Why half of your new subscribers will churn in the first 3 months

While reading the new WAN-IFRA report “Engaged Readers Don’t Churn—Retention lessons for digital subscriptions“, one key stat stood out: German newspaper Die Welt found that half of their new subscribers were leaving in the first three months, after which the churn rate dropped to 1-2% monthly. So how can newspapers who have already succeeded by convincing digital readers to pay for a subscription then keep those readers engaged?

Lesson 1: Great content needs great products

Does the same content that triggers a reader to finally subscribe help keep them engaged and prevent them from churning? It depends on who you ask. Many publishers, including Norwegian local media group Amedia, think that the same content that converts is what best helps to retain. As CDO Pål Nedregotten explains, the important aspect is to create local value for readers. Yet Svenska Dagbladet, a Schibsted title, found otherwise. Editorial Head of Premium Anna Careborg shared that their data shows there is specific content that is anti-churn. While “need to know” articles, such as world events, is key for converting, it is “nice-to-know” content, such as arts and reviews, that is best for retention. This resonates with learnings from Twipe’s Digital Reader Engagement research project, in which we identified that positive affect, why readers emotionally engage with content, is built on 9 building blocks, including both need to know and nice to know content.

It’s also useful to remind readers of all the quality journalism you have produced, something The Washington Post recently did with subscribers on the 1 year anniversary of their subscribing. Subscribers received a email looking back at the top stories since they subscribed; the mail also thanked them for their subscriptions and offered a small discount for year two.

“It’s crucial to keep the products state-of-the-art, technically as well as from a design and user experience point of view. It’s a big focus and a hard job: you have to improve constantly.” – Johannes Hauner, Head of Product at Süddeutsche Zeitung

Still, content alone won’t prevent churn, it is important to also focus on the reading experience itself. For French newspaper Le Figaro this means offering an ad-free premium experience for digital subscribers and encouraging readers to download the apps, something they’ve found to convert more subscribers. Swedish daily Aftonbladet believes this to be true as well, so they’ve placed an emphasis on getting readers to download the apps, as Newsroom Head of Premium Ted Kudinoff explains that consumption across multiple devices reduces the risk of churn.

Lesson 2: Make it easier to subscribe (and unsubscribe!)

Some of your new subscribers may have never intended to become long-term subscribers, instead only subscribing to access a specific article. However French newspaper Le Figaro found that these readers are still valuable. Gilles Corbineau, director of eBusiness and digital subscriptions, explains that at Le Figaro they monitor how many subscribers they keep every month, the number of days a subscriber stays with them, and the number of days between two subscriptions. So for readers who get into a cycle of subscribing to a promotional offer and then cancelling, over time the period in between the two subscriptions begins to shorten until finally they remain subscribed continuously. They’ve found that 4 subscriptions is usually the turning point, after which subscribers stay loyal.

MittMedia follows a similar philosophy, something that has helped them reach an ever-so elusive cohort: a younger audience. While it was once believed that young people would never pay for digital news, the popularity of Netflix and Spotify have helped developed a habit of paying for content online. But to benefit from this, newspapers need to make it as easy to cancel as Netflix does–no more requiring a phone call! This may soon become industry standard, thanks to a new law in California. Since July 1st of this year, consumers need to be able to terminate a subscription in the same manner in which they subscribed–meaning a digital subscription needs to be able to be stopped online.

“We make it easy to come and go, which has contributed to us attracting 19-year-olds to pay–audiences who’ve hardly ever been customers of ours.” – Robin Govik, Chief Digital Officer at MittMedia

Still, don’t make it too easy to unsubscribe: make sure you aren’t losing subscribers due to credit card processing errors. We’ve discussed these “involuntary churners” before, readers who would stay subscribed but accidentally churn because their credit cards have expired. To remedy this, The Washington Post’s Miki Toliver King recommends having a more active strategy of reaching readers at risk: instead of simply sending an email reminder,  she implemented a pop-up warning subscribers to update their information while reading on the website as well. Since 2016 this small action has prevented an additional 19% of ‘suspended users’ from churning. Other American newspapers have made this a priority as well, The Seattle Times found credit card failures to be responsible for 62% of all digital subscription churns, while The Boston Globe started with 50% of churns due to this and have worked to reduce it to 20%.

Lesson 3: Use the data you already have

In contrast to print subscribers, you most likely already collect daily data on your digital subscribers. Use this data to understand where the leaks are in your engagement funnel, because after all, engaged readers don’t churn!

“Understanding what the secret is to getting a subscriber to come more often is really critical because we know that more visits lead to deeper engagement, leads to retention.” – Peter Doucette, former Chief Consumer Revenue Officer at The Boston Globe

While there is no industry standard for a loyalty metric or KPI, publishers are busy testing out different methods. The Financial Times uses a Recency-Frequency-Volume metric, looking at reader behaviour over the past 90 days to see how recently they have visited the website, how many times they visited, and how much they read over that period. Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet uses an engaged time metric, looking at the level of satisfaction within their logged-in readers. Elsewhere in Sweden, MittMedia has even created a real-time user activity map that shows how many paying subscribers have been active on any given day. Other publishers look at engagement itself, such as German daily Aachener Zeitung and Belgian publishing group Mediahuis who both use our EngageReaders tool.

Mary-Katharine Phillips
Media innovation analyst @ Twipe 

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