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Identifying optimal subscription management practices

By Rande Price, Research VP – DCN @Randeloo


In the wake of the pandemic-era rise in subscriptions, news publishers are intently focused on retaining subscribers. Reducing churn and increasing retention are fundamental business practices of any subscription business. However, with a vast variety of tactics to engage users, figuring out which ones serve your business best is the million dollar question. The American Press Institute (API) addresses this question in their survey of 526 news publishers to find out what practices are used to maintain customer loyalty. Important to note, the term “subscribers” here encompasses subscribers, members, and donors.

Jeff Sonderman and Gwen Vargo’s analysis of the survey data offers insight into the strategies utilized. The authors identify the top 10 retention tactics and note 12 of the least employed strategies practiced.

Most utilized retention strategies

Four of the top 10 most retention practices use email and social platforms to introduce content and offer reminders of subscription benefits.

  • Encourage new subscribers to sign up for their email newsletters (90%).
  • Send welcome emails that highlight features of their subscription(s) including apps, e-editions, rewards programs, etc. and respond to individual concerns and complaints on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, etc. (78%, each).
  • Email subscribers to remind them about the overall benefits of their subscription (69%).

Analytics also play an important role in subscriber retention. Four core practices analyze subscriber usage on a macro and a micro level.

  • Use analytics to track what subscribers are reading (89%).
  • Track data about which digital content online users engage with (86%).
  • Identify reasons for a cancellation or lapse (74%).
  • Send surveys via email (68%).

Further, studying subscriber interests and behaviors is important to increase user intelligence. However, most publishers rate their proficiency in doing so as moderate.

The last two of the top strategies use special offerings (72%) and campaigns (69%) to attract and retain customers. Additional backend analysis by demographics, psychographics and content usage also helps optimize pricing by target group.

Least utilized retention tactics

Sonderman and Vargo identify 12 retention practices used by one-third or less of publishers. Importantly, the authors suggest that publishers should review their current practices to see if there are new tactics they can deploy in order to retain subscribers.

Maintaining updated credit card information to eliminate potential friction is important. Approximately 33% of publishers communicate one-to-one on site with subscribers to update credit card information. Many publishers use a third-party resource to automate this process, eliminating the need for personal outreach.

Further, the ability for publishers to identify subscribers at risk of cancellation allows publishers to get ahead of potential churn. Thirty-one percent of news publishers report that they target subscribers with low engagement before their renewal date. They try to re-engage these subscribers with content of interest. Similar, 28% of news publishers report that they segment their subscribers based on a risk of cancellation. Profiling subscribers at risk in advance, can provide the time to re-engage them and reduce churn.

Additional issues and opportunities

Additional retention practices, used by quarter or less of publishers, include targeted content and more personalized approaches to keep subscribers engaged.

  • Ask visitors to answer a survey while they are on website or app (25%).
  • Send individual subscribers personalized messages about the content and services they have used (23%).
  • Personalize content for subscribers to see on website or app based on what they previously consumed (20%).

The authors note that one of the biggest technological needs for publishers is to integrate CRM software that links all subscribers’ identities to their digital engagement. Unfortunately, many news publishers, especially smaller ones, do not have the software, employee bandwidth or budget to execute these analyzes.

Some publishers try to create face-to-face (and virtual) connections to subscribers. Close to one-third of news publishers (31%) offer meetups for subscribers and reporters. While meetups help establish a community connection between reports and readers, they are not easy to executive.

In addition, there are a few practices that are usually managed outside of the publisher. Again, bandwidth and budget are often reasons for publishers to underutilize.

  • Offer a reward program and discounts on local products and services (27%, each).
  • Send them free gifts (25%).
  • Bundle other news and entertainment services for free or discounted prices through partnerships (17%).

With subscription revenues now core to news publishers’ business models, retaining subscribers is crucial to their financial success. Identifying retention practices and investing in business analytics is an important to reduce churn and increase retention. Finding the most effective way to introduce users to the benefits and value of their subscription as well as content of interest pays off.

Identifying optimal subscription management practices