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“Publishers who succeed the most have a culture of test and learn”: Insights from Michael Silberman, Piano

“Subscriber retention starts at the moment of acquisition.”

A native of New York and a Harvard graduate, Michael Silberman is one of publishing’s sharpest minds. Not only did he help launch, but his recent stint at New York Media saw him grow unique users from 3M to 35M and generate a 4x increase in revenue, as well as see him launch and as standalone brands.

Fast forward to 2022 and Silberman is Senior Vice President of Strategy at Piano, the 675-strong global media consultancy that helps publishers crunch data, analyze user behavior and create personalized customer journeys. Clients include The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, El Confidencial, El Mundo, Insider, TechCrunch, Meredith, Mediahuis, and many more.

WNIP recently caught up with Silberman at FIPP’s World Media Congress near Lisbon, Portugal for the launch of Piano and FIPP’s Q2 Global Digital Subscription Snapshot, as well as glean his insights on key industry trends and benchmark data across Piano’s portfolio of publishers.

60–70% of a publisher’s audience visits once, and only once

We started by asking Silberman the difference between ‘one-offs’ and repeat visitors, a theme he focused on during his FIPP appearance, “We have a lot of benchmark data across our publisher client base and, across this data, 60-70% of a publisher’s audience visits just once, looks at a single page, and doesn’t return again in any given thirty day period.”

“The flip side of this, however, is that 30%-40% of a publisher’s audience are engaged users and there are many ways of measuring this, like how many active days, how many page views, etc. All of these measures of engagement are equally valid but the way to look at it is this: who are the users who are my prospect pool?”

By carving off the people who visit just once, you are left with your engaged audience and they’re the folks to focus on in terms of your audience engagement strategy.

Michael Silberman, Senior Vice President of Strategy, Piano

The advent of the ‘Registered Web’

Silberman sees a time when users across the entire web will be registering to log-on, and whilst he admits it is currently “more a hope than a prediction” he sees it as inevitable.

Users are registering for all kinds of websites all the time, it is built into the DNA of Google and Facebook. Yes, you can search anonymously on Google but you can’t really do anything else. It does seem that the registered web is inevitable. 

Michael Silberman, Senior Vice President of Strategy, Piano

When asked whether a move to a Registered Web would harm the advertising revenue that publishers receive from one-off users, Silberman dismissed the idea outright, “Publishers aren’t generating much revenue from one-off users, at best it’s 25% of ad revenue and their value is declining as third-party cookies go away – they’re the audience which is of least value to your business. Look, only 5% of subscriptions come from subscribers who visit on their first-page view.”

Silberman did, however, add the caveat that a high proportion of subscribers do subscribe on their first visit (as opposed to a single page view), “30-40% of a publisher’s subscribers do sign-up on their first visit across any given thirty-day period, but they are mainly users who have visited before and who a publisher already has an existing relationship with. They will also have visited at least a couple of pages before subscribing.”

Subscription growth tails off

Our conversation turned to the main trend Silberman was seeing right now across Piano’s benchmark data, to which he was unequivocal, “We are seeing a period of less insane subscription growth, a more normal environment.”

2020 was an insane year – we saw 65% year-over-year growth in subscriptions during those twelve months. All you had to do was stick out your hand and ask and people would subscribe.

Michael Silberman, Senior Vice President of Strategy, Piano

Silberman continues, “In 2022, publishers need to be cleverer with their marketing tactics, more aggressive perhaps with promotional offers, and certainly more thoughtful in how they engage users and drive behaviors that lead to subscriptions.” 

When asked which publishers stood out, Silberman declined to name any individual publishers but said, “The publishers who succeed the most are the ones who have a culture of test and learn, who understand that subscriptions are a game of small wins accumulated over time. All the successful publishers using our platform test constantly and iterate continually.”

By incrementally establishing a base of knowledge and building upon small wins, publishers can succeed. We see an absolute correlation between the more things you try on the Piano platform – experiences as we call them – and the different ways in which you target your audience, and subscription growth.

Michael Silberman, Senior Vice President of Strategy, Piano

Final thoughts

Silberman’s thoughts turned to his own Piano team, a 30-strong strategy consulting group that has a presence across the world including Buenos Aires, Melbourne, Singapore and other cities, “Piano has a strong European presence and we’ve recently relocated our global headquarters from Philadelphia to Amsterdam.”

As part of this global consulting mission, Silberman sees a common thread between all the publishers who succeed in subscriptions, “They have a top-down commitment to grow subscriptions across their organization. They understand that subscriptions are an important part of their business, even if they have a successful advertising business.”

Silberman then signed off by reminding us that subscriptions shouldn’t be seen as the end goal:

Subscriber retention starts at the moment of acquisition.

Michael Silberman, Senior Vice President of Strategy, Piano

That’s a whole other story…