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“Users who visit three times a week are 8x more likely to subscribe”: Lessons in building habit-forming news products

People who read 10 times a month are 50% less likely to churn, according to research by Twipe. The company, which specializes in products for publishers, has taken the latest research on how people form habits, and combined it with what several leading publishers, across Europe and the US, are doing to build reading habits and grow subscribers. 

The findings are brought together in the latest report of its Reinventing Digital Editions research series, titled Habit Forming News Products. It provides best practices for publishers interested in increasing reader frequency.

“Key to transform behavior into habit”

The report advises publishers to find ways to incentivize subscribers to reach ten reading sessions per month. It adds that with each day read the likelihood of churning reduces by 37%.  

A study of new subscribers from three different publishers showed that the first week is critical for retention. New subscribers who read at least three times in their first week are 50% less likely to churn

If a reader does not start engaging within the first week, the likelihood of developing that engagement later in the subscriptions journey is greatly diminished.

Dan Gilbert, Director of Data at News UK

The report suggests that it is “important for publishers to engage with new subscribers daily. For acquisition it is important to give readers time to form a habit while incentivizing them to engage with the product. Research shows that it takes at least 66 days to form a habit, and three interactions per week are key to transform behavior into habit.”

“Historically, newspaper organizations have been the kings in understanding and designing a habit-forming product: every morning, with a cup of coffee, people would start their day by reading their newspaper,” writes Twipe’s Media Innovation Analyst, Mary-Katharine Phillips. “Newspapers would offer a stimulating mix of news, entertainment and puzzles which kept people investing 20-30 minutes of their valuable time every day. 

“The advent of the internet has changed the game. In a race to build larger audiences, publishers placed their articles online in an endless stream of news. Online readers were suddenly responsible for creating their own news journeys, which often last for only a few minutes.”

Newspapers have to re-embrace what has made them successful for more than 400 years: the habitual power of their products.

Mary-Katharine Phillips, Media Innovation Analyst, Twipe

The report includes case studies from publishers who are at the forefront experimenting with subscription strategies. They have implemented strategies (which sometimes bucked conventional wisdom, like The Guardian relying on reader funding) and introduced innovative products (The Times UK’s James, the digital butler) to build reading habits that have helped them reach admirable revenue/subscriber milestones. 

“Space that newspapers can explore and enter with new products”

“Understanding habits and adapting product offerings accordingly is now a key priority at all of the leading news organizations we interviewed,” writes Phillips.

The Telegraph, in fact, recently launched a new initiative called “Project Habit”. It’s a part of the publisher’s long term strategy to focus its energy on reaching 10M registrations and 1M subscribers by 2023. The Wall Street Journal also has a similar project.

Habits, according to experts Charles Duhigg and Nir Eyal, can be formed through carefully designed Habit Loops: an iterative process requiring triggers, cues, actions, investment, craving and variable reward.

Source: Twipe’s Habit Forming News Products report

According to the report, “For newspaper publishers, time is a particularly important cue, with many people craving news early in the morning, especially when the preceding action is preparing coffee.

“Location can also be important, such as commuters who often have very strong routines while on the subway or in a traffic jam. This is a space that newspapers can explore and enter with new products.”

Leverage triggers when creating new products

Nir Eyal goes deeper into cues and differentiates them into external and internal triggers. External triggers are those that motivate readers to take action. For example, an app notification that leads them to tap and access an article.

Internal triggers follow external ones, and are instrumental in setting habits. They can be feelings of boredom, desire for entertainment, or the need to share good news which makes people engage with content repeatedly. 

Source: Twipe’s Habit Forming News Products report

This also means that the content itself should be designed to fulfil those needs. When it does that successfully, readers increasingly respond to external triggers with the expectation that their internal triggers (emotional needs) are going to be fulfilled. In other words, they’ll be ‘rewarded’ when they tap on the app notification, or check out the email newsletter.

Publishers can leverage these triggers for example when creating new products that compete in the evening space where users crave entertainment, or to address boredom during a commute, as done by The Guardian with their “LabRdr” App designed specifically for commuters. 

Twipe’s Habit Forming News Products report

““Bits of work” that increase the value of the product”

Investment is the final step proposed by Nir Eyal for creating habit-forming products. He says, “Putting users to work is critical in creating products people love. Habit-forming products can appreciate in value – they gain value the more we interact with them.”

“For digital news, this investment can be seen through downloading an app and giving it space on the phone screen, bookmarking articles, creating a user profile and setting up personalized feeds, or engaging with the community by commenting on articles,” states the report. 

“These are “bits of work” that increase the value of the product and serve as a base for designing the triggers that drive users to go through the habit loop again (ex: notification that a friend accepted the invite or a new article is available in a particular area of interest).”

Ultimately, it is about building products and experiences that encourage readers to keep coming back until they build a habit and decide to subscribe. According to the report, “users who visit three times a week are 8x more likely to subscribe.” 

Here are some examples of news products and how they satisfy different components of the habit loop:

Integrate habit-thinking in the organization

The researchers noted two common focus areas among publishers that are successful in keeping their readers engaged and converting them into subscribers. These are:

  1. Establishing a culture in which the whole organization is focused on building reader habits.
  2. Creating new products to reach readers where they already are. 

These are exemplified in The Telegraph’s “Project Habit,” referred earlier, and its daily audio briefings delivered to listeners via WhatsApp.  

Mathias Douchet, Product Director at The Telegraph, advises other publishers to have as many people as possible involved, as this makes it easier to integrate habit-thinking into the culture of the company. The Telegraph has benefited from monthly town halls where the team shares what they have done to increase habit, and what has worked (or not worked). 

The publisher designed its Whatsapp audio briefings for commuters. They include two minutes of audio with links to the mentioned articles. This makes them easy to consume while commuting, while also providing triggers for further content consumption on the website. 

The briefings have been very successful in both converting new subscribers and increasing the frequency of existing subscribers, the report states. It was also found that users of WhatsApp briefings are 12x more likely to become paid subscribers, and people who read the linked articles end up reading 2x the number of articles as an average reader.

“Know-how is built into their DNA”

As publishers experiment with different strategies for building reading habits, it’s also important that they are careful about not encouraging bad habits.

For example, using aggressive pricing campaigns can help meet a short-term new subscriber goal, but it can hurt longer-term retention efforts, the report suggests. “Readers who pay full price can feel that they are not as valued as new readers who pay lower promotional prices. This can encourage them to churn, either indefinitely, or to take advantage of the promotional price.”  

“While no one publisher seems to have cracked the code yet for developing reader habits with news products, it is clear that it will require organizational change, a deeper understanding of readers, and continuous experimentation,” the study suggests.

In conclusion, it states, “newspapers have been one of the most engaging products of all time.” Consequently, the “know-how is built into their DNA.” 

“They respect principles of habit-forming products such as fixed frequency or finishability that are very important in triggering users and instilling routines.

“Mixing structure and predictability with the serendipity of discovering unexpected articles offers a variable reward that powers the habit loop. These are important principles for habit formation that should be included in designing digital news products as well.” 

The report includes a tool called Habit Formation Canvas. Informed by Twipe’s research, it aims to help publishers design and adapt their digital products to build reader habits. It is available at the end of the report and can also be downloaded here.

The full report is available from Twipe:
Habit Forming News Products