Tips for Increasing Your Subscriber Base

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"Be thoughtful about what you're giving away for free and why. Freemium and free trials are all the rage, and virtually every digital news organization has some content that's not behind the paywall. Great. But make sure you understand the return on this investment. A free trial is a taste of something to prove it's as good as you said and to help someone new to understand what it 'tastes like.' But once they've tasted, they don't need to taste it again. Too many readers game the system, clearing cookies and rotating through devices and news sources each month to avoid paying."

That quote comes from best-selling author and speaker Robbie Kellman Baxter—she even keynoted a past SIPA Conference—in an article she wrote for the site What's New in Publishing titled What Publishers Can Learn From Other Sectors.

A recent report from the Shorenstein Center at Harvard and Lenfest Institute agreed with her. Most publishers are too generous and need to stop more readers to force conversion, the report said. It spoke about the importance of having a high stop rate—the percentage of all digital users who are "stopped" by a subscription prompt, a paywall or a meter limit. The report found that the organizations that are stopping more people have stronger digital businesses.

Here are more audience and content tips from Kellman Baxter and others:

"Don't hide the cancel button or lock-in membership," writes Kellman Baxter. "Netflix takes this to an extreme, in the best way. You can only subscribe monthly—there is no 'annual' option, and every time they change the model or raise prices, they remind subscribers that they are free to 'cancel anytime.' Why? Besides being the ethical approach, members who feel locked in will eventually break free. When they do, they will loudly share their story, and they're unlikely to return. Make it easy to leave and easy to return."

Make your content valuable and affordable. "If [one of your customers] doesn't want to buy your content because [she] says it's too expensive, then maybe you need to do some soul searching in your content," said Grey Montgomery, president, data & research division, Farm Journal. "My audience in a lot of ways can't afford it but they do because we also pitch back, for example, 'If you follow all of our hedging strategies with your size crop, this is how much you would have made. Therefore by investing the $500 you'll make $5,000.'"

Work on your welcome message. "30% of onsite digital subscriptions originate from 'welcome' messages that provide an introduction to new readers, and 'warn' messages that serve as reminders as the reader approaches the meter limit," the Shorenstein report said. They urge you to test multiple strategies to determine the most effective marketing messages. "Browser overlays and customized warnings have proven effective, particularly those that underscore meter limits for individual users and offer customized options for unique subscriptions based on the reader's profile and viewing history."

"Start with customer experience and work backwards to the technology," Steve Jobs told a large audience in 1997. "You can't start with the technology and figure out where you're going to sell out. I've made this mistake maybe more than anyone else in this room... And as we have tried to come up with a strategy and a vision for Apple, it started with, 'What incredible benefits can we give to the customer? Where can we take the customer?' Not let's start with sitting down with the engineers and figure out what awesome technology we have and how we're going to market that."

"Be willing to cut even as you add," writes Kellman Baxter. "Many publishers are organized based on what was (and maybe no longer is) the best bundling of value for readers. For example, a regional paper might have a little world news, a little national, a little politics, and a smattering of lifestyle, sports and business. Today, [audiences] have so many choices, and the freedom to get deep expertise in the areas that matter most. If you can't provide differentiated content worth paying for in every department, consider dropping that content."

Ronn Are you subscribed to the SIPAlert Daily?
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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…