Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
8 mins read

How to reanimate ‘zombie subscribers’ and bring paying readers back to life

Harvard Business Review once said that, depending on which study you believe and what industry you’re in, acquiring a new customer costs somewhere between 5 to 25 times more than keeping an existing one. 

*Panic mode: On!*

Most publishers know that the cost of losing subscribers is often greater than the cost of generating new ones, which should be enough to get you sweating through your shirt and nervously eating your fingernails. That is why they are forced to think of ways how to keep their active paying readers well-fed and entertained, and also reanimate so-called ‘zombie subscribers’ back to life.

But before we start talking about reanimating the dead, let’s get the basics out of the way and explain who are these zombie subscribers, anyway?

The horror for every publisher

Publishers – especially those who run subscriptions – optimize for loyalty, and for a good reason. They understand that the days of chasing traffic are a thing of the past. Most organizations are currently focused on building engaged audiences who have built and sustained a habit of revisiting their websites and interacting with content.

So, knowing this, they try doing everything by the book: producing quality contentinvesting in marketing, and measuring the behavior of their readers. They monitor the number of subscribers they have and then try to map out their readers’ journeys to see if they are at the tipping point of becoming their subscribers. They try to strategically ‘push’ them towards making a decision to subscribe

Weirdly though, despite all this, some readers convert to subscriber status but don’t read the content they paid for. Like, at all.

Introducing: zombie subscribers. Zombie subscribers don’t take action. They are a lifeless horde that just roams around, not interacting, not doing anything.

Presumably, at some point, they opted-in for your content because they were impressed by one or more of your articles or because you really nailed the marketing part.

So, while these zombies might not be coming after you in a Dawn of the Deadkind of way, they still need dealing with. 

It’s not just that Harvard-penned research is generally worth paying attention to (and if the Ivy League credentials don’t sway you, the economics of reader retention should), it’s that if you’ve enticed readers to subscribe, but those readers don’t, well, read, there’s a problem.

How do we fix this?

Sure, every case is a story in and of itself and there are numerous different reasons which might explain how your subscribers suddenly turned into zombies, but nevertheless, there are still a couple of things you can do to bring back these ‘infected’ paying readers to life.

If only it were that simple for Romero’s ragtag group of heroes.

1. Pay more attention at the top of the funnel 

Just like in the movies, publishers need to stop the virus before it spreads everywhere. 

However, that’s often easier said than done. This isn’t a George A. Romero movie where it’s super easy to locate the bite mark turning black and just axe it on the spot. In the publishing world, the virus moves more subtly. It’s often inconspicuous until it’s too late.

In order to ensure that your subscribers don’t become ‘brain-dead’ and slowly rot away, it’s imperative to closely and regularly check upon them. Especially at the top of the funnel.

If you catch people when you’re sure they’re genuinely interested and engaged with what you do, and invite them to subscribe then, you’re not getting them to subscribe on impulse. This makes it more likely they’ll stay engaged and won’t churn later on. 

Setting up the right paywall strategy is of great importance. While there’s no real way of knowing if every single one of your subscribers is going to stick around and adore your content for the rest of their lives, with the right approach, you can minimize the risk of having a lifeless readers base. It pays to invite people to subscribe when they are good and ready, when they have enough information about your brand and work, and when they can decide if this is actually interesting to them or not. 

But more on that below.

If you set the right foundation, future tweaks in behavior can be managed. If interest starts to wane, you will know what’s working and what’s not because the readers who subscribed for your premium content have made a conscious decision to do so, so there must be something that excited then about your work which you can bring back and get on their good side again.

2. The right paywall, at the right time

This deserves a separate section. 

Many publishers still treat subscriptions the same way they used to treat ads: they only think in terms of volume. In order to achieve this end, there’s a tendency for the focus to be on growing their reader base any way possible – something which often creates its own set of problems.

Even though getting more people to subscribe is what you should be doing initially, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you should chase everyone with a steady internet connection.

Churn isn’t talked about as much as subscriber acquisition, but it’s something that needs more consideration. If you’re operating on a reader-revenue model, the work doesn’t stop when someone subscribes. In fact, that’s when the hardest part starts. To stay in business, you need to ensure that your subscriber base continues to see value in your work and that they are willing to continue paying for your service.

You can’t really do that if you’re building your subscriber base on anyone and everyone.

That’s why it’s of great importance to make sure that you only market to people who fit your ideal consumer profile, who have a potential of forming a long-term commitment to your publication.

In order to do that, you need to make sure that your paywall appears in front of the right reader at the right time.

In our experience, setting up dynamic, tailored subscription invitations that understand individual or niche reading habits is the best option out there. For example, if your readers have signed up through a funnel that’s focused on sport, they should be served suggestions based on that interest, not on something more general. Same goes for any other topic.

3. Understanding the desired frequency of notifications

One of the main reasons why your subscribers die on you is to do with ineffective communication. If you email your subscribers too often or at the wrong time, they slowly start to wither away. They will become unresponsive to whatever you throw their way. 

Before your subscribers become non-responsive, use and promote preference centers that enable them to select their preferred mailing frequency and type of email content. Don’t be afraid to adapt. Even though this might mean that you need to start sending way fewer emails, let your subscribers tell you what they really want. You can accomplish so much more with less if your efforts begin to land on target. 

Learn what days of the week drive the most engagement and what kind of content you’re subscribers are looking for. Once you get a firm grasp on the demand, you can easily work out the supply. What works for a daily current affairs briefing at The New York Times is unlikely to work for a niche publication about, say, zombie movies.

4. Monitor reader behavior and react on time when things start to go south

Monitoring reader behavior, in order to map out actions that are indicators of a decreased level of engagement, is essential for controlling subscriber churn.

Apart from looking at Article ReadsPage Depth, and Read Depth, publishers need to explore other engagement metrics as well, such as Average Attention Time, Average Number of Sessions, and Loyalty percentages.

The analysis should go beyond analyzing simple browsers events. The goal here is to evaluate and improve human behavior and that can’t – and shouldn’t – be evaluated on the level of a web browser event.

Publishers need to first figure out what’s the norm for their website (with such metrics as Average Attention Time and Average Number of Sessions) and then try to locate weak spots.

This is where the loyalty story kicks in. 

At Content Insights, we have a unique way of calculating loyalty. We define loyal readers as ‘habitually highly engaged readers’ and our algorithm has a way of accurately calculating the percentages of how loyal readers are.

A lot of our clients rely on our Loyalty CPI to ensure that their subscribers are alive, well, and still interested in their content. In one of the Use Cases on the blog, Paul O’Mahony, the Editorial Product Manager at The Local, told us that he relies on Loyalty scores to inform him whether or not The Local is providing their subscribers with quality articles. And he’s not the only one. Our Loyalty CPI is widely used by our clients for this exact purpose. They use it to understand the quality of their audience and how satisfied they are with the content.

5. Poke them to see if they’ll bite – go all-in on unique, value-driven editorial content

To avoid losing subscribers, it’s about being unique. The more you can learn about individual subscribers or audience segments, the more you’ll be able to offer them relevant, timely content that meets their individual needs.

Remember that Jeff Jarvis quote? “Cover what you do best. Link to the rest”? It’s something that often comes up in conversation when the subject turns to issues like these, and for good reason. If you’re not doing something different, where’s the value for the reader? Make sure that they see that the material they get from you can’t be found online with a simple Google search.

Ask for their opinion, strike up a conversation – anything that will show that they still have a pulse. That may show your zombie subscribers that you have more to offer which motivates them to revisit your content and pay more attention to what you write on your website.

Try using triggered emails created in response to specific consumer actions or data. These type of emails have been known to provoke engagement. 

Dunkin’ Donuts, for example, used to send emails to their fans about their favorite sports teams’ performance. You can do the same based on the location, age, and interest of your zombie subscribers. Look at where they have opted-in and try to provide them with something unique on the topics that generated their interest.

Really it’s simple. If you’re worried about your subscribers’ pulse rate, ask yourself: have you actually checked it lately?

by Goran Mirković

Republished with kind permission of Content Insights, the next generation content analytics solution that translates complex editorial data into actionable insights.

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