‘Educating Subscribers on the Depth of Coverage’; Add These Ideas to Your Rules of Engagement

“We are redefining the rules of revenue generation by placing subscriber engagement at the heart of our growth strategy,” writes Anjali Iyer, head of lifecycle marketing for The Washington Post, in INMA this week. It makes sense. That group is the most loyal but might be hard to get back if lost. So the Post makes sure to tell subscribers about everything they do. Are we all doing enough of that?

I often hark back to the Medill research last year that reported that “regularity is more important than intensity” when it comes to subscriber/reader retention.

“Habit is more important than intensity,” said Arvid Tchivzhel, senior VP, product, Mather Economics. “I’d rather have someone read one article a day and come back than someone who reads six articles at a time and doesn’t come back for months.”

“This research is significant because it shows the key to success in keeping readers is building habit, whether you’re a general interest metro daily or a weekly business publication with a more upscale audience,” said Tim Franklin, senior associate dean and John M. Mutz chair in local news at Medill. “The formula is the same. Do things that regularly lead readers back to you.”

Of course, newsletters is one of those paths. “Newsletter engagement is powerful,” writes the Post’s Iyer. “Subscribers who sign up for newsletters exhibit a higher level of interest and engagement compared to those who haven’t.”

The Post has also been very big the last few years on “educating subscribers on the depth and breadth of [their] coverage. [It] strengthens our relationship with subscribers and increases their likelihood of remaining engaged.” Iyer points to the importance of “meeting subscribers wherever they are [to] enhance their overall experience.”

Here are more tips for reader engagement:

Learn what topics most drive your audience. In 2022 the National Association of Realtors created the podcast Drive with NAR. It’s been very successful with 3,000 listeners on average and expanding. One episode drew 12,000 listeners—it concerned the safety of Realtors, focusing on two women being stalked. This year they’ll do a 12-part series on safety and put other elements around it. In the Medill study, the business newsletter was surprised to find that their healthcare stories were popular even though that wasn’t their focus. The publisher called it “something of a revelation. We know this is a big healthcare market, but we didn’t have a lot of data around how many subscribers are there because of that.”

Build up and market your popular writers/columnists. That columnist is “worth his or her weight in gold,” said Edward Malthouse, research director of Medill’s Spiegel Research. The Atlantic has about 15 non-subscriber newsletters and five subscriber newsletters with most of those revolving around a popular writer. Up for Debate features Conor Friedersdorf; How to Build a Life keeps up with Arthur C. Brooks; I Have Notes comes from memoirist Nicole Chung and Unsettled Territory highlights the writings of Imani Perry. Neal and EXCEL Award-winning writers certainly attract followings.

Find a habit your readers can latch onto. Of course, The New York Times didn’t pay all that money for Wordle for nothing. (I’ve now seen Artle from a local museum, Worldl by a French web developer about travel, and Quordle which plays like Wordle on steroids.) The Washington Post found that even their most loyal readers needed to be told about their habit-forming benefits, so they “created an email marketing series aimed at benefit education to positively impact both retention and customer lifetime value,” Iyer writes.

Focus on your loyal readers. Medill advised downplaying breaking news for “a balance of content that attracts your most loyal readers, the ones who will subscribe… Put the big photo and headline on the content that serves most of your readers.” Add a newsletter to address the specific, high-traffic niches, they urge. That advice has certainly been followed by large media outlets—the New York Times has an endless page of newsletter titles. They also recommend using “teaser” links to related content at the bottom of stories.

Initiate a comprehensive “onboarding” process for new subscribers. It should include a set of messages highlighting exclusive content and website navigation, said Michael Silberman, EVP, media strategy at Piano. He also recommends emailing daily round-up newsletters to subscribers and making sure that the content that drives frequency is highlighted. “Putting all those pieces together is really important,” he said.

Experiment with additional content areas. The analysis of the business publication found that articles about restaurants and dining ranked in the top four areas of page views by prospective readers, those who visit but aren’t yet subscribing.” Tchivzhel said that makes sense because this particular audience is an affluent one. Experiment with additional content areas—that’s how new verticals are discovered. “We’re really trying to use the data to see how far we can expand our audience outside of traditional business,” one niche business publisher said. “We see some potential opportunities if we put more resources behind those areas.”


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