‘Perk Benefits’ and ‘Hyper-Personalized’ Strategy Give Subscriptions a Boost

Subscriptions are in vogue. Crain Communications CEO KC Crain said that, “For the first time, our audience revenue—print and digital subscriptions—in 2021 will be greater than our print advertising revenue.” And Financial Times chief executive John Ridding said recently that FT’s digital content revenues are now bigger than all of its other revenue streams combined.

“I think you’re going to see a lot more businesses that are what I would call fully integrated within their category – [i.e.] they bring everything from commerce to utility to experience to content together in a way that is hyper-personalized,” said Robin Thurston, CEO of Outside, one of America’s largest digital journalism subscription businesses, in an article in UK’s PressGazette last week.

Outside announced the launch of Outside+, a subscription that gives customers access to online editorial content across all of their websites—including titles such as Outside, SKI, Yoga Journal and Women’s Running—plus other benefits (pictured above). Membership is $99 annually.

Looking at the strategy for Outside+, some elements jump out—numbers 1-3 below—that could help B2B publishers attract and retain subscribers. Numbers 4-7 are other vital subscription strategies.

Add perks that either don’t cost you much or you couldn’t sell for much. If we learned anything from 2020, it’s that virtual events are hard to charge much for. But they can still sound impressive. A subscription for Outside+ includes Zoom Q&A sessions with Olympians, “access to world-renowned film tours [and] behind-the-scenes coverage on world events like the Tour de France,” usage of their GPS software, training plans and discounts on gear and apparel. Although Thurston talks about the “experience” factor—“Even Disney now is adding perk benefits to Disney+ because they know you have to integrate the experience layer with the content layer”—they’re not including access to any in-person events.

Make it simple. With Outside+, Thurston wants to create “one unified platform. We have a single sign-on—you’re creating an Outside account, you can use that in every place on the platform.” I think it’s The Washington Post that will let you in with a special click if you forget your password. I’m always appreciative of that.

Charge by the year. Piano’s recently published Subscription Performance Benchmark Report found that 74% of annual subscribers remain loyal to the website after one year, vs. 46% of readers who pay monthly. “Historically, around two-thirds of new subscriptions acquired during any given month on Piano’s platform have been monthly,” said the report. “However, because annual subscriptions retain so much better with higher lifetime value, there is an obvious strategic rationale for encouraging annual commitments.” There’s less room for error with annual billing.

Onboard. Onboard. Onboard. Adding more benefits is all good and well, but it only amplifies the need for strong onboarding. “If subscribers don’t engage early, they often cancel quickly, or become a doomed ‘sleeper’ and stop visiting the site, even if they’re still subscribed,” the Piano report said. “While a sleeper might take many months to get around to cancelling, about half of them on annual subscriptions and two-thirds on monthly subscriptions are gone within a year of going inactive.” Keys to successful onboarding include: smooth log-ins, a clear website, personalization (find out their interests and preferences early) and usage reports.

Empower your journalists. Last year the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel put some responsibilities for getting subscribers on their reporters. It paid off. Rachel Piper, digital news director, said that leaders there “asked our individual journalists to be ambassadors for digital subscriptions on social media. Over time, [they] built a strong sense of ownership. Advocating for the [our] brand and asking people to subscribe no longer seems like the responsibility of someone else in a different department. And when these reporters ask their followers and fans to subscribe, it has a different power than our other asks and offers.” The Journal Sentinel even ran subscription contests for their newsrooms with prizes ranging from cash to ice cream socials. Dozens of new subscriptions were tracked to individual pleas from reporters.

Emphasize the content. Consultant Jim Sinkinson has always preached that subscribers need to be reminded and led to the great content you do sometimes. It was similar at the Journal Sentinel. “When encouraging those in the newsroom to share subscription callouts, we’ve made sure to tie it to our journalists’ excellent, important work,” Piper said. “Rather than telling reporters just to hawk the cheapest deal, we’ve asked reporters to share journalism they are proud of… and note that people can ‘support work like this by subscribing to the Journal Sentinel at jsonline.com/deal.'” Here was a typical tweet: “By the way, if you’re happy that the @journalsentinel has a reporter here covering this floor debate, another in the Senate, and two covering tonight’s State of the State, please subscribe!”

Eschew free trials. The Piano report also noted that many publishers started to give up on free trials through 2020, going from 17% to 5%. “This indicates that publishers are getting more confident in their pricing and smarter about promotional strategies, since free trials often don’t make financial sense when carefully analyzed… Paid trials, even at a relatively low price like $1, retain 82.1% when the trial period is over,” 33% better than free trials.

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