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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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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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.”

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Open Communication, Mentors and Video Can Lift First-Year Retention

In a recent survey of organizations by GrowthZone, only 11% of respondents said their first-year member renewal rate increased in the past year, whereas 26% said it went down; 61% said it remained about the same.

To hold onto new members after that first year, organizations need to demonstrate value as quickly as possible, says Amy Gitchell, senior marketing communications specialist at GrowthZone, in an article on Associations Now. “It’s extremely important that new members understand the value you bring to their lives. In the survey, organizations whose members recognized their value proposition reported higher renewal rates overall.”

The International Coach Federation puts on a live webinar for onboarding to introduce new members/subscribers to key benefits and services. The ICF has found that this type of early engagement boosts first-year retention. “Videoconferencing helps our large organization feel smaller and more personal,” says Don Whittle, director of member experience. “Our members value that personal touch, and it helps make our global community feel much more tangible.”

For new members who can’t view the webinar live, ICF posts a video recording of the conversation to their website. ICF also uses the webinars as an opportunity to explain their credential to new members. That has led to a 39% increase in first-year members applying for the credential.

Here are retention ideas, some from MemberClicks, and more examples:

Keep the communications flowing. I’ve seen many organizations that talk about the importance of that initial welcome kit and outreach, but then they skip to a six-month check-in, nine-month update and then renewals. That’s probably too big a gap. “[Organizations] kind of drop off the radar and leave it up to their new members to get involved (which often, doesn’t actually happen).” Preferred is to see an automated email marketing campaign targeting your new members exclusively with event and benefit reminders, committees or groups they can join, audience surveys and special discount codes just for them.

Send a series of welcome emails. HCPro’s Credentialing Resource Center ran a 10-email welcome series in support of a new website. The emails were triggered when someone purchased membership. The focus of the emails varied each week from “Need help navigating?” and “Visit our FAQ page” to “Access the CRC member forums” and “Take $100 off the upcoming CRC Symposium.”

Organize new-member-only events, live or virtual. Another group here allows new members to come free to Pre-Conference workshops if they’ve signed up for the conference. The idea is to make them feel comfortable and engaged.

Remind users of their password. When Pro Farmer asked their audience if they would recommend the company to others, the answer included an open text opportunity so Pro Farmer got more information—specifically what might be most valuable and what might be lacking. “Our survey resulted in multiple concerns from text responses about user log-ins and passwords to the websites,” said Joe May, marketing director. “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.” And that email could then include other reminders.

Pair them with a mentor. If you can craft an experienced member/new member mentoring program where meetings/calls are scheduled but don’t become overwhelming, then that can be very successful. “If you have an online social community (or some kind of members-only forum), consider setting up a channel where interested parties (both on the mentor and mentee side) can go. That way, you’re helping to facilitate the process, but you’re not solely responsible for it.)”

Organize short-term mentoring opportunities. We’ve definitely done this at SIPA before—pair “newbies” with veterans at the SIPA Annual Conference. “By reducing the time commitment needed to fulfill this role, you’ll likely see interest in participation rise.”

Ask for feedback. “It’s imperative that you ask your new members for feedback, ideally around the six-month mark of their membership.” I would say even before that—maybe four months. By then you should get a good idea if they are engaged and what needs to be done.