Managing retention, an ever-present problem for subscription publishers, is taking on new importance as more publishers explore subscription models and the tactics and metrics evolve.

Axel Springer newspaper Die Welt found that half of its new subscribers were leaving in the first three months, according to a report on subscriber churn by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, released Aug. 22. After this period, the churn rate dropped to between 1 and 2 percent a month.

According to the author of the report, Cecilia Campbell, executive program editor at WAN-IFRA, that’s a typical time frame, once people have subscribed for a year they’re likely to stay. But it takes a lot of research into segmenting audiences, inferring interests and surfacing content to readers that they may not be aware of in order to hold on to them for that long.

“Retention has increased in significance,” said Campbell, speaking to Digiday. “Twelve months ago, the KPIs were all around conversion. Many publishers have said to me, ‘2018 is the loyalty or retention year.’ But we’re not at churn 2.0.”

Typically, publishers are wary of sharing churn or retention rate. Despite competitive reasons, there’s no universal way to measure churn. It’s also hard to make relevant, once publishers have the number they’re unsure what to do next.

For Schibsted title Svenska Dagbladet, which studied the content people read after subscribing, that meant hiring editors to work on specific content that was more effective for retention rather than conversion. After studying reading habits, articles that converted readers were around topics like world events, while articles that retained subscribers were on topics like arts reviews.

“Work with digital churn is more important than ever,” said Tor Jacobsen, chief commercial officer at parent publisher Schibsted. “We are going from a very sales- and volume-driven phase where we have had a tremendous growth in new subscribers to a phase a little bit more about keeping the subscribers and making them happy. You need to do a lot of different activities; we are approaching the different customer steps in a much more targeted way: onboarding, anti-churn work with existing customers, loyalty programs, win back. These steps all need different actions.”

According to Robin Govik, chief digital officer at Swedish media group MittMedia, bringing more flexibility to unsubscribing has stabilized churn rates. “At first, we tried to make it as hard as possible for subscribers to quit, as other publishers did, we were hiding the buttons. People had to call in to cancel their subscription.”

For the last year, digital audiences have been able to subscribe and unsubscribe by clicking one button. A popular vertical for MittMedia’s newspaper is ice hockey, but outside of the season between October and April, people aren’t interested in reading about it. “We know they will come back,” said Govik. This flexibility has had the added benefit of attracting younger audiences, Govik is seeing more people between 30 and 40 years old subscribe online compared to those who pay for the digital version of the newspaper, who are 20 years older. Although readers of the digital version of the paper are five times more loyal, he added.

According to Govik, in January 2017 MittMedia had 70,000 logged in daily users; this has now doubled to 140,000 with 2,500 new customers subscribing each week. “We have people dropping off so the net gain is not good enough,” he said.

Rather than measuring the number of people who have unsubscribed, media analyst Thomas Baekdal suggests measuring how long people were subscribed before they lapsed, to focus on growing to subscriber longevity.

“The key metric for churn isn’t the percentage of people who churn, because everyone churns at some point, but instead to their tenure as a subscriber,” he writes. “When people churn, did they stick with you for longer than, say, a year ago?”

In order to balance churn with new prospects, high volumes of low-engaged subscribers will lead to high churn rates, publishers should focus on subscriber revenue rather than numbers, Baekdal added.

“It’s about setting the right KPIs, looking at how long people read for rather than how many times they click,” said Campbell. “The one universal truth is that engaged readers don’t churn.”

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