber, you need to help them make reading your content a daily habit. Because the more often they read your content, the more likely they’ll continue to subscribe. Makes sense.

Although the study focused on local news consumption, which may or may not correlate with every type of newspaper and magazine, one thing that did apply to all publishing types was that unique content is a key factor in user retention. No surprise there either.

But, hold on to your hats. The study also found that more time spent reading newspaper content and deeper reading of that content did not correlate with higher retention. Seriously?

In fact, in two markets, this behaviour was associated with greater churn – a puzzling paradox that conflicts with the America Press Institute’s Metrics for News journalism analytics. Whoa!

There’s no doubt more research is needed to confirm these findings, but it is curious that skimmers and deep divers aren’t all that different when it comes to retention and churn.

At the end of the day, it comes down to helping readers make a habit out of reading differentiated, quality content – where quality is in the eyes of the reader.

So what are publishers doing to turn casual readers into habitual ones?

As more and more publishers pivot to subscriptions and membership models and focus on growing loyalty and retention, many have diversified their communication channels with new consumers.

Social media is now taking a back seat as many look for ways to create direct relationships with readers.

Not surprising, direct communication vehicles, such as newsletters, have made a comeback. And like all things media, there are those who do them extremely well and those that cobble together a selection of stories from their website and wonder why their newsletters aren’t effective.

Newsletters that work

Back in 2012, Microsoft’s corporate vice president of Windows Live said that 50 percent of emails in a typical inbox were newsletters. I would argue that it’s probably much higher today. We’ve all signed up for newsletters that overpromise and underdeliver. But we also rarely take the time to unsubscribe to them. Why is that?

For me, it’s because unsubscribing is often painful; it isn’t just a click away anymore. It’s often a multi-step process involving signing into the service, saying why I want to unsubscribe, and then being asked, “Are you sure you want to unsubscribe?” before I can finally click OK. It’s easier to delete the newsletters as they arrive or set up a rule that automatically deletes them or shoves them into my spam folder.

But there are a number of newsletters worth our time, and sometimes our money, to read because they are person-first, relevant, valuable, and timely – curated content that feels like it’s just for me.

Free newsletters can be a useful tool as an acquisition tactic (e.g., Vanity Fair Hive, The Monocle Minute), but when retention is the goal, free typically doesn’t make the grade it because they’re usually canned content with little or on personalisation. Which is why 35 percent of publishers use exclusive newsletters to keep subscribers coming back for more.

The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Financial Times, The Economist, The Times, Politico, The New Yorker Magazine, and new media publishers such as Stratechery (tech and media), The Information (tech), and Hot Pod (podcasts) have all been successful growing loyalty and habits using niche-based, subscriber-only newsletters.

But many of them aren’t stopping there. Other diversified perks are constantly being added to their paid-content bundles to increase value for their audiences.

So why aren’t the other 65 percent of publishers jumping on board the exclusivity train beyond paywalled content? I would venture to speculate that they aren’t making enough money from that content to pay for quality newsletters because they’re part of the overcrowded general news market.

For those trying to survive in this commoditised crowd, take note.  It’s tough to stay afloat in a market where the vast majority of people are unwilling to pay for digital news. Just ask the Los Angeles Times or New York Daily News.

Maybe investing in some retention-driving newsletters like those that follow will help.

Invite readers into an exclusive club made just for them.

The Globe and Mail has often been showcased as a progressive publisher when it comes to diversification and giving readers what they want — content that not only educates and entertains; it helps people in their daily lives.

In May 2018, the Globe launched its Member Benefits Program, which included a compelling platform of content, experiences, financial tools, and relationship opportunities. Many of these perks were available in the past, but they didn’t receive the same promotional attention as the publication itself.

What impressed me about the Globe’s stepped-up focus on its relationship with its subscribers was its decision to look outside the publishing industry for insights – drawing on the experience in hospitality, retail, and other consumer markets to understand best practices on how to grow loyalty and retention.

Since that launch and the marketing around it, the Globe has seen “a significant lift in content engagement and reductions in churn of up to 58 percent.” Pretty impressive!

Learn from smart data

Using user data, The Wall Street Journal is developing new strategies to keep readers coming back for more. Through Project Habit, the publisher learned that people tend to develop habits early.

So the Journal started capitalising on the onboarding process when subscribers were most impressionable. By promoting a list of desired habits across multiple communication channels, the WSJ increased engagement and loyalty among its subscribers, reducing churn at the same time. During the past 12 months, the team’s key engagement measurement – active days – has steadily risen.

If the adage that “old habits die hard” is true, it would appear that the Journal’s data-driven retention strategy is working.

Make the butler do it

In the spring of 2018, The Times started developing a self-learning algorithm to deliver the right content to the right reader at the right time based on their reading habits. Dubbed “James” by Times employees, this AI-powered, digital butler was programmed to accelerate subscriptions and reduce churn by curating content for an audience of one.

According to the publisher, due to James’s efforts over the past year, 49 percent fewer people churned compared to a control group, and engagement was the highest the publisher had ever seen.

James is still in the early stages of his career at The Times, but he’s looking like a promising addition to the customer engagement and editorial teams. As he grows up, he’ll be able to intelligently deliver the right push notifications, social media messaging, and advertising to customers in the future. He’ll also offer advice on what content to create based on his ever-growing knowledge of the audience the company serves.

The Times was fortunate to be awarded US$1.2M from Google’s Digital News Innovation (DNI) Fund to help fund James’s development, and it plans on white-labeling the tool for other European publishers down the road.

Let the games begin!

Also using funds from Google DNI Fund, The Financial Times launched Knowledge Builder (KB) in late 2018 – a new tool that scores a reader’s knowledge on key topics and suggests content that could help them improve their score and expertise. Knowledge Builder was built in partnership with :CRUX – a knowledge tech company that uses gamification to drive engagement for publishers and enlightenment for users. Its goal was to increase engagement so subscribers would be less likely to churn.

“Knowledge Builder visualises and rewards reading progress, helping users save time and take control of their research efforts. It allows readers to build expertise in any subject, and in a way that works with their individual schedules. The recommendation feature creates a new incentive to keep reading the best news and analysis in relevant fields,” said James Webb, Group Product Manager at the FT.

According to Webb, data scientists estimate that re-engaging ~10,000 to 20,000 churned subscribers could add US$1.9M a year in revenues, not including any display ad revenue. The algorithm has also unearthed some valuable evergreen content that could help generate new advertising income for the paper as well.

The results are not conclusive as yet, but they do look promising. People tend to consume double the number of pages per visit with KB content, and those KB articles typically have a higher completion rate.

Moving beyond the written word

Newsletters are great acquisition and retention vehicles if they serve today’s “It’s all about me” reader with personal, relevant, and timely content. But there are lots of other communication tactics that might appeal to audiences.
Voice is certainly an exciting new avenue to explore.

Yes, smart speakers are still in the early adopter phase of their technology life cycle, but they’re moving to mainstream quickly.

How they are used varies by country, but in the US, where over a quarter of the adult population owns at least one device, news (typically from digital radio/TV broadcasts and podcasts) is starting to get its share of listeners.

So it’s not surprising that the major players in publishing are getting into the mix.

Hearst was early to the party, developing voice skills for Elle and Good Housekeeping magazines.

The Financial Times launched its daily news briefing on Google Home and Amazon Echo last year, followed shortly thereafter by The New York Times with its daily flash briefing and interactive news quiz on Amazon Echo.
Monetising voice is also in its infancy, but creative minds are working to capitalise on the new channel.

The Washington Post, which launched its voice product in July 2018, found ways to monetise its audio news by having its flash briefing hosts read ads out load. Bloomberg and Huffington Post did the same, with HuffPost also incorporating sponsored-content questions into its news quiz on Google.

I have yet to see any publishers setting up paid subscriptions to their voice apps, despite Amazon announcing two years ago that it was going to add a subscription capability, followed by in-skill purchasing a year later. If you know of any publishers using this capability, I’d love to hear about them.

Once publishing apps mature, we may see this happen, although it might make more sense to add voice access to their existing subscription bundles – creating another touchpoint where publishers and journalists can connect with their readers and build stronger relationships.

Make user retention a habit

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit,” author Will Durant, in reference to Aristotle’s thoughts in The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers

I’ve been thinking a lot about the research referenced earlier and its somewhat confounding conclusion that more time spent reading did not correlate with higher retention, and that in some cases it was associated with greater churn.

And then I remembered the old idiom, “Measure twice, cut once.” Actually, in Russian, it’s “Measure seven times, cut once.”

Twice or seven times doesn’t really matter as long as your next irrevocable move (the cut) is made because real and accurate data dictated it.

No two publishers are the same, nor are their customers. So playing follow-the-leader is a strategy based on wishful thinking, not sound business practices.

Knowing your audience is the first step to a promising retention strategy. So before embarking on any new marketing campaigns to reduce churn, measure everything you can to determine what makes “a person” join, engage, leave, stay, or come back. Because basing decisions on aggregate data doesn’t cut it in the relationship business, and that’s what we’re all in – the relationship business.

It’s not unlike the dating game, actually. From the initial meeting and getting to know you phase, to friends with benefits, infatuation, engagement, and finally a long-term commitment, there are so many moments where we can take the relationship to the next phase or let it phase out completely.

Which is why I encourage you to start building intimate relationships with “the person” with whom you want to build a long relationship.

Find out what motivates them, what delights them, and what doesn’t. Then offer them unique products and experiences that feed their passions whether that’s through curated newsletters, events, podcasts, voice apps, forums, or something completely new – things that they can’t get anywhere else but through you; things that they’re willing to pay for and keep paying for.

Become an expert in knowing the person better than they know themselves and make user retention your life-long habit.

WAN-IFRA External Contributor

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