According to subscription management platform Zuora, subscription revenue grew 16% for publishers in 2020. More than 20% of adults in the US now pay for at least one online news outlet, the majority have two, according to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2021. But without the pressures of political upheaval and an emerging pandemic, publishers are focusing hard on reader retention.
- Subscription growth was one of the few bright spots for publishing through 2020. Collectively, the biggest newspaper groups in the US and UK gained more than 1 million new digital subscriptions through the COVID crisis. Similarly, magazine publishers saw record interest in subscriptions in the earliest days of the pandemic; traffic to some publisher subscription pages was up 500%.
- But as the non-stop news cycle of 2020 starts to slow and people venture back out into the world, publishers are focused on keeping the new customers they have acquired. One sure sign that holding reader revenues is the priority is the number of senior subscription hires being made at some of the leading news publishers and the investments being made in audience data teams.
- Just last month, The Washington Post appointed its first chief subscriptions officer. Dow Jones created the new role of chief subscriptions officer in April, with three subscription-focused VPs reporting in. And over the last 12 months, the LA Times has hired around 20 people, from designers and copywriters to acquisition and retention marketing managers, to support its subscription strategy.
- Developing a clear focus on reader value has also become key for subscriber retention. For the Atlantic, reader value lies in delivering more coverage in unique areas that “defined and distinguished” its reporting through 2020. To hold on to the 70% subscriber growth it saw in 2020, Quartz has switched its subscription focus to newsletters following reader research that showed email was the preferred distribution method.
- The American Press Institute has surveyed its members to find out what strategies they are using to retain subscribers. From a list of almost 40 strategies, the most commonly used included:
- Encouraging new subscribers to sign up for email newsletters (90%)
- Using analytics to track what subscribers are reading (89%)
- Tracking data about the digital content online users engage with (86%)
- Less popular strategies, used by less than half of the publishers surveyed focused on payment and customer-care tactics, including using software to update credit card information and training customer service representatives to save cancellations. Other less-used strategies, seen as resource-intensive, involve advanced segmentation or personalisation, and the development of subscriber-only benefits programs.
Subscription’s secret sauce
To capitalise on strong 2020 subscriptions growth, the UK’s biggest magazine publisher, Bauer, has launched membership schemes for its leading titles. Empire magazine now has a VIP subscriber club combining subscriptions to the magazine, exclusive podcasts and access to events. The company’s Country Walking magazine has a similar scheme, bundling the magazine with walking route cards, virtual treks and walking gear.
Chris Duncan, Bauer’s UK CEO, said of the magazines, “They have a really committed community, they have content that’s hard to find elsewhere, they’re brilliantly written, they’re carefully edited with a real empathy for the audience. And that’s really the secret sauce for building a good subscription business.”