The complexities of converting readers into subscribers

Driving direct connections with readers has become increasingly important. For publishers with subscription models, converting those readers into subscribers — like everything in digital media — has gotten more complicated.

News UK estimates people need to come into contact with the brand seven times before subscribing. Before last August, when The Times of London launched an open-access model where people can read two articles in exchange for a name and email, tracking these seven visits was harder. The Times now has approximately 1 million registered users, allowing it to more easily identify reader journeys and start to personalize them. Now, half the digital subscribers are registered users, according to the publisher.

“Before, conversion was teaser-based — which articles generated the best traffic back to your site — then you work around that buying process and improving the funnel,” said Chris Duncan, managing director at News UK, adding that now Facebook’s algorithm is tuned to keeping people on the platform, and paywall publishers can be punished in search results.

Elsewhere, a number of publishers, including The Economist and the FT, use metered paywalls to try and drive subscriptions. The Telegraph holds back about 20 percent of content for Premium subscribers. Individual business models aside, at a strategic level, subscription models focus on smaller targets of valuable readers rather than maximum reach and scale, said Douglas McCabe, CEO at Enders Analysis.

“Calculating the right service bundle for a premium digital proposition — and the balanced and flexible means of measuring, tracking and optimizing it — is a complex editorial and management judgment,” he added. “But more distribution options, more data and more content manifestations have of course made it much more complex.”

This added complexity makes it more difficult to figure out who is responsible for conversion. In traditional print and digital publishers, this process is often handled by the consumer marketing team, previously called circulation. Within the marketing team, there are people who are responsible for keeping churn rate down and those that specialize in acquisition, or retention and engagement.

At News UK, up to about 70 people across the marketing, engineering and product teams have some involvement with converting readers to subscribers, but Duncan said there are pockets of specialization. For instance, taking calls from people who want to cancel their subscription requires product training and knowledge of the editorial schedule: If someone who calls is a football fan, they should be reminded of the upcoming Premier League season and News UK’s football coverage. This skill set is different than the one for designing campaigns that attract people to a free trial.

For digital-only publisher De Correspondent, everyone in the organization, around 45 people, is responsible for thinking about how to make it worthwhile for readers to become members: Everyone pitches in campaign ideas to drive members. But it has a dedicated team made up of designers, developers and social media editors dedicated to member growth and retention. “We’ve found it’s vital that there is a team that keeps an eye on less sexy stuff than campaigns — such as subscription pages,” said Ernst-Jan Pfauth, co-founder at De Correspondent.

Figuring out what turns readers into subscribers requires input from the editorial team, too, although most publishers will want editorial and marketing teams to stay separate, said Susan Bidel, senior analyst at Forrester. “Editors will be keenly aware of the economics of the business, but they also want to be safeguarded from the pressures from individual advertisers.”

For the political publisher The Spectator, which operates a fairly small organization of 60 employees, converting traffic to subscribers is a joint effort between the editorial and marketing teams.

“Most members of the editorial team can tell you from the top of their heads how many extra subscriptions we got last week –- and this year so far,” said editor Fraser Nelson. “That’s a big change from a few years ago,” he added.

Proprietary software highlights which articles are generating the most subscriptions (defined by the last article read before someone subscribes) and also shows which articles are most read by subscribers. Nelson points out the types of articles driving subscribers aren’t the same that drive traffic. During the week of the U.K. election, traffic for The Spectator, like most publishers, avalanched. This article about the relationship between religion and violence generated twice as many subscriptions as all of the election coverage put together, even though the latter generated far more pageviews.

But as not all content is created equal, neither are all subscribers.

“There are still offers we don’t talk about anymore that had brought in a poor-quality customer,” said Duncan. Over two years ago, The Times ran an offer of £1 ($1.30) for access to 30 days of content. In retrospect, he said, the price was too low and the time frame too short.

“The customer never engaged past the point of signing up,” he said, adding that a key indicator of value is when a reader doesn’t open the welcome email. “It could be like a snake eating a rabbit: If you have an acquisition offer that brings in the wrong customer, it takes a long time to get through the machine.”

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