Optimising onboarding for net subscription growth

As more publishers mature in their reader revenue strategies in 2020, it becomes crucial to retain subscribers to have overall net subscription growth. The first phase of a subscriber’s journey is critical for their retention, as shown by research from News UK, The Wall Street Journal and more.

As an inspiration for optimising your onboarding strategy, we have analysed the onboarding experiences of a handful of publishers. From this, we have developed a set of guiding factors to keep in mind: education on product features, delighting subscribers, and strong product experiences.

Educate subscribers on product features

During onboarding it is key to educate new subscribers on all the relevant features in the product suite. Both The Guardian and The Wall Street Journal found that the more features a subscriber uses, the lower their risk of churn. The Wall Street Journal took it a step further to understand individual features that were highly correlated with retention and then encouraged new subscribers to try them out during the onboarding process. For example, they found that using their puzzles increased retention by 30% but only 1% of their audience had played a puzzle in the past.

In the Nordics, Schibsted has also focused on educating their readers during the onboarding process. When they first started this process, they had a standardised series of e-mails without any personalisation. With their renewed focus on this process, they have now optimised the onboarding process to be more data-driven with a high degree of individualisation. Their next step was developing a cross-functional project group from the newsroom, product, technology and commercial teams to focus on the onboarding process. One initiative from this group was the creation of “newsroom onboarding buddies“: new subscribers are now given a choice to select an editor or journalist to guide them through the onboarding period, all completely automated. This more personalised email experience resulted in almost a doubling of the unique opens and an increase in the average digital events.

Having an automated onboarding buddy helped personalise the onboarding process.

For The Globe and Mail in Canada, the first thirty days in a subscriber’s lifetime are key for two reasons. On one hand, this period is when churn is at its highest so they need to educate their new subscribers as quickly as possible before losing them. But this time is also important because they need thirty days of data in order to gather patterns of user behavior, which they can then use to serve up content based on personal interest. To ensure their onboarding process is successful, the team does not allow any emails not related to the onboarding experience to be sent in the first thirty days. After this period, the focus shifts to building a lasting relationship with their readers by demonstrating value on a daily basis.

We are diligently focused on ensuring [new subscribers] say “yes” to being a Globe and Mail subscriber every day.

Katrina Bolak, Manager for Customer Onboarding and Engagement at The Globe and Mail

Delight your readers to keep them coming back

To ensure readers truly adapt news into their daily routine, it is important to provide a reward that encourages the reader to keep coming back. In Nir Eyal’s Hooked Canvas, he specifies the reward needs to be variable, something the reader will not expect every time they engage with the news. We can think of the example of a slot machine: users start to crave the thrill of pulling the lever and seeing what they are rewarded with. In the digital world, this is exemplified by Tristan Harris’s “pull to refresh” functionality for news feeds, which can be incredibly addicting. The unpredictability makes the reward much more exciting and will keep users coming back every day for the surprise. 

During the onboarding process, it is important to delight new subscribers to encourage them to return the next day before they have developed their own habit with the product. One way Schibsted achieves this is by inviting new subscribers to special events aimed at creating that emotional link between their brands and subscribers. Being able to have breakfast with a reporter or asking a specialist a question about the news is definitely one way to delight your subscribers.

Encouraging subscribers to meet the journalists created an emotional link with the brand.

Another way is by sending a signed thank you letter in the post to new subscribers. That’s what the Star Tribune in Minnesota does, first expressing their gratitude for the new subscription while then highlighting some of the value the reader can expect out of their subscription.

McClatchy thank you cards

Strong product experiences are table-stakes

These other factors are unlikely however to be able to overcome a poor product experience, so having a quality product suite is the first step. As readers get used to the vast recommendation engine of Netflix or the ease of subscribing to Spotify, they expect all digital products to offer the same experience. With the increased competition for subscribers’ attention, publishers will need to ensure their products are up to the standards set by tech giants.

Currently we are researching how to build habits with news products (sign-up to receive the report first when it is released next month); one of the key things that stands out in this research is the importance of immediacy for developing a habit, with the exact time frame depending on the individual publisher. The Wall Street Journal found that the first 100 days are when readers are most likely to develop a habit, while The Guardian‘s time frame is even shorter: the more their app is used in the first seven weeks of a subscriber’s lifetime, the lower the subscriber’s risk of churn. For News UK, their data shows a reader either forms a habit with the news product in the first week or never does. When the News UK team discovered this, it spurred them to shorten some of their onboarding flows and re-invest in the product experience.

You need to invest in building products that people actually love.

Dan Gilbert, Director of Data at News UK

By optimizing onboarding strategies, publishers will be able to truly grow their digital subscribers as new acquisition efforts will result in net growth instead of just replacing churned subscribers.

Mary-Katharine Phillips
Mary-Katharine Phillips
Media innovation analyst @ Twipe
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