COVID Coverage May Have Brought Them; What Else Will Retain Them?

“You need to think, ‘What is it about the relationship that felt important?’” That came from Jeremy Gilbert, director of strategic initiatives for The Washington Post, when he spoke to my colleague Matt Kinsman back in May. It was in response to the new audience the Post was getting from their COVID coverage last year—and how to keep them. Here are some ideas we’ve come across.

Many of the people taking our subscription offers today are taking them on annual plan,” Gilbert said in May. “So by April of next year, we would have had to make the case to them that their subscription is still valuable, even if we are in a happier, healthier position by then. So how do we transition people? If you are one of the almost a million people who subscribed to our COVID-19 email newsletter, what are the other newsletters that may be valuable to you? What kinds of coverage did you click through from the email newsletter and how can we use those interactions with our site or native apps to get you to stay?”

The American Press Institute just came out with a report on subscriber/customer retention. Let’s take some of their suggestions and others that I’ve come across for some updated best practices.

Identify subscribers who are at risk and act on it. The Arizona Republic found that almost half of its paid digital subscribers were not visiting their website—and that group accounted for 50% of subscription stops each month. They used analytics to guide content changes that cut the share of unengaged subscribers from 42% to 26%, increasing retention as a result. “We began providing reporters with data on which stories were catching the interest of our ‘zombies,’” two editors wrote in API’s Better News. “We have to start thinking outside the box with platforms and storytelling techniques… [Instagram keeps coming up.] What initially grabbed a zombie isn’t what will bring them back. We have to prove to them that we are worth their money.” That echoes what Gilbert said.

Promote your top writers/editors on social media. Rick Berke, executive editor of Stat, the health and life sciences publication launched by The Boston Globe in 2015, credits much of their subscriber success of the last year to infectious disease reporter Helen Branswell “who’s become something of a Twitter celebrity thanks to her salty experience and deft ability to parse wonky data points into plain English,” reports NiemanLab this week. Her Twitter following went from 43,000 to 200,000 by year’s end. As Gilbert suggested, Stat will try to transition readers as it (slowly) returns to writing about cancer, neuroscience and genomics, because 8 of their top 10 stories are still COVID-related.

Improve your welcome package. Almost everyone (90%) encourages subscribers to sign up for their newsletters and 78% send a welcome email. However, only some publishers send educational information about how to use their products (46%) or send personal notes from a person in the newsroom (43%). Even fewer send subscribers personalized messages telling them more about the content and services they’re using. “It is especially important for new subscribers who start on a short-term trial and will soon have a decision to make,” API writes.

Teach, celebrate and respond. Show your newsroom/editorial people how they can track the content metrics themselves so they can focus on the most popular interests. Then celebrate weekly retention wins to give concrete examples of how those metrics are helping. Also respond to any concerns/complaints on social media.

Provide volunteer leadership and other involvement opportunities. This is especially for younger members. “When it comes to building a sense of connectivity to an [organization] among next generation leaders, incorporating volunteer opportunities into the governance of your younger member groups is crucial,” ASAE writes.

Offer quizzes or puzzles, a question of the day or some sort of gamification. With Project Habit, The Wall Street Journal studied how different reader habits affected subscriber churn. It looked into how various products and subscriber actions affected customer retention during the first 100 days after a reader had signed up. They found that “playing a puzzle had a more dramatic impact on reader retention than other actions the team had been promoting.”

Keep your newsletters strong. “The newsletter is one of those things that is going to bump [up your retention rate],” said Ed Malthouse, Spiegel’s research director. “The way someone running a newsroom should think is as follows: ‘I’m going to need to devote a reporter to create that newsletter. What’s that worth?’ There are costs associated with having that reporter. Everybody who subscribes to the newsletter—let’s say they go from having 25 to 40 future payments. You can then do the math to determine whether it is a smart thing to do.’“

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