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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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‘An Opportunity to Tout Your Vital Role’ – Moving Past All-Crisis News

The excellent site What’s New in Publishing has put out a new report titled The Publisher’s Guide to Navigating Covid-19, looking at eight trends that have emerged globally, as well as strategies that publishers have implemented as a result of increased web traffic.
Let’s take a look at four of those trends and see how they affect smaller publishers.
COVID-19 has changed our media habits. We’re spending more time with streaming services, social media and messenger services. Gaming has also seen a major pandemic bump. “Many people say that they expect their new habits to continue after the COVID-19 outbreak passes too,” said Simon Kemp. “One in five internet users say they expect to continue watching more content on streaming services, and one in seven (15%) say they expect to continue spending more time using social media.” Given this, they say, publishers need to find more ways in which they can make their new relationships with audiences as “sticky” as they can—to take advantage of the now-waning COVID bump.
“We need to think how we can make our news and information [continue to be] relevant, but especially how we can make people aware about the width and breadth of coverage we can do…,” Jeremy Gilbert, director of strategic initiatives at The Washington Post, told us in May. “We’re thinking very deeply about what are the things, the products, the tools that we can offer our audience and how can we bridge [new subscribers] from caring about the news in the time of the virus to caring about the news when things are going better.”
Publishers are producing new products. As I wrote recently, we’re seeing new whitepapers like InsideARM, which addresses the debt industry, promoting a free whitepaper titled Succeeding in Collections Today Requires More Agility. Future plc must have read the WNIP report because independent media analyst Alex DeGroote said this: “Some of its products skew towards gaming—like Techradar—and gaming has gone nuts in lockdown.”
According to members of WAN-IFRA’s Global Media Trends Panel, more than half of the editorial executives they surveyed had launched new products as a result of the pandemic. “Newsletters are the most common product,” they found, “with some 55% saying they have launched them, followed by infographics (49%), and videos and live blogs (30%).” Interestingly, further research found that the decrease in commuters has been offset by consumers listening to more podcasts (ranging from 13-16% globally). There has even been growth in advertising revenue for podcasts.
People, more than ever, need a broad content mix. The Pew Research Center reported that, “about seven-in-ten Americans (71%) say they need to take breaks from news about the coronavirus, and 43% say the news leaves them feeling worse emotionally.” So even if you draw people in with COVID-related content, you can only keep them engaged with more variety. “This may involve telling stories in fresh and innovative ways, exploring new beats and approaches to storytelling (such as solutions journalism),” they write. “To this, I would also recommend looking more at the power of your archive, evergreen content, and highlighting stories from the past 3-4 months which may have been overlooked as a result of the pandemic.”
Focus on starting and building a long-term relationship. “At the risk of sounding too cynical, the increased digital readership is an opportunity for publishers to tout their vital role in providing news and information to their communities—and to form ties that can last after the crisis subsides,” wrote Rob Williams on MediaPost. Although Deloitte’s latest Digital Media trends survey said that U.S. consumers had an average of 12 paid media and entertainment subscriptions pre-COVID-19, their data also shows that consumers are busy adding new subscriptions (often taking advantage of trial pricing and ad-supported services), cancelling old ones, and also trying out new services.
Again, you can download here.
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Build Trust and Show the Breadth of What You Do to Keep Readership Bump

Not that they ever went out of style, but newsletters and subscriptions seem to be peaking again. Bloomberg Media’s Justin Smith has talked about their stickiness and comfort at a time like this. Industry Dive is up to about 22 different newsletters now in 19 industries. And Digiday ran an article last week titled How Substack Has Spawned a New Class of Newsletter Entrepreneurs.
“We’re coming in with an opportunity-focused mindset,’ said Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie [whom I interviewed three years ago], fresh off raising $15.3 million last summer. “‘During the first 20-30 years of the internet, in terms of information distribution and media, the innovation has mostly come around an ad-supported model. There’s a whole 20-30 years of innovation to come that more fully innovates around a subscription model.’”
Here are some ideas on keeping the new readership—newsletters and beyond—that many publishers have received during the pandemic:
Use this time to build trust. “We strongly believe that in 5 years there will be a very obvious critical mass of people who will pay for content from writers who they trust,” McKenzie told me three years ago. “And it will be a mainstream, accepted part of the ecosystem… People are learning how good an experience it is to be subscribed to an independent writer you love. We’re really focused on building that relationship.” Said a recent Inc. article: “Trust is the end result of having a lock on your customers’ desires.”
Expose your new audience to the other coverage and products you put out. “When you have those moments, when people are intensely interested in your content for a very specific reason, everything feels changed,” Jeremy Gilbert, director of strategic initiatives at The Washington Post, told us recently. “We need to think how we can make our news and information [continue to be] relevant, but especially how we can make people aware about the width and breadth of coverage we can do… We’re thinking very deeply about what are the things, the products, the tools that we can offer our audience and how can we bridge [new subscribers] from caring about the news in the time of the virus to caring about the news when things are going better.”
Look at what else your new readers are clicking on and spending time with. “What [is it] about the relationship that [feels] important,” Gilbert continued. “Why did the audience turn to you now so you could continue to make that valuable? Many of the people taking our subscription offers today are taking them on an annual plan. 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?”
Engage in dialogues. Use your social media and analytics to figure out places to increase healthy give-and-take between you and your new customers. Are there special tips you could be giving them? Wrote Inc.: “Check in with customers not just on a preset cadence but when users signal unhappiness or disinterest. The faster you can jump in when a user has stopped opening your emails, for example, the higher your chances to save a subscriber.”
Get them hooked on a podcast or blog. Wrote NiemanLab last month: “Podcasts are interesting for publishers because they are much more likely to attract younger audiences, since they can be accessed conveniently through smartphones and they offer a diversity of perspectives and voices. The deep connection that many podcasts seem to create could be opening up opportunities for paid podcasts, alongside public-service and advertising-driven models. In our data this year we find that almost four in 10 Americans (38%) said they would be prepared to pay for podcasts they liked.”
Meet your audience’s needs. “And so if we can keep the needs of our audience at the forefront and not just think of our audience as consumers who buy our products but also people who need our news, we’re going to have a better experience,” Gilbert said.
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Weekly Features, Podcasts and Faster Load Times Can Increase Retention

Research last year from Northwestern’s Medill Local News Initiative looked at audience data from three major metro publications. Their conclusion, according to NiemanLab, the frequency with which a reader comes back to a publication’s website “is the single biggest predictor of retaining subscribers—more than the number of stories read or the time spent reading them.”
So with that established, the goal becomes to entice your subscribers and would-be subscribers to check in a lot with your website and resources. Here are some ways to make that happen:
Send an email quiz or post a puzzle. I received this email this week from Lessiter Media. “To test your knowledge of soil health practices, No-Till Farmer, with the support of Indigo Ag, created a 6-question quiz, ‘How Much Do You Know About Soil Enrichment Practices?’ Take the quiz.” For a previous quiz, they received 3,346 total submissions from Nov. 2019, through the end of March 2020. About 1,658 were new email addresses and 120 new subscribers. 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.
Start a podcast. This has certainly been a ripe couple months for podcasts. “Podcasts are interesting for publishers because they are much more likely to attract younger audiences, since they can be accessed conveniently through smartphones and they offer a diversity of perspectives and voices,” writes NiemanLab. “The deep connection that many podcasts seem to create could be opening up opportunities for paid podcasts, alongside public-service and advertising-driven models. In our data this year we find that almost four in ten Americans (38%) said they would be prepared to pay for podcasts they liked, and a similar number in Canada (37%).”
Start a weekly content feature that brings people back. Inc. launched a weekly webinar called “Real Talk.” “It’s people who have had success and are willing to give back to entrepreneurs and the small business community and answer questions for an hour,” said Scott Omelianuk, editor-in-chief. Haymarket’s PRWeek has two that they’ve started during the pandemic: Lockdown Life and Coffee Break. Episodes for Lockdown Life include: three PR people who have recovered from COVID-19; a diverse group of recent grads entering the PR workforce; the challenge of pitching remotely; and fun videos where kids say what they think their parents do for a living. Coffee Break is short, 15-minutes videos with people in the industry,” In one recent episode, Margenett Moore Roberts, chief diversity and inclusion officer at CMG, talks about what it takes to address diversity and inclusion at your company.
Get people “together.” One of our other divisions, AM&P, is hosting virtual get-togethers on Fridays at lunchtime to either talk about a topic—diversity, alternative revenue, accessibility—or just offer each other support. Joanne Persico, president of SIPA member ONEcount, has been holding “Bold Minds Virtual Mixers” every Wednesday at 5:30 pm. “Collaborate with other media execs, CEOs and industry colleagues to learn what others are doing, what’s working and creative ways to keep your customers and employees happy!” she writes.
Reduce your load times. According to a report from Twipe, The Telegraph in the UK found that reducing loading time from 9 to 5.5 seconds led to a 49% increase in subscriber conversion from those who visit the homepage. An initial analysis led them to push for faster homepage load times and a service to send audio summaries and news links to commuters through WhatsApp. Users who regularly listened on WhatsApp were 12 times more likely to become paid subscribers.
Steer people to products or platforms that will continue. Getting a COVID-19 readership bump? Then make sure your new visitors subscribe to at least one ongoing thing—even if it has to be free. Newsletters are a great example. People tune in now because maybe they have more time or because they’re in front of the computer more or feel more isolated. But “if you can get them to subscribe to a newsletter, you have a way to reach them even when they go back to in-person offices and in-person meetings,” said Jeremy Gilbert of The Washington Post. Ragan Communications turned much of their COVID coverage into a Crisis Leadership Board.
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‘Understand What You Do Well’; Keeping Your Audience Post-COVID

In my previous postStephanie Williford of EB Medicine spoke about the tremendous engagement they’ve been getting since they started posting COVID-19 resources. One article in particular has garnered 340,000 views when a typical, popular article used to get 10,000.
Of course, EB Medicine is not alone. Many publishers and associations have seen big jumps in their visitors and clicks due to coronavirus coverage and resource sites they’ve developed. The challenge for most will be keeping that engagement—and hopefully in many cases subscriptions—after the crisis has abated or in a year from now for renewals.
Here are some ideas:
Examine previous spikes and identify the readers who stayed and who left. That comes from Robbie Kelman Baxter, author of The Forever Transaction and a past SIPA keynote speaker, in an article on the What’s New in Publishing site. Can you tell why they might have stayed or perhaps what their engagement has been since? “It’s never been more important to understand what you do well and why people come to you, from an editorial and a revenue perspective,” said Mia Lehmkuhl Libby, CRO, The Daily Beast, in that same article.
Make your news and information continue to be relevant, said Jeremy Gilbert, director of strategic initiatives for The Washington Post. “Make people aware… about the width and breadth of coverage that you can do.” Which leads to…
Promote non-coronavirus stories to your new visitors/subscribers. The Guardian in the UK is sharing a list of 10 of its most-well read non-coronavirus articles every day. At the Post, Gilbert said that they are “trying to show that our arts writers and critics, our sports writers and critics, and our food writers and critics can feel relevant now but also signal to our audience that after the COVID crisis, we’ll have different kinds of coverage that they will still need… We’re thinking very deeply about what are the things, the products, the tools that we can offer our audience and how can we bridge [new subscribers] from caring about the news in the time of the virus to caring about the news when things are going better.”
Steer people to products or platforms that will continue. Get your new visitors to subscribe to at least one ongoing thing—even if it has to be free. Newsletters are a great example. People tune in now because maybe they have more time or because they’re in front of the computer more or feel more isolated. But “If you can get them to subscribe to a newsletter, you have a way to reach them even when they go back to in-person offices and in-person meetings,” Gilbert said. Ragan turned much of their COVID coverage into a Crisis Leadership Board.
Know what about the relationship that feels important. “Why did the audience turn to you now so you could continue to make that valuable?” Gilbert asked. “Many of the people taking our subscription offers today are taking them on annual plan. 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.”
Look at the specific COVID-19 coverage or resource that got the most clicks. How was it written? Was it a list? Did it have faces? For Williford, what is it about that one article that got 340,000 clicks, “How do we transition people?” Gilbert asked. “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?”
Encourage new habits. “Find ways to deliver value, develop habits and remind subscribers about the value of the product,” said Michael Silberman, Piano’s SVP of strategy. “Even flat churn is impressive, given the big increase in new subscriptions during March.” Cancellations of monthly subscriptions acquired in March dropped an average of 17% compared to subscribers acquired in January and February, Piano estimated. Churn dropped by about 34% in Europe, whereas in the U.S. it was flat overall.
Understand what your audience needs. “And so if we can keep the needs of our audience at the forefront and not just think of our audience as consumers who buy our products but also people who need our news, we’re going to have a better experience,” Gilbert said.