In early March, teams from news organizations across the U.S. kicked off an Accelerator Program with the Facebook Journalism Project. The goal: To work collaboratively on building their digital subscription businesses, this time focusing on subscriber engagement and retention.
“I’m really excited about the powerful people in the room with the desire to save journalism,” said Summer Moore, Digital Projects Editor at Gatehouse Media (Providence Journal).
“It has been incredible to collaborate with others during this program,” said Kati Erwert, another Accelerator participant and VP of Marketing and Public Service at the Seattle Times. “This is an opportunity for all of us to share specifics about our successes and bright spots — and also the things that aren’t yet working. These specifics will be the resources, ideas and opportunities we’ll continue to go back to.”
March’s kick-off session was a follow-up to the Accelerator’s pilot program. In 2018, the cohort of publishers had gathered to focus on acquiring digital subscribers. Returning publishers included the Omaha World-Herald, Miami Herald, Philadelphia Media Network, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Denver Post, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Dallas Morning News, Seattle Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, the Tennessean, the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsday and Advance Local for Syracuse.com. New participants included the LA Times, St Louis Post-Dispatch and Providence Journal.
Read on for more on subscriber engagement and retention — and some of the participating publishers’ learnings and results.
Improving Subscription Retention
The two-day, in-person session covered topics like:
- Each news publisher’s results strengthening their subscriptions business since the 2018 Subscriptions Accelerator.
- Prioritizing the metrics that matter when measuring subscriber retention.
- Engaging the newsroom to help keep subscribers engaged.
The cohort of publishers will build on these learnings over the next nine months. In the meantime, they shared their results strengthening their subscriptions business since last year’s Accelerator Program.
“You’ve given me language to talk to the newsroom about why subscriber-specific editorial projects make sense and are good for the business. I can now explain things in a way that I couldn’t have before I came into this room,” said Kim Fox, Managing Editor of Audience and Innovation at the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Publishers Share Their Subscriptions Results
Chicago Tribune (Tribune Publishing)
Since the last Subscriptions Accelerator, Tribune Publishing’s team has honed in on three things:
- Increasing newsroom engagement with straightforward metrics ‘scorecards’ for each market, as well as individual dashboards for editors and reports.
- Engaging subscribers through paid campaigns. For instance, the team targets new subscribers with Facebook ads featuring top content to read.
- Engaging current and non-subscribers through customized content recommendations in Zaius email platform to drive digital subscriber growth and retention.
These initiatives, among others, have collectively helped the Tribune strengthen its subscriptions business. Their results include:
- 180% forecasted digital-only revenue growth from 2017 through 2019.
- 94% forecasted growth in digital-only subscriptions growth from 2017 through 2019.
The Seattle Times has made a serious push into rigorous A/B testing. In 2018, they’d expanded A/B tests by 4X. The team tested price, payment options, newsletter signups and recirculation of related stories — among others — with good results.
- Increased the weekly subscription rate new subscribers move to, after the completion of their trial offer, by 25% with no negative effect to new start volume or increase in churn at the time of switching to full rate. Long-term churn will be monitored closely.
- Updated the site’s newsletter calls-to-action, with a 350% increase in newsletter signups on the tested modules.
- Provided alternative payment methods like PayPal and Amazon Pay that resulted in increased conversion by 15%.
- Personalized recirculated content based on what readers typically read. This has helped engage existing subscribers with some widgets, garnering an increase in click rate as high as 40%.
You can read more about the Times’ approach to testing here.
These tests focus both on acquiring and retaining subscribers. They’ve made an impact: In 2014, the Seattle Times’ annual subscriber churn was 80%. In 2018, it was 40% and is expected to continue decreasing in 2019.
The Tennessean and the Arizona Republic (Gannett)
At the Accelerator kick-off, the Gannett team shared audience development and acquisition results for The Tennessean and engagement plans for the Arizona Republic.
For The Tennessean, the team focused on two ways to acquire subscriptions:
- Bringing new qualified audiences into the funnel and remarketing content to low and mid-usage users through owned and paid channels. Newsletter signups hit 102% of The Tennessean’s goal. Keywee content marketing campaigns targeted qualified prospects bringing new visitors and incremental pageviews. Based on positive results, both newsletters and Keywee campaigns have been expanded to other key Gannett markets.
- Optimizing subscription performance from the email channel by targeting newsletter users with relevant lead nurture and acquisition messaging. Thanks to these efforts, the percentage of digital starts coming from email grew by 80%.
“The Arizona Republic has a different focus, honing in on engagement to keep subscribers around for longer. The objective is to increase subscriber engagement by implementing best onboarding practices, investing in content marketing, improving credit card declines and measuring results along the way. More engaged subscribers equals higher retention and ultimately more revenue,” said Agatha Pardo, Director of Digital Audience Acquisition at Gannett.
Denver Post (Digital First Media)
The Denver Post team left the 2018 Accelerator Pilot asking themselves, “How do we drive traffic that drives subscriptions?” said Bill Reynolds, SVP of Circulation at the Denver Post.
“We started to move toward the types of content that were driving more subscriptions: Analysis, answering reader questions, newsletters,” added Lee Ann Colacioppo, Editor of the Denver Post. Results included:
- 172% increase in digital subscriptions after the Accelerator Pilot, which the team elaborated more on here.
- Currently, 74% of “active digital subscribers” are digital-only. (“Active digital subscribers” includes print and digital subscriptions purchased through the paywall).
To retain those subscribers as best as possible, the Denver Post is focusing on:
- Re-engaging subscribers who are “dabblers” to make them more regular readers.
- Increasing customer service’s save rate with subscribers who may cancel.
- Strengthening the on-boarding process for new subscribers.
- Activating a re-acquire strategy to encourage past subscribers to subscribe again.
The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia Media Network)
The Philadelphia Inquirer introduced a metered subscription model in September 2017. Among the results so far:
- A 75% increase in digital subscribers between the launch and the end of 2018.
- An 83% increase in digital revenue between the launch and the end of 2018.
“We exceeded our goals and we have a lot of growing still to do. Before the Accelerator, we didn’t do nearly as much testing. This was a transformation for us,” said Liz Menna, Digital Subscriptions Marketing Manager at the Philadelphia Media Network.
Testing quickly was a key learning from the Accelerator, Menna said, that helped them achieve these goals. Since the Accelerator Pilot, the Inquirer has focused on:
- Installing an A/B testing platform.
- Executing 2-4 tests per month.
- Implementing changes to their newsletter and website calls to action, based on test learnings.
The Facebook Journalism Project: Local News Subscriptions Accelerator is a program designed to help news publishers build their digital subscription revenues. This program is specifically focused on increasing subscriber retention. Funded and organized by The Facebook Journalism Project, the 3-month program includes hands-on workshops led by news industry veteran Tim Griggs, a grantmaking program organized by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, and regular reports on best practices authored by both The Lenfest Institute and the Facebook Journalism Project. The Subscriptions Accelerator is part of the broader Accelerator Program. Previous iterations have focused on acquiring digital subscriptions and digital video.
All results were provided by the news publishers at the Retention Accelerator kick off session.