Will publishers be able to retain all their new subscribers from the corona crisis?

For many publishers, March broke all previous subscriber records (we saw this on our platform as well). With the increased news consumption due to the covid-19 crisis, readers were turning more and more to trusted news organisations for their information. While Europe is focused now on retaining the new subscribers from this peak, according to research from Piano, the US will soon reach its subscriber peak as well.

So what happens once publishers aren’t acquiring new readers at such a high rate, and existing subscribers face economic pressure due to the coming recession as well as potential news fatigue? Join as we dive into how publishers can prepare for this future and best retain their existing subscribers.

What’s coming next

According to Mather Economics, publishers should brace for a deep drop in new subscription sales going forward, even lower than their pre-corona crisis levels. While the current situation is unprecedented, at a smaller level, we can learn from cases of more localised natural disasters that prompted spikes in new subscribers. In these situations, there were actually two spikes happening: first-time readers and new subscribers. These groups did not necessarily overlap, instead what happened was that more people were turning to the news organisation for quality journalism due to the big news event, while existing readers were deciding to subscribe earlier than they would have normally due to the big news event. In short, Matt Lindsay, president of Mather Economics, explains: the high-interest news event speeds the acquisition, but that creates a gap in the bottom of the funnel.

The new readers are unlikely to subscribe right away, instead needing to be exposed to the paywall and subscription offer seven times on average. This can take several weeks or months, so publishers will not see a return to more normal levels of new subscribers until then, the speed depending on how their paywall is configured.

Furthermore, news consumption levels are stabilising as well. After massive spikes in previous weeks, analysis is showing that traffic to corona articles are down 25% versus the week before.

Ensure existing print & digital subscribers adopt new habits

While many publishers have 3-5 year plans to transition print readers to digital, some are having to speed these plans up to achieve the same targets in the next 3-5 months instead. Whether if due to the inability to produce a print newspaper, the loss of existing delivery networks, or consumer fear about print, publishers need to finalise their plans to transition print readers to digital today.

More publishers are seeing spikes in digital subscribers, and considering how to transition their print readers. For publishers that need to reduce the number of days they produce a print newspaper during this crisis, we advise considering any longer-term plans for print reduction and align the two strategies. This crisis might serve as a catalyst to speed up plans for print reduction or elimination for many publishers.

Amongst our own customers, we have seen a record level of growth in digital edition readers, with overall usage increasing by 55% in March compared to the previous month. This is in part due to successful campaigns to transition print readers to the ePaper, the most familiar digital reading experience for the typical print reader. We have also seen success with creating new editions for evening reading, one such edition product on our platform saw 500k readers in a single night. We plan to explore the success of digital evening editions further in a future article.

With more than a decade of experience in bringing the print newspaper to digital with our technology, we are happy to provide any insights we can to publishers considering their own transition plans. Contact us for a complimentary 30 minute call to discuss your strategy.

Retain new subscribers via personalisation and frequency

With the news media industry having reached a relative consensus that publishers should invest 3-10x more on retention than acquisition, we plan to explore how publishers can best put their retention budget to use

As for new subscribers during the crisis, it will be key to ensure they develop a habit with the digital product in their onboarding journey. The first step in creating a habit is the internal trigger. For many subscribers today, that internal trigger is a desire to know the current situation regarding the corona crisis. However, publishers will need to make sure subscribers are exposed to the full breadth of their journalism. While it might seem like today all content is corona content, new subscribers need to be exposed to non-corona content as well. Sports fans are a good example: if someone is triggered to convert on a sports story, it is important to build a habit around non-sports content as well, otherwise you risk losing them when the season ends. In short, subscribers need to realise the full value of what they are paying for.

We know frequency is the biggest predictor for retention. The more often a person returns to your content, the more likely they are to remain subscribed. Newsletters are an effective way to develop this daily rhythm, and we’ve seen publishers go all-in on their newsletter strategies in recent years. However until recently newsletters have mainly only offered customisation (opt-in to specific topics to follow) rather than true personalisation (taking into account past behaviour). While some fear the possibility of a filter bubble due to news personalisation, we believe there is a way for news organisations to compete with personalisation giants without losing the essence of providing quality journalism to readers.

To close this gap we are launching “JAMES, Your Digital Butler“ which is tailored to the needs of news organisations (and currently closing the 2nd launch batch, let us know if you want to join). While for other personalisation giants such as Netflix or Spotify it might make sense to personalise recommendations entirely, however people still come to newspapers for news. That’s why JAMES combines personalised content with relevant, timely articles through the use of machine learning and AI. In the first test case, The Times and The Sunday Times have been able to realise a 49% reduction in churn through the use of JAMES. To learn more, sign up for a webinar on JAMES on April 23.

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