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Retaining subscribers: Key learnings from The Atlantic and MediaNews Group

2021-10-08. While retention is extremely important, it cannot be considered as an objective in itself says Louis Deering, Vice President of Digital Subscriptions of MediaNews Group, publisher of the San José Mercury News, Boston Herald, and The Denver Post.

by WAN-IFRA External Contributor info@wan-ifra.org | October 9, 2021

Deering and Emilie Harkin, Vice President of Consumption Strategy and Growth, from The Atlantic shared their experiences on Lifetime Value, retention strategy and the pyramid model during the Digital Media Latam conference organised by WAN-IFRA

As the media industry’s future focuses more on revenue per reader as an economic model, subscriber retention becomes critical.

According to a recent Harvard Business Review study, acquiring a new customer is five to 25 times more expensive than retaining an existing one. It is key to keep customers interested and engaged, develop a more complete view of this relationship, and stop the churn before it occurs.

Deering said that while retention is extremely important, it cannot be considered as an objective in itself, because the objective “must be to develop a sustainable income model to support journalism that makes our communities are vibrant.”

Retention rates or LTV (lifetime value), Deering said, “are not always aligned with revenue growth. And the objective really is that: that the income increases.”

For example, a strategy focused on avoiding an increase in the cancellation rate at all costs “can discourage price increases, and sometimes you have to raise prices. We have raised prices, and it has not had a negative impact. If prices are raised correctly, total income increases. It is true that it is necessary to increase moderately, but by doing so, the business is growing steadily,” he said.

Accumulated income

Deering also noted that another KPI that many focus on is medium-term retention and betting on annual offers.

“The retention rate is indeed higher when the offers are annual, but when we look at the accumulated income, we see the average income per subscriber is higher if, for example, discounts of two dollars are used for six months. The total income is much higher after 18 months,” he said.

Regarding the Lifetime Value, Deering also said that, although there are media very focused on improving the average LTV, in his opinion this involves risks, “and leads to taking the wrong measures because the individual LTV is looked at more than the global LTV.”

“I’m not saying that retention is not taken into account, but rather make no mistake and lose sight of the big picture,” he said.

There are four strategic pillars in the area of ​​subscriptions:

Product & UX

  • Have a good user experience in the login area and payment wall, with the necessary FAQs.
  • Good ad design experience, and go for some ad-free subscriptions.
  • That subscribers have the facility to quickly locate the content of their choice, such as authors or topics, etc.

Billing and user life cycle

“We spend a lot of time on billing, optimising it, for example, in terms of deadlines (monthly vs others, etc.). We also invest a lot in technology related to billing, which allows us to know when the card is going to expire, and we can even contact the subscriber in real-time when he is browsing the web and remind him that he has to renew it,” he said.

Content and engagement

In this area, “we have concentrated on simple but powerful things, such as auto opt-in in newsletters and cross-selling. Also in the personalisation of the newsletter. Readers choose what they want to receive, how often. We also work with the newsroom to see how the news is doing in terms of subscriptions, etc,” Deering said.

Prices

One of the strategies in the price field has been to create a premium subscription model.

“We have been using a premium model for a year, and the difference with the basic payment model is that the premium is free of advertising, with a better browsing experience. It is a tiny price increase, and the reader improves their experience. Ten percent of our subscribers are already in premium, and we want to reach 20 percent in the coming year,” Deering said.

Apart from that, MediaNews Group does a lot of experimentation on prices based on user experience, leading to a better understanding of who is willing to accept a higher price based on their engagement.

The Atlantic and the pyramid model

Emilie Harkin, who defines herself as a lifelong lover of magazines since she had a copy of Highlights for Children magazine in her hands, says the subscription model is based on pyramid.

The industry has worked on several models, the funnel, the loops, the circular model, or the ladder model, but the one that catches my attention is that of a pyramid,” Harkin said. “In our case, we work to have a rock-solid foundation. We have not yet managed to build our pyramid, but we are working on it.”

How can you build a solid and stable foundation?

“There is a secret, which is not so secret: to have an excellent payment process and excellent engagement,” Harkin said. “These are two basic pillars. When we talk about payment processing, the payment must be as easy as possible so that the retention is good.”

Key milestones

For Harkin, it is also crucial to view a subscriber’s life process as a timeline. The milestones of this timeline would be:

Day zero. Pre-subscription. In this phase, you have to build a reading habit in your readers, with newsletters, automated emails, experiences in social networks, apps, etc.

Day one. Purchase. Start a series of emails with the subscriber to stay in touch.

Day 31. Regular contact with automated and moment-based marketing.

Day 305: Pre-renewal. The subscriber pre-renewal process begins, with the pre-charge

Day 365. Renewal. Transparent experience, respecting cancellation requests

Day 395. Work with each subscriber. Claims, credit card retries, recoveries, etc.

The Atlantic only offers annual subscriptions.

“From a strategic point of view, this time is important because it allows us to show the value of the subscription to The Atlantic,” Harkin said. “If it is an annual subscription, when it comes time to renew, they will not hesitate because they have already seen what it is and what is offered to them. In addition, monthly subscriptions require monthly charges, as well as other details that should be taken into account.”

The length between subscription and renewal is critical to getting people engaged with the journalistic product being offered, she said.

“Discounts also play a role, but when we have an active customer, renewal is safe, and also the longer they stay, the more connection there is, and they become our evangelisers,” Harkin said.

It is essential to take into account four points to build the pyramid of subscriptions:

  • Bet on the main asset, journalism
  • Hear what customers say and do
  • Invest in technology solutions, particularly in the payment process
  • Have a multi-faceted strategy, a multi-year approach.

Authored by Laboratorio de Periodismo, Fundación Luca de Tena

WAN-IFRA External Contributor

info@wan-ifra.org

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