Hand Holding Red Horseshoe Magnet Attracting Pawn Figures

Newsletters, Tracking and Targeting Can Lead to the Retention That We All Covet

In a March report, The American Press Institute asked news publishers how much potential value they thought different retention strategies could have. The results show what aspects of subscriber retention are considered most important, but of more value it shows what publishers are not doing well enough today.

The biggest gap between what publishers deem valuable and what they aren’t doing well is in identifying at-risk subscribers—83.5% to 19%. The next biggest gap appears in using metrics to evaluate churn—82.6% to 28%.

The most confounding one might be—well, there are two. While 85.5% believe it is very important to actively encourage renewals, only 44% are “very” or “fairly” proficient at it. Now that would seem to be something we can get better at. The second one is also an action that would seem easy to do: track what subscribers read—but while 75.7% believe it’s valuable, only 30% believe they are good at it.

Let’s look at six possible solutions.

To actively encourage renewals…

1. Seek early engagement and volunteerism. Pre-pandemic, the Health Industry Distributors Association (HIDA) brought its board and council committees together just twice a year at in-person events. But then in our Zoom world, they increased those meetings to monthly. “We needed to understand their pain points and their challenges,” said Kelley Taft, HIDA’s director of membership. “We really focused on increasing those member touchpoints.” Wrote Associations Now: Taft “credits several new member councils and work groups, where member experts meet regularly to share real-time responses to the many challenges the industry is facing, as one of the biggest factors in HIDA’s improved member retention and engagement rate.”

2. 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?'” At the Boston Globe, newsletters play a major role in building subscriber engagement, renewals and acquisition. Tom Brown, senior director of consumer revenue, explained to Twipe that “the team is currently running 30 newsletters and while for the existing subscribers they see 25% of the visits coming from newsletters, 15-25% of all newly acquired subscriptions are generated via newsletters as well.” In their Cooking From Home newsletter (pictured above), food critic Devra First wrote about cooking during coronavirus.

To identify subscribers who are at risk…

3. Target the unengaged. 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 API editors wrote. “We have to start thinking outside the box with platforms and storytelling techniques… What initially grabbed a zombie isn’t what will bring them back. We have to prove to them that we are worth their money.”

4. Track what your audience is reading. We recently had a webinar on the new content metrics. What was good to see is that, like The Arizona Republic, all three organizations represented on the webinar—Money-Media, the American Chemical Society and Industry Dive—have people and/or mechanisms in place to help the editorial staff “read” and understand the metrics. Now this may be easier to do for larger organizations, but it’s incredibly important.

5. 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%). HIDA created a new member guide and a private page on their website with practical tips for new members. During the pandemic, they went away from sending out physical packets but then heard from members who preferred receiving something tangible in the mail. Like swag for virtual events, mailings can be exciting for us these days.

6. Incentivize staff. The Arizona Republic increased staff buy-in with a weekly award, API wrote. The staff nominated and selected co-workers who did something great that week to engage the previously unengaged—writing a story that attracted them, creating an artful tweet explaining why a story was subscriber-only, patiently helping a frustrated caller navigate customer service, etc.

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‘How Do You Achieve the Right Kind of Growth?’ Lessin Talks Newsletter Keys.

During a recent interview with NiemanLabJessica Lessin, founder and editor-in-chief of The Information—an ad-free tech and business publication where subscriptions cost $399/year—spoke about the exact themes that will define our new Associations, Media, and Publishing Network: talent, revenue strategies and technology. And coursing through all that: good content.

“Everybody wants to grow fast,” she said. “That’s expected, but how do you achieve the right kind of growth? Everyone knows you could slash your price and get a boost that day, but what’s the long-term path? Any startup is going to be very focused on the team and getting hiring right. That’s a big focus, as well. How to leverage—or not—the tech platforms is another recurring theme. When do you partner with Google and Facebook and Apple? When do you not? That calculus is very different if you’re a smaller company or a larger company. For me, what’s most exciting is to see the excellence everyone has when it comes to their domain in terms of reporting.”

Lessin spoke at a time when the proliferation of newsletters is one of the biggest stories in publishing. Substack continues to add well-known writers with big followings to their ever-growing newsletter stacks. Twitter just recently purchased Revue, a newsletter platform for writers and publishers. “Facebook is working on newsletter tools for journalists and writers,” the New York Times just wrote, “a move toward offering more services to independent writers as the social network jumps into the fast-growing newsletter space.”

“It’s the calmness of the model that’s the real killer feature,” wrote Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie on his blog recently. “Perhaps this is giving away too much, but I often find myself telling people: ‘Our real product is our business model.’ There are now more than 500,000 paid subscriptions across Substack, and the top ten writers collectively make more than $15 million a year.”

Whoa. I interviewed McKenzie back in September of 2018. At that time, Shan’t We Tell the Vicar?, The Shatner Chatner, Sinocism and Off the Chain were his biggest titles. And there were a mere 11,000 subscribers. “We strongly believe that in five years there will be a very obvious critical mass of people who will pay for content from writers who they trust,” McKenzie told me, slightly too conservative on his estimate. “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—to get people interested in that model.”

Lessin lauds Punchbowl News, a new “membership-based news community” that has—of course—a “flagship morning newsletter” and a daily podcast. While she believes that the journalism still has to be top-notch—“Everything else can be learned and shared,” she says—she is excited about the ways that media companies are exploring monetization.

– Subscriptions.
– Paid memberships—she mentions The 19th, a nonprofit with a booming membership program.
– B2B subscription products—Axios has just launched AxiosHQ, a communications platform that will enable businesses to update their employees—including through internal newsletters—in Axios’s just-the-facts, bullet-point style. It will cost at least $10,000 a year, they say.
– Events, in-person and virtual—Informa Markets has just partnered with the Virtual Events Institute to learn how to do them better.
– Sponsored online communities.

But Lessin does bring it back to content. “Every organization I’ve seen produce really differentiated content is successful. I think it’s really that simple,” she said. “…there’s a huge market for content creators that are doing something original and important. I’ve seen so many businesses that double down on that succeed.”

For his part, McKenzie welcomes Twitter and Facebook to the newsletter party. “I genuinely believe that Twitter and Facebook getting into paid newsletters is good for writers and a positive development for the media ecosystem,” he wrote, before getting more contemplative. “We at Substack have never thought that the solution lies in simply shouting about how engagement-based business models lead to media products that are superficially compelling but underneath are eroding the foundation of society. Instead, we have set out to show that platforms that put writers and readers in charge are just better.

I would stress the reader part there. The idea is to give readers more information, tips and strategies for your arsenal to make beneficial decisions.