‘Habit Is More Important Than Intensity’; New Medill Study Looks at Improving Subscriber Retention

An article last week on Medill’s site reported that “regularity is more important than intensity” when it comes to subscriber/reader retention. Analysis of millions of page views by digital subscribers of a business weekly for 6 months in 2021 showed that “having readers who read more often is 10 times more important than having them read more articles.”

“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. Why is that important? The cornerstone of the new business model is reader revenue. That means reader retention is paramount.”

Arvid Tchivzhel, managing director of digital services at Mather Economics, said that the findings make sense for the industry. “Habit is more important than intensity,” he said. “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 may not be breaking news, but it’s still vital to note. Last year, Tara Lajumoke, managing director of FT Strategies, said that “if 2020 was ‘the year of subscriptions,’ 2021 [was] ‘the year of the light readers.’ It’s therefore worth investing in big drivers of engagement for loyal and casual readers—on the homepage, via newsletters and recommendation engines—and developing non-news propositions, so that those who come for the headlines will stay for the podcasts, or the crosswords.”

In what they called Project Habit, The Wall Street Journal also found habits to be crucial to reader retention, especially 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.” You start to understand why Wordle was worth so much to the New York Times.

Here are more findings from the Medill study:

Learn what topics drive your most regular readers. Stories about commercial and residential real estate resonated most for this business weekly. Second place went to a long-time political columnist. They were surprised that healthcare stories came in third, said the publication’s publisher, calling it a “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 weight in gold,” said Medill Spiegel Research Center research director Edward Malthouse, and brought in many subscribers that the analysis termed “political junkies.” Not surprisingly, they just hired a second politics writer. The finding “affirmed some of our hunches and gave us more confidence about doubling down in those areas,” the publisher said. “This will help us refine some of our audience strategies around more casual readers. We know they like our content, but we need to figure out how to get them to be more engaged as paying subscribers.”

Shift your strategy to keeping those regular readers engaged. Medill advises 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.

Take advantage of synergy. Use “teaser” links to related content at the bottom of stories. Most links at the end of articles will take you to similar topic articles. Today for instance, I was reading about yesterday’s Nadal-Djokovic match in the NY Times, and links at the end took me to other articles about the rivalry. But Medill recommends that for this business publication’s loyal political junkies, links should also go to “real estate or healthcare news because of the synergies between those readership areas.”

Experiment with additional content areas. The publication also runs occasional reviews of restaurants and cultural events. “The analysis found that articles about restaurants and dining ranked in the top four areas of page views by prospective readers, those who visit the website but aren’t yet subscribing.” (The Washington Post Weekend section has gone all in on restaurant coverage.) Tchivzhel said that makes sense because it’s an affluent audience. Experiment with additional content areas—there’s nothing to lose. “We’re really trying to use the data to see how far we can expand our audience outside of traditional business,” the publisher said. “We see some potential opportunities if we put more resources behind those areas.”


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