Audience Engagement Guest Columns
4 mins read

How media outlets can avoid ‘zombie’ readers

The media landscape is currently undergoing a period of transformation. For the first time in decades, some of the largest publications in the world are looking to readers, rather than advertisers, as their primary customers and source of revenue. With the future increasingly relying on paywalls, memberships and subscriptions, the face of journalism as we know it is changing and audience engagement is more important than ever before.   

This is why the recent discovery by Northwestern University’s Medill Spiegel Research Center – that nearly half of local news outlets’ digital subscribers are “zombie” readers who visit the website less than once a month – poses a significant problem for the industry as a whole. Simply put, if readers are not engaged with the content a publication is creating, they are less likely to subscribe to that publication for the long-term.  

This highlights a key concern for media businesses and newsrooms operating at every level – from local outlets to national broadcast operations. It also signifies a massive amount of lost potential because subscription services actually provide organisations with a better model than ever to get to know who their customers are and what they want. When used correctly, they could help media outlets to establish long-term, profitable relationships with their readers and provide the foundation for a successful future.  

The boom in media subscriptions 

Over the last 12 months, changes in consumer behavior have resulted in a massive increase in digital media subscription services. With restaurants, pubs, theatres and shopping centres temporarily closing their doors, individuals found themselves with a lot more time to spare, and in some cases, spare income. The need to stay at home and limit the spread of the virus meant that, for many, online outlets and TV streaming services became the number one source of news and entertainment.  

In fact, the COVID-19 Subscription Impact Report from Zuora discovered that OTT streaming subscriptions grew by 400% from March to May 2020 when compared with the previous 12 months, and it’s not just the media sector witnessing this boom in subscription services. Our recent End of Ownership Report discovered that 77% of U.K. adults are signed up to subscription services today. This is up from the 58% that had subscriptions 5 years ago.  

But, for all businesses operating on a subscription-based model, the real challenge is pivoting from subscriber acquisition to subscriber retention in order to ensure long-term profitability and growth. For digital media outlets, zombie subscribers – who rarely visit their websites or read their content – could very easily turn into non-subscribers. They are not a solid foundation on which to build a future. Therefore, in order to capitalise on this boom in subscription sign ups, improving audience engagement will be key.  

Avoiding zombie readers 

Thanks to a substantial amount of usage data, subscription models offer the businesses that are using them the opportunity to engage with their customer base and adjust their services to match demand. This data can help businesses to curate creative pricing and position strategies to entice and retain customers with tailored content offerings. 

One critical area that subscription data can help with is customisation. This is because it enables media outlets to take personal preferences into account. For example, media businesses can use subscription data to recommend articles to individual readers based on recently consumed content. This enables them to add true value and build a better relationship with their customers, encouraging longer commitment and lessening churn. 

Ultimately, today’s consumer wants to be put in the driving seat. Therefore, the flexibility and convenience offered by subscription models are key to audience engagement. For example, individuals want a service that takes the pain out of traditional viewing and purchasing. This means no paywalls or recurring ads – which can often become a distraction – just total accessibility. The option to suspend or even leave a service is also important and those that offer it typically grow faster than their peers, according to research from the Subscribed Institute. By giving readers the opportunity to put their subscription on hold temporarily, news outlets could avoid losing their business altogether.  

In a world full of distractions, true audience engagement can be difficult for digital media businesses to achieve. In order to avoid zombie readers and capitalize on subscription services, media outlets should focus on adding value and improving the overall experience for their customers. Using subscription data – and the insights that it generates – to deliver the right blend of flexibility, convenience and customization is key to a successful future.  

John Phillips
General Manager EMEA, Zuora

Zuora is an enterprise software company that creates and provides software for businesses to launch and manage their subscription-based services. Zuora’s applications are designed to automate recurring billing, collections, quoting, revenue recognition, and subscription metrics.