With 52% of publishers focusing on subscriptions as their main revenue source this year, the need to better convert subscribers is continuing to grow. This week we’ve gathered the top research into subscription conversion for publishers to make sure they’re not missing any of the best practices.
#1. Rethink your entire conversion funnel
Research from the Center for Media Engagement suggests we’re thinking about the conversion funnel all wrong. Perhaps the goal of the website isn’t to get people to subscribe directly, but instead to register for a newsletter. Then the newsletter has the goal of converting readers to paying subscribers. Once a reader subscribes to a newsletter, there’s time to create the daily habit that helps to show the value of the news content. This also helps support the recent finding from Reuters that publishers who build direct relationships with their readers that are better able to convince readers to subscribe. While social and search are good for widening the funnel, it is the direct relationship that is key for conversion.
Research from the Media Insight Project found that one quarter of respondents were triggered to subscribe due to specific topics they could only have access to after paying. Usually such readers are interested in local politics or sports and engage highly with that content, meaning they often hit a paywall until they ultimately decide to subscribe. For The Dallas Morning News, high school sports stories are key. So instead of an article-counting meter, they placed a day-counting meter on high school sports stories. After the first day, visitors are asked to provide their email address, then after four days they’re locked out to additional content. The Dallas Morning News put together a newsletter specifically for these readers which was used to generate more subscriptions in three months than the rest of the site combined.
At Twipe, we’re always proud to be at the forefront of media technology, which is why we’re excited to be bringing the learnings from our latest AI project to the industry. We’ll be releasing a report on our work and findings from the year-long collaborative project with The Times and The Sunday Times, called “JAMES, Your Digital Butler.” Currently this technology has been used to send newsletters but it can also be applied to other channels such as push notifications. The report will be published later this month, make sure to check back.
#2. Educate your readers
While all of us in the news industry are quite aware of the funding crisis, many readers are not. Last year while researching our series “Reinventing Digital Editions“, we had the opportunity to speak directly with readers. A common refrain amongst the readers was why should they be asked to also pay for online news, when newspapers are already making so much money from advertisements?
Educating readers on the current state of funding for journalism, as well as what work goes into every story can be an effective way to convert these readers. This is something The New York Times is currently experimenting with, by having journalists explain in detail their reporting process in ads for subscriptions during some of their podcasts, including The Daily. These ads are great examples of educating readers on all the effort, time, and resources that are put into every story they publish.
There’s another element to educating readers, and that’s the need to make it clear what a subscription offering includes. The Wall Street Journal found that they were often taking for granted certain benefits so did not promote them when showing subscription offerings. For example, we’ve heard before about a feared “subscription fatigue”, and we know signing up for a new subscription can be a bit anxiety-inducing. The Wall Street Journal was able to increase subscriptions 10% by simply highlighting the ease at which subscribers could cancel (which had no impact on the average tenure of subscribers).
Research from the Center for Media Engagement shows as well that readers are more triggered to subscribe when they’re shown messages about what they’d gain from a subscription, such as access to premium-only content, than messages about what they would lose if they don’t subscribe.
#3. Try new ways to give readers a taste
It’s a difficult balance to create, how to give readers enough content to convince them to subscribe without giving too much away? Some publishers are playing with time to draw this line.
BoiseDev is one such publisher that has enacted a “timewall”. Paying members of this micro-news site in Idaho, USA are the first to receive local news stories, which are then published on the website the day after.
On the other end is MittMedia, Sweden’s leading local media company. Their content is free for the first hour after it is published, meaning readers are incentivised to come back often to the website. This helps to gamify the user experience and drives increased frequency. The timewall strategy has helped them increase subscriber conversions 20%. It’s something that could be easily adopted by other publishers as well; it took the team at MittMedia just two weeks to build and launch the timewall.
#4. Reach readers when they’re changing
Another important trigger for subscribing is a major life change. 16% of respondents started to pay for online news because of a transition in their life, such as a move or starting a family. While it isn’t the editorial or marketing offer made by the newspaper that converts them, it is still important for publishers to be meeting these readers at the right time. Publishers can try to partner with local organizations such as realtors, colleges, or employers to reach such readers. The Financial Times is a good example of this, with their effort to extend free access to their content to 16-19 year old students around the world.
We can also think about this in terms of product offerings. Most readers aren’t 100% digital or 100% print for their whole lives. So how can you adapt your product offering to meet the changing needs of your readers? Perhaps a new job means a reader needs to be able to access the news content on the go, so make it clear their print subscription also offers access to the ePaper for example.
It’s not about print or digital, it’s about different moments during they day. Digital is great during the day to get an update, while some people put aside time on the weekend to read print. We have to think about it in moments and what media is most important in that time.
Nic Newman, Reuters Institute
#5. Don’t forget the importance of UX
Finally, we cannot overlook the user experience when subscribing. The importance of good UX is becoming more and more a topic of conversation in the industry. Sophie Gourmelen, General Director of Le Parisien, explained recently at WAN-IFRA’s Digital Subscription Summit that if a news title’s UX is poor, subscriptions will be difficult, as good content is not enough to overcome poor UX. Publishers today are competing against all subscription products, so readers are expecting to be able to subscribe to a newspaper as easily as they subscribe to Netflix or Spotify.
The Seattle Times experimented with the actual flow after a reader decided to subscribe. They found that reducing the fields required to subscribe from 24 to just 9 helped increase conversions by 35%.
Furthermore, the product experience before deciding to subscribe must be of a high enough quality to convince readers it’s worth paying for. A report from the American Press Institute proposed that shifting from a quantity-driven audience strategy to a quality-driven one requires a rethinking of the product experience as well. While in the past the idea was to get articles seen by the most amount of readers possible, while filling all available space with advertisements, this experience is often not one worth paying for. The most annoying advertisements (popups, autoplay video, redirects, etc) may have felt like a “necessary evil” in the days of ad-driven revenue strategies, but this will prevent high conversion for reader revenue strategies.
This article was written by Mary-Katharine Phillips, Media Innovation Analyst at Twipe from 2017 – 2021.