Churn! Churn! Churn! (To every subscriber there is a reason)
8 min read

Churn! Churn! Churn! (To every subscriber there is a reason)

New data on digital subscribers has publishers worried. They don't have to be.
Churn! Churn! Churn! (To every subscriber there is a reason)

A song to read by: “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To everything there is a season),” by The Byrds

What I’m reading: “The Sympathizer,” by Viet Thanh Nguyen


The zombies are alright

As often happens when writing about the media industry, an alarming statistic recently sent me into a spiral of brief despair. “Nearly half of digital subscribers are zombies,” the headline reads, according to research conducted by Northwestern University’s Medill Spiegel Research Center.

A “zombie,” the article explains, refers to a paying subscriber who visits a website they patronize less than once a month. The study used anonymized data from 45 news outlets of varying sizes, and its finding — that 49% of digital subscribers hardly use their subscription at all — sent tiny shockwaves through a small part of the media-tech community.

The thinking went: If news organizations are building their financial futures on digital subscribers, but many of these subscribers signed up for a publication whose services they seem to have forgotten about, are these media companies building their houses on financial sand?

Quickly, though, a significant caveat emerged. The dreaded 49% figure refers to users with combined digital-and-print subscriptions; in many cases, these subscribers prefer the physical newspaper but the digital offering was thrown in to sweeten the deal.

When analysts sifted the data to filter out these combo subscribers, the percentage of zombie subscribers dropped. Only about 20% of digital-only subscribers turned into zombies — an alarming number, to be sure, but less catastrophic.

Still, the research suggests a growing trend I have seen across the industry. Last year was a terrible 12 months for everyone on the planet, but it was good for the digital subscription business. In the midst of near-perpetual uncertainty and cataclysmic strife, a lot of people rushed to pay someone to keep them in the know.

As a result, if 2020 was about subscriber acquisition, then 2021 is about subscriber retention.

Now that publications are stuffed to the brim with new subscribers, their new concern is keeping those paying readers happy.

The Medill findings sent such a reverberation because the data suggested that a significant percentage of these new subscribers could, at any point, remember that old subscription they had planned to cancel. If they did so, they could eliminate between 20% - 50% of a publication’s hard-fought reader revenue overnight, and many of the publications who thought they’d found a silver bullet in digital subscribers would be found fooled, once again.

Freshly alarmed, publishers have found themselves asking with a renewed vigor: How do we prevent churn?

Hold on tightly

In the thralls of what I can only describe as a masochistic whim, I recently found myself reading some sponsored content. To my immense surprise, I found it not only enlightening but downright entertaining. While I am unsure of whether this is good or bad, the article left me with some very up-to-date information about how publishers are fighting churn.

The article in question was penned by Piano, a digital business platform for publishers, and hosted on Digiday. Here it is, if you want to read an example of some impressively readable spon-con.

Michael D. Silberman, the senior vice president of strategy at Piano, raps off a list of statistics that paint a picture of just how significant of a year 2020 was for digital subscriptions.

Silberman writes, “For example, over the last month, The New York Times grew active news subscriptions by 48%, and Insider has doubled its subscriber base to just over 100,000 in the previous year. At Piano, our data shows even higher growth — a median increase in active subscribers of nearly 58% from the end of 2019 to the end of 2020.”

He then proceeds to offer a handful of techniques that publications should put to use in trying to keep subscribers happy.

First, he suggests, slash that annual discount a little deeper. When potential subscribers are choosing a payment plan, they usually receive the option to pay a monthly rate or an annual rate. Publishers generally discount the annual rate, because receiving an upfront chunk of cash is more beneficial than a monthly stipend. Plus, Silberman writes, a monthly subscription means 12 opportunities to cancel.

So, instead of discounting your annual subscription by 17%, cut it by 30%. You make less money in the short term, but annual subscribers have higher retention rates, which means more revenue in the long run.

Second, Silberman encourages publishers to be sparing with free trials. Even if the trial only costs $1 for the first month, such conditions lead to higher retention rates than those of completely free trials: 81% compared to 70%.

Third, he advocates for a comprehensive onboarding program. When a new user subscribes, the publication should present them with a smorgasbord of ways to get involved with their new subscription: newsletters to sign up for, apps to download, social media to follow, podcasts to listen to, etc.

In my experience, publishers have made leaps and bounds of progress on this front. For a fun experiment, go sign up for a trial subscription to Quartz, The New York Times, or The Information and experience firsthand the rolling out of the subscriber red carpet.

Publishers have leapt on this method in particular because churn rate is highest in its first month, at 80%. In another study I read this week, thanks to the unbearably nerdy RQ1 newsletter, researchers referenced a Wall Street Journal study that found that new subscribers either develop consumption routines immediately, or not at all. (Here’s the study.)

To get readers plugged in and oriented, Silberman recommends putting on the ritz for them: a welcome email from the editor-in-chief (!), corralling them onto the app, sending them merchandise, asking what they want, etc.

Finally, Silberman suggests “targeting high-risk users with rescue tactics,” a melodramatic way of saying: Reengage with lapsed readers. The article sorts likely lapsers into three buckets: sleeper, passive churners, and active churners, and it suggests bespoke tactics for each. The moral of the story: When someone has stopped visiting the website, reach out and try to get them to return.

The “Burglar Alarm” theory

What do all of these suggestions have in common? They, along with the Medill findings, draw an unmistakable link between routine reading and retention. The more often someone visits the website of a news organization to which they have subscribed, the more likely they are to continue subscribing, the data suggests.

This assertion has been supported by a mountain of research, from another Medill study whose subtitle reads “Building habit — not page views — matters most for keeping subscribers.” The hypothesis also passes the no-duh test: People using a product routinely are likelier to keep paying for it, compared to those who use it less or not at all.

However, while building habit in a reader might be the best way to retain subscribers, it might not be the only way.

If you listen only to Silberman or Medill, you would be right to freak out at the thought of zombie subscribers. If routine equals retention, and half of your subscribers have no routine, then that retention will likely be short-lived.

But another theory caused me to think differently about the problem.

In 2003, the academic John Zaller wrote “A New Standard of News Quality: Burglar Alarms for the Monitorial Citizen,” in which he proposed that news organizations should function like burglar alarms. When the clouds of crisis appear to be forming, the news media should sound the alarm to its readers, making them unmistakably aware of their need to take action.

The rest of the time? People should be free to focus their attention elsewhere.

“Citizens, like parents, are entitled to multidimensional lives,” Zaller wrote. “More than most political intellectuals, Schudson acknowledges that there are things citizens might want to do with their time — virtuous things — besides engage in politics.”

In other words, to Zaller’s mind, subscribers to a newspaper can ignore it until they need not to.

Some people are predisposed to read the news on a daily basis, while others are not. So long as the publication serves both their purposes when the time is appropriate, two very different kinds of consumption patterns are both satisfied.

While Zaller was writing far in advance of digital subscriptions, the erosion of advertising revenue, and the increasing strains on the attention economy, he makes a fundamentally accurate assessment of human behavior: that it differs.

Correlating engagement with retention is a phenomenal rule of thumb, but not the only one. People subscribe for different reasons, meaning a lack of routine use is not the kiss of death some statisticians make it out to be.

The message is the message

For publishers, my recommendation is simple: Continue working to build habit in readers, but diversify your value propositions. Many readers will stick around only if they find the product useful on a daily basis, but others subscribe for different reasons.

An inactive subscriber is only a liability if  the only value proposition you have presented is activity.

Indeed, there are other ways to motivate subscribers to continue paying for journalism.

A mission-based appeal, for instance, can move the needle for public service or cause-related publications, leading readers to support the work through a subscription because they want to aid the cause, not read the writing.

Pragmatic appeals, such as reminders of real-world change that came as a result of a publication’s journalism, can work wonders to encourage subscriptions. “Our journalism led the city council to cut this program” or “Our journalism kept 10,000 Texans informed when their power went out,” for instance. These too can keep supporters doling out whether they read or not.

Value propositions can be esoteric in nature, too. Status-based appeals can drive subscriptions, as is evidenced by the ubiquity of New Yorker tote bags. Are you telling me you’re not subscribed to NYT Cooking? What do you eat?

These bleed naturally into access-based appeals: If everyone is going to The Texas Tribune Festival, and the only way to go is through a subscription, that kind of value could keep subscribers coming back year after year, but they might not be visiting the website.

The point is: In the same way publications must employ a diversity of revenue sources, they must also employ a diversity of value propositions. You don’t know which one will work.

Publishers should be reminding readers of all the different ways they improve their lives, because doing so will prove more effective than assuming that all readers subscribe to achieve the same end.

My parents, for instance, are slow to subscribe but quick to unsubscribe if their consumption tapers off.

I, on the other hand, subscribe to a number of publications so I can read the articles my friends are referencing; because I believe in the importance of local journalism; because I am a media reporter; and because I believe in their missions. For different publications, different value propositions.

Of course, this is not an excuse for publications to slack off or grow lazy: developing regular patterns of use remains the best way to ensure retention. But it isn’t the only way, so why limit yourself to just one method of persuasion?


Some good readin’

— I spoke with Zach Seward and Katherine Bell, the CEO and EIC of Quartz, about their plans for the second iteration of the publication. (Adweek)

— Talk about an new-age model for reader retention! Decrypt pays it readers, using its own utility tokens, for their engagement. (Digiday)

— This week’s Ben Smith piece nearly popped my eyeballs out of my head! Ben Smith, writing about Kaitlin Phillips, Ella Emhoff, Sam Hine, Jeremy O. Harris, Rachel Tashjian, Caroline Calloway, and Cat Marnell???? In what alternate universe were these two worlds ever supposed to collide? (The New York Times)

— The ESSENTIAL article on why Bitcoin, Ethereum, NFTs, blockchain and all the rest are a non-starter based on their environmental impact. (everest pipkin)


Cover image: “Composition No. III, with Red, Blue, Yellow, and Black,” by Piet Mondrian