For better subscriber retention, paid trials are paying off

As more publishers have turned their attention to subscriptions, many are now experimenting with strategies to convince readers to sign up…and stay signed up. Free trials are a common acquisition tactic, but paid trials are proving to be a more sustainable option for some.

The takeaways:
  • German publisher Der Spiegel tested a number of offers, both free and paid. The results of the paid showed a better conversion rate than for free trials, enabling them to attract 40,000 new subscribers. 
  • Poland’s national daily Gazeta Wyborcza found that free trials and heavily discounted subscriptions worked well at acquiring new subscribers, but not at retaining them once subscriptions expired. Scrapping free trials and testing progressive pricing has been credited with helping them reach 245,000 digital subscriptions.
  • As renewals approach for pandemic-driven subscriptions, eyes will be on tactics and strategies used to convince readers to stick around, and in many cases, pay more.

Background check: The pandemic prompted a large number of publishers to pile on cheap subscription offers in the first half of 2020. 

  • According to subscription platform Zuora, the growth rate for digital news subscriptions grew 110%, but the growth of revenue per subscriber actually slowed by 59% compared to the previous 12 months.
  • The Athletic is one of the most famous examples of this. It hit 1 million subscribers in September despite a sports shutdown, thanks to aggressive discounting and bundling, including a £1-for-the-year Black Friday deal. Their bet is that people will stick because the publisher has the best coverage.

Der Spiegel’s strategy was to assess conversion and retention over three iterations:

  • The first was a free trial offered once a user hit the paywall, but with other display formats such as banners advertising paid offerings. The paid offerings proved surprisingly popular, despite there being a free trial option.
  • The second phase involved marketing a special trial offer of €1 for the first month across the whole site. Conversions to the full subscription actually increased, despite there being no option to try for free.
  • The third phase tested three paid offerings across a range of prices. 48% of people chose a €1 for the first month option, 29% chose a €5 for one month offer, and 23% paid €30 for access for three months.

The point: People are willing to pay for a trial phase, and it is worth experimenting with different price points in order to attract different types of subscribers.

But that’s not to say freebies never have a place. Many publishers who dropped paywalls or made their Covid-19 coverage free were rewarded with huge subscriber surges, from Bloomberg and The Atlantic to the FT.

Coming up: Over the next few months, publishers who offered heavily discounted subscriptions will have a battle on their hands when it comes to retention. 

  • “There’s been massive traffic, five times the volume we’re traditionally used to, and there’s been a 10-times growth in closing subscribers,” CEO of subscription platform Zephr, James Henderson told Digiday. “When acquisition is a bit lazy or it’s a non-nuance product, you can churn and burn. It’s a legacy, media-wide problem.”

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