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Most effective subscriber retention strategies, according to publishers: API report

90% of publishers use email newsletters as a subscriber retention strategy. A similar percentage employ analytics to track what subscribers are reading. And 86% find studying subscribers’ interests and behaviors valuable.

These are among the key findings of a recent American Press Institute survey. It was undertaken to gather publishers’ perspectives on strategies used to retain subscribers (members/donors as well). 

What news publishers do to retain subscribers,” by Jeff Sonderman and Gwen Vargo, a report based on the survey, lays out publishers’ stand on nine key retention strategies. 

The survey had 133 respondents representing the retention strategies of 526 publications. They included big and small publishers, newspapers and digital-only, nonprofit and for-profit. All have readers who pay for content via subscriptions, memberships, or recurring donations.

“Allowed us to identify gaps”

Publishers were asked about the potential value they saw in different retention strategies irrespective of whether they were using them or not. 

The results show what aspects of subscriber retention are considered most important. This allowed us to identify gaps — or areas that might be valuable of which many publishers are not taking advantage.

Jeff Sonderman and Gwen Vargo, What news publishers do to retain subscribers, API

Retention strategies considered most valuable by publishers are represented by orange bars in the chart below. The blue bars indicate the percentage of publishers who feel proficient in those activities.

“Maximize your chances of retaining them”

Studying subscribers’ behavior and interests is regarded to be one of the most effective retention strategies. It helps publishers modify their content strategy and business practices to better serve subscribers. 

86% publishers agree that collecting information about their subscribers’ interests and behaviors is fairly or very valuable. A similar percentage say they do it by tracking what content is being read online by subscribers. Getting customer service to track reasons for cancellation or lapse, and sending emails surveys are other popular tactics used to gather readers’ feedback. 

“A thorough and thoughtful onboarding process to welcome new subscribers is one great way to maximize your chances of retaining them,” the authors write. 87% of the publishers surveyed said they place a fairly high value on welcoming, engaging and onboarding new subscribers.

Nearly all of them (90%) encourage subscribers to sign up for their newsletters and 78% send a welcome email. Other common tactics include informing subscribers about how to use their products (46%) and sending personal notes from someone in the newsroom (43%).

42% to 26%: reduction in unengaged subscribers

Advance identification of subscribers that are at risk of cancellation is a highly effective way of reducing subscriber churn. 84% of publishers consider it “fairly valuable” and 38% “very valuable.” 

The Arizona Republic found that nearly half of its paid digital subscribers were not visiting their website at all in a given month. This group accounted for 50% subscription stops each month. The publisher used analytics to guide content changes. This helped it reduce unengaged subscribers from 42% to 26% and increased retention.

The strategy of identifying at-risk subscribers is one of the biggest areas where publishers could improve their tactics, according to the authors. Getting it done requires more sophisticated and integrated CRM software that links all subscribers’ identities to their digital engagement. It would allow publishers to model churn propensity. 

With reducing churn and increasing retention as priorities for many news organizations, being able to identify the subscribers who are most at risk will be critical to overall success with digital subscriptions.

Jeff Sonderman and Gwen Vargo, What news publishers do to retain subscribers, API 

Here are tactics commonly used by publishers to encourage existing subscribers to renew. 

“One of the most fundamental ways to retain subscribers”

Eventually, it all comes down to the quality of content. “The core appeal of any news product is the content,” the authors write. 

If people perceive the information to be unique, compelling, entertaining and useful, they will subscribe. If not, they won’t.

Jeff Sonderman and Gwen Vargo, What news publishers do to retain subscribers, API

“So one of the most fundamental ways to retain subscribers is to make sure the content continues to serve them well and reach them.”

As seen above, the majority of publishers study their subscribers’ interests and behavior. That data informs their content strategy as was seen in the case of The Arizona Republic. This strategy can be taken further by giving readers a personalized experience based on their past behavior. 

Most publishers (89%), use analytics to track what subscribers are reading. However, there are other powerful personalization tactics that are being used by a much lower percentage of publishers. 

They include email newsletters recommendations (41%),  serving personalized content (20%), and personalized communication (17%), tailored according to subscribers’ content consumption history.

“The right metrics”

Finally, metrics are critical. “If you can’t measure something, you stand little chance of getting better at it,” write the authors. “That old wisdom holds true when it comes to subscriber retention as well.”

To keep churn under control, a publisher needs to have the right metrics at hand to spot problems quickly and monitor improvement.

Jeff Sonderman and Gwen Vargo, What news publishers do to retain subscribers, API

Among the publishers surveyed, 60% calculate the Lifetime Value for their digital subscribers. 54% have a shared understanding among employees across the organization regarding their goals for retention and whether they are meeting them. And 28% segment subscribers into groups based on their estimated risk of cancellation.

The authors conclude with a list of 31 effective retention ideas for publishers.  

The full report is available at API:
What news publishers do to retain subscribers