‘Give Them Quick Wins’; Onboarding Should Be Personalized and Thorough

“It’s critical to onboard new subscribers successfully,” Dan Fink, managing director of Money-Media, said in a webinar last week. “Make sure they can easily log in. And if they haven’t accessed anything or they’re not receiving your news alerts, you’ve got a problem.”

Fink’s comment made me recall a survey that Joe May, marketing director of Pro Farmer, helped to distribute for his audience. “Our survey resulted in multiple concerns about user log-ins and passwords to the websites. So what we did was proactively remind our users the basics—how to reset their password; how to set their browser to remember their credentials so they don’t have to enter it every single time. That’s a simple action that we probably all take for granted…”

If we do take that for granted—speaking as someone who loses patience when my digital Washington Post doesn’t easily open for me—then we shouldn’t. If anything, onboarding has become even more important now, when our virtual patience may be on the thin side.


Here are lessons from the publishing world and Lia Zegeye, senior director of membership at the American Bus Association, in a story on Associations Now.


Be more personalized in your onboarding. Schibsted, a large media site in Norway and Sweden, created a “newsroom onboarding guide to welcome subscribers in a more personalized way. Now new subscribers can choose one of their renowned editors or journalists as a guide through the onboarding period. These personalized onboarding emails have a higher unique opening rate: 63% versus 38% for the standard onboarding process. The retention rate after the first renewal is also five percentage points higher.”


Show, don’t tell. In the personalized onboarding webinars that Zegeye conducts, she “shows a short promotional video from ABA’s tradeshow, providing a testimonial about the value of the event from a member’s perspective. Zegeye said she often gets thank-you notes from webinar attendees who say, “Wow, I had no idea you guys did all of these things!” “It’s a great way for me to connect with our members,” she added. The webinars immediately put a face with a name, and members are more likely to reach out to her directly with questions. “Mailing out packets has become a thing of the past,” she said.


“Remind subscribers and members why they signed on and reinforce that decision,” said Jim Sinkinson of Fired Up Marketing. “New customers—especially trials—forget why they subscribed. Don’t let them forget. Tantalize them with the valuable information they will be receiving. Onboarding materials should address three things: Motivation, method and making them heroes—give them quick wins.” I recently found out that I get PBS2 (channel 800!) from my cable provider; they should have informed me of that earlier based on my preferences.


Target. Speaking of preferences, from a data perspective, “this [opening 30-day] period is also crucial for us to gather patterns of user behavior,” said Katrina Bolak, manager, customer onboarding and engagement, for The Globe and Mail in Toronto. “We need 30 days of data to accurately serve up future content based on interests and for our email segmentation.” After that, content consumption patterns begin to form—good and bad.


Design matters. “We don’t think of onboarding as a discrete activity,” Aaron Steinberg, publisher at insideARM, said last year. “It’s the beginning of our ongoing member service and engagement. We want to be in touch with our customers all the time, and we do a good job of that.” He spoke about the importance of design in the customer service chain. “Our materials are good, our onboarding is good, but in the middle there was a design” on the website that needed to be clearer. That changed, thanks to that good customer communication.


Engage with social media. Zegeye shows new members all of ABA’s social media platforms and asks them to follow ABA from the start. “Members tend to gravitate toward Facebook to discuss their challenges, which gives the membership team a good way to tap into what members are experiencing and engage with them in a meaningful way, she said.”


Emphasize any incentive programs and key website features. ABA has a member-get-a-member incentive program, with the prize being a $50 gift card and entrance into a raffle with a chance to win $1,000. “Your members are your best ambassadors” for recruiting new prospects, Zegeye said. She also walks new members through key parts of ABA’s website.


Get members talking. Having ambassadors reminds me of something I heard once from Elizabeth Petersen of Simplify Compliance. Their conference app allowed people attending the event to have conversations before they attend. “So the week before the session, people started posting who they wanted to meet and what they wanted to see,” she said. “Then they started posting pictures of their dog wearing a conference tee-shirt. And a drink they were having before they got on the plane. So they were onboarding one another… That’s a million times more powerful than me standing in front of folks saying, ‘You must come to this session; it’s going to be the greatest thing.'”


Test, Include Lighter Content and Offer Rewards to Increase Retention

According to an excellent NiemanLab story last year, when The Wall Street Journal put together a cross-functional group “to identify retention-driving actions and reinvent the way [they] promote those habits to [their] member base”—calling it  Project Habit—they started by making an “an exhaustive list of all the things a member could do on our site.”

That included “actions from Email Article and Play Puzzle to Build Watchlist and Comment.” Next—and this gets a bit heavy—they borrowed from medicine and applied the Kaplan-Meier estimator to member retention. This looked at those members who engaged and those who did not in the first 100 days—”and how it affected retention in 30-day increments over the course of their first year of tenure.”

Their major finding was that it wasn’t one particular action that affected retention, but that members could engage in a number of ways. Three characteristics—rather than actions—stood out:

Loyalty: Your audience keeps coming back to a specific section or writer. “The particular area or author didn’t matter—as long as they were loyal to it.”

Cadence: “Those who read content that publishes with a regular and obvious cadence stayed in at an above-average rate. When readers know exactly when to expect something, they come to rely on it and read it.”

Play: As serious and financial-based as the WSJ is, they found “that lean-back content and features drive retention too.”

I was referred to this information by another article about a study on what gets readers hooked. Here are a few takeaways from that study by Twipe:

Market your benefits. In their early days with you, make sure that readers know all that’s available to them, both in terms of site services and the daily flow of content.

Reduce load time. The Telegraph in London 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. Their WhatsApp service proved successful too; users who regularly listened on WhatsApp were 12 times more likely to become paid subscribers.

Run engagement tests. New York Times Co. CEO Mark Thompson said last week that giving digital teams the autonomy to “continually optimize” by having “parallel tests running in the background” was the “single biggest reason” behind their recent success with digital subscribers.

Hop on the gamification wagon. If you have a popular feature, add encouragements for readers to read/play it every day. “The Times’ popular Crosswords product encourages readers to play every day through various ‘streak’ features and shares successes on their Wordplay Twitter account.”

Offer rewards. In The Economist’s digital-only Espresso, people who read all of the articles in that day’s edition are rewarded with an inspirational quote at the end. The Economist can even track readers who might read only the depressing news stories of the day and possibly offer a positive story at the end. Also on the table: Readers who invest their time in the Economist brand could be rewarded with credits to share premium content with friends/colleagues.

Send welcome letters/packages. The Guardian found that subscribers who open the welcome communications tend to stay longer. Educating readers about the product is key here. “The Guardian found that the majority of their subscribers use less than three features, but that the more features a subscriber uses, the lower their risk of churn.”

Be more personalized in your onboarding. Schibsted, a large media site in Norway and Sweden, learned the importance of a proper onboarding strategy. They created a “newsroom onboarding guide to welcome subscribers in a more personalized way. Now new subscribers can choose one of their renowned editors or journalists as a guide through the onboarding period. These personalized onboarding mails have a higher unique opening rate: 63% versus 38% for the standard onboarding process. The retention rate after the first renewal is also five percentage points higher.”


Monthly Subscriptions and Dynamic Models Can Add to Your Reader Base

SIIA member Piano came up in the SIPA Discussion Forum today. Coincidentally, their director of research, Patrick Appel, just put out some interesting information on subscriptions and renewals at a Readers First Meetup sponsored by the International News Media Association.

Monthly subscriptions have become more popular in the industry of late. And last year saw the increased popularity of billing every four weeks instead of monthly (20% of news publishers are doing this now vs. 3% in 2018).

Appel noted that “longer-term subscriptions tend to be higher value just because there’s such high churn at the beginning of monthly, short-term subscription.” But he added that publishers shouldn’t ignore monthly subscribers entirely: “There is a conversion rate, certainly, by offering monthly as an option … but after a subscription has been around for a year, you’re seeing a majority of annual.”

Here are more notes on subscriptions from Appel and others:

Focus on onboarding. For monthly subscriptions, Appel said that “really you’re talking about the first three months, the first six months, as this risk period. Either [the subscriber] bought it with the intent to churn—we’ve seen that before—or it hasn’t been effectively communicated about the value. Or maybe they bought it and were thinking about it and that first month, they didn’t see the value.” So when looking at monthly subscriptions, Appel said the focus is really on that onboarding campaign.

Think about the balance between short- and long-term commitments, as well as the pricing strategy between those two. “It’s really critical,” Appel said. “When we think about optimizing ultimately for revenue, we want to think both about what is the increase on acquisition, and what is the hit on retention.”

Look to other models besides metered paywalls. “I predict a shift in how U.S. publishers implement their paywalls, with many beginning to operate a freemium-style model (already common in Europe) and others beginning to experiment with dynamic models that ask different readers to pay at different points in their journey,” said Josh Schwartz, CTO of Chartbeat, on NiemanLab. “…While meters assume that each story’s contribution toward a user’s eventual subscription is in some sense the same, freemium and dynamic models let us think about how each story can best contribute to the business—bringing in new readers, driving engagement, driving subscriptions, or deepening engagement among subscribers.

For a price increase, do testing and look at data. “The best thing a publisher can do when they are thinking about raising prices is to start moving away from a gut feeling approach, where you ‘think’ you should move prices, and at least start with some data and see what that tells you,” said Dustin Tetley from a consulting group called Mather. “And test as much as possible before moving forward or throughout the price increase process. We find there’s really a lot you can learn from each price increase.”

And increase engagement. Customers who are more engaged tend to accept price increases more readily than those that are not engaged, Tetley reported. Engagement also has a big effect on overall stop rate and retention. “When you see a group that had no digital usage in the month prior to the price increase, they stopped at a much higher rate than customers that were highly engaged,” Tetley said. He added that new customers won’t like price increases so build loyalty and tenure.

Learn to tell the story of your company: who you are, what your product is, and why it is so important right now, wrote Eduardo Suarez in a new Reuters study. This appeal should be crafted carefully. It must take into account the mission of your organization as well as its ownership and its history. “Few news brands have done this more systematically than the Guardian. The messages at the bottom of its articles are long, conversational, and customized by topic and geography. They are designed to answer frequent questions from their readers before asking them to contribute.”