The pandemic and its attendant restrictions and lockdowns gifted news publications a large volume of digital subscribers. The pandemic initiated a scramble amongst most businesses and institutions which had to improve or build an efficient digital presence: high street bookstores moved to an E-commerce model and news publications had to focus on paid subscriptions as the digital advertising market dived. For news publications who had already made the conversion to a digital service behind a paywall, the lockdown was very lucrative. A survey found that in March 2020, the rate of subscriptions was 300 percent higher than the previous year. This explosion in subscription sales is a boon for advocates of this model; however, the key to success for these publishers is retention – subscription renewals cover on average 70-95% of total revenue. Can these publishers hold on to the ‘lockdown subscribers’?

The pandemic has accelerated the move to digital within news publishing


Reflecting on a PPA Live! Event – Katie Bloor of Daydot (digital experience optimisation company)

Increase Subscriber Retention and Maximise Revenue Growth.

Improve communication:  

Lack of clarity is an issue on many platforms. Platforms must take into account discoverability when they publish content and features – are subscribers aware of what features they have access to? According to Daydot research, poor communication around features is a common barrier to increased engagement. Bloor cited a survey which had been conducted for a client. The survey asked why haven’t you registered for x? Why is this? and 35% of participants responded that they didn’t fully understand what the feature was. This was the second most common response. In order to tackle the problem, Bloor raised the concept of ‘Membership hubs’. Hubs help to increase subscriber awareness of what is on offer – the hub includes a drop down toolbar which displays the features a member has permission to view. Daydot created a hub for the finance and investment magazine Barron’s; it had a positive effect on engagement – actions per user (signing up to a newsletter or downloading the app) increased.

Another area where communication could be more timely and clear is with email campaigns. Bloor gave some insight into the process of testing the ‘welcome email’ strategy for the Wall Street Journal – the first test included aggregating all the feature information into one email, while the second test involved sending a series of emails with each email containing the details of a single feature. Bloor stated that the second test was more successful with higher engagement. More focussed and specific communication is key; however, spacing out the emails is important so as not to bombard the subscriber.  

Eradicate assumptions:

Publishers have certain assumptions about the relationship between the subscriber and their product which they must unlearn. The research will guide how the publisher should ‘talk’ to their subscribers. Bloor emphasised the importance of research as well as observation of site metrics. Analysis of site metrics could create a limited understanding of the customer especially when there might be issues with platform functionality and discoverability. Research will elicit from subscribers their initial motivations and needs going forward. Bloor gave an example of research contradicting a client’s assumptions. Daydot performed customer research on behalf of a publisher – they gave the subscribers a survey with multiple answers to ascertain their main ‘goal’ in reading the publisher’s content. The publisher was surprised with the result: they had wrongly assumed there would be more readers looking to ‘form a political opinon’; however, less than 4% of participants chose that as their goal.

The ‘winback’ strategy:

Bloor suggested that there is around a 60% greater likelihood that customers who have churned (canceled their subs) will buy a subscription compared to new customers. These subscribers have been previously convinced to buy the product and can be again. They know that the content is valuable to them; they need to be reminded of this value. The publisher must identify what specific content the churned subscriber engaged with and align their winback strategy with this content – stress the loss of value and press on them the fear of missing out. If the subscriber can’t be brought back through asserting the value of the product then the strategy can move towards incentivisation. The majority of new customers begin their subscription journey with some sort of discounted or trial offer, so it would be wise to offer a reduced sub as the churner was previously a loyal customer.

The Telegraph’s STAR system for rewarding content has come under fire.

Promoting Loyalty 

Many news publishers now have a large volume of subscribers and will likely shift their focus from converting new customers to building up retention strategies. The Telegraph introduced a paywall for its UK audience in 2013 and have developed a reward system for detecting what is most valuable within their content offering. International News Media Association (INMA) analysis shows the change in thinking at The Telegraph – the publisher had placed too much emphasis on acquiring new customers over retention: 

For the first year or so following The Telegraph’s pivot to subscriptions the metric used most in the newsroom was subscriber conversion… Every editor in the newsroom could rattle off their top 10 converting articles from the past 24 hours but few were as aware of their desk’s subscriber retention levels or churn rate.

The paper’s new STAR system has been praised for developing a more holistic approach; finding a balance between what is driving new subscriptions and what habits are forming amongst long term subscribers which are convincing them to renew. Understanding the evolving reading habits of subscribers will help the editors, but some suggest that the data shouldn’t be taking the lead in terms of the commissioning of content. There has been some controversy relating to the communciation of the system to staff. The fear amongst some journalists at the paper is that the system continues to measure value and reward writers based on page views, regardless of the fact that the obsession with conversion might have cooled. 

The subscription model in many people’s eyes was the way to improve the quality of journalism, banishing ‘clickbait’ content which rose to prominence under the advertising model when news sites were freely accessible. However, the editor (Mike Adamson) of The Telegraph has dismissed fears around the STAR system; he states that it will not lead to ‘pay per click’ journalism. Mike Adamson suggests that the system is actually a move away from ‘attention’ journalism and page views being a central measure of success. Adamson said to the Press Gazette:

I first joined in 2013 and it was the case that page views were our primary goal and measure of success, as it was at most publishers then and indeed, as it is now, at many publishers. But here at the Telegraph that’s evolved over the past probably three and a bit years maybe, to the point now where it’s absolutely clear what our goal is, which is to increase our base of loyal subscribers.

The system seems to be using a wide variety of metrics to detect value rather than page views on articles. Also, data could be seen as a better measure of value rather than individual preference which might be biased. But there will continue to be an ethical debate on whether publishers should use data to encourage or indeed incentivise their writers. Companies like Daydot focus on research and data improving the delivery system (website and communication around it) for the product not the product itself. However, if a publisher finds they have made their user experience efficient and seamless, will they look to introduce a reward system in which data provides journalists with an explicit direction of travel for their content?