We’ve shared in recent posts how COVID-19 coincided with a surge in paid readership for publishers. But now that we're past that initial surge, it's important to understand how to optimize those revenue models to continue acquisition and retention success. In our recent Piano Academy event, an international lineup of publishers shared the performance they saw during the pandemic and how they’ve adjusted their strategies to keep subscribers a year later.
Early converters were more loyal
Marc Isler, Chief Revenue Officer at Swiss media company Tamedia, which increased digital subscribers by 41% in the pandemic, shared that monthly subscriptions acquired during the peak of coronavirus last March have proven to be more loyal than the signups that came later. This is antithetical to what logic might dictate about behavior early in the pandemic, when people had an urgent need to consume vast amounts of news given the direness of the situation.
“To be honest, I have no explanation yet for that,” Isler said. “I just see that probably the power users, they're really more engaged and signed up in the first period, and the other ones the late-comers, are not as loyal.”
We saw the same behavior on the Piano platform — less engaged users converted in that early pandemic period as opposed to the most loyal users. We believe one of the reasons they were converting as they were reading more was because they were hitting paywalls. Were the people in the summer somehow an outlier?
“Maybe some different marketing campaigns or some different acquisition methods or channels — we need to dive into channels,” Isler said.
Offers make a difference
Spanish online newspaper El Español, which changed its paywall rules amidst the pandemic, ran a two-month free trial in the summer and found that these users were less loyal than the ones who signed up in the spring.
Our data shows that the nature of an offer has a huge impact on retention. Non-trial monthly subscriptions have a median retention of 86% from the first month to the second. Even at a relatively low price, such as $1, paid trials retain 81% when the trial period is over. But free trials retain only 70% when users have to start paying, with a significantly lower lifetime value as a result. Looking again at one-year retention for monthly subscriptions with free trials, only 25% are left at the end of the year. This is in contrast to the 45% retained for non-trial subscribers and 41% for paid trials.
Creating content beyond coronavirus
All of the panelists agreed that testing new content topics in addition to formats has been key to keeping engagement past the initial COVID-19 bump.
“We are working on new content for them, niche content, like innovation and disruption, but as well as some other content that keeps them close to us, like entertainment content...we are developing new local information in regions and so on,” said Verónica Milo, Director of Product at EL ESPAÑOL. The publication has also introduced podcasts and a digital interview series with journalists.
Tamedia has focused on creating several newsletters, including one on streaming. And they’re also testing engagement with their formats.
“It's about sort of understanding slices of your audience,” Isler said. “And what appeals to each of those slices and doing experiments in terms of content, or other kinds of benefits that appeal to different parts of that audience.”
For Svein-Erik Hole, Head of Digital at Norwegian engineering magazine Teknisk Ukeblad, whose digital subscriptions grew by 50% over the course of the pandemic, cartoons and crossword puzzles are unique content areas his B2B publication has employed.
“Anything that can build habits and increase engagement is good,” he said.
One of the things that Piano sees in our churn model is that habit can make or break a subscriber when it comes to both a certain number of active days and also making multiple payments. The more times a user paid, the more likely they are to keep paying. The more times they visited, the more likely they are to keep visiting, both in terms of acquisition and churn.
Metrics that matter
How are these publishers measuring if new formats or features they’ve tried are working?
“Well, that depends on the feature,” Milo said. “For instance, when we are talking about the development of this loyalty club, we are looking at some KPIs like, you know, the reference of users coming to the site or the increase in participation in promotions. But if we are speaking about new vertical lines...we are looking at the RFV request, frequency on volume.”
Tamedia uses recency, frequency and volume to measure engagement. One of their findings is that opening click rates on daily newsletters has a strong correlation with subscription probability.
“We mostly use it for correlation analysis at different phases of the user journey to understand the sub-segments’ behavior. For example, which users to focus on to re-engage and things like that. Then we integrated it into our email marketing journeys, split-testing user groups, base models. And then we also look at the interaction behavior over email newsletter.”
For more on how to maintain post-COVID-19 subscription surges, read our article “How publishers are maximizing retention after the COVID-19 subscription surge” in Digiday.