How US local news organizations are planning to retain readers after the COVID-19 pandemic

With the COVID-19-driven surge in digital subscriptions slowing or abating entirely, a key question for publishers’ future profitability turns on one thing: how many of these subscribers will stick around?

During 2019 and early 2020, 16 major American metropolitan news organizations worked on retention in the Facebook Journalism Project’s Retention Accelerator program. Together they tested retention strategies and best practices through the program’s mix of one-on-one coaching, in-person gatherings and peer-to-peer sharing over Slack.

The publishers generated more than $3.9 million in lifetime value for their organizations, according to analysis of the grant reports provided to our Accelerator partner, The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, which administers the grants and helps share lessons from the program. That includes more than 12,000 subscribers saved directly as a result of different grant initiatives.

Along the way, they generated plenty of insights on what works and what doesn’t to retain subscribers. Though there are many ways to reduce subscriber churn, here are three key ideas drawn from these publishers’ experiences during COVID-19:

  • Start building the most important habits right from the beginning
  • Understand your retention curve
  • Hammer out the hiccups in your billing system

Let’s walk through each.

How are you driving habituation among your new subscribers?

The good news is your COVID-bump subscribers are already reading you like crazy. But what habits are you helping them build that will keep going after the crisis abates?

The answer begins with your onboarding sequence: the actions you take in the weeks after you’ve acquired a new paying subscriber.

“Publishers recognized that effective onboarding, previously focused on the first few weeks of a subscribers tenure, is actually a months-long focus that simply transitions from onboarding to ongoing subscriber engagement,” said Ray Pearce, a former New York Times executive and coach in the program.

Specifically, many Accelerator publishers focused on the first 100 days of a new subscriber’s tenure to build habits that predict a loyal, long-term subscriber. This requires a clear understanding of what separates a loyal reader from a churn risk within your existing paying readers, and then putting that insight to work in your onboarding series.

Here are some specific examples from Accelerator publishers:

  • Drive newsletter readership. The most commonly reinforced habit for Accelerator publishers: get paying subscribers to read your newsletters. The Los Angeles Times discovered its best retaining subscribers are signed up for at least two newsletters. It’s now recommending newsletters to readers based on other newsletters they’re already reading as well as the specific content they read.
  • Explain and reinforce the subscription’s key benefits. If your readers don’t know the benefits of your subscription, it’s as if they don’t exist. Gannett, through its Arizona Republic newsroom, helped new subscribers understand all the goodies in their new subscription through a 13-part email series. Built on pillars of “inspire, inform, educate, and build habit,” the Gannett team gave readers a steady cadence of information and explanation to give new readers a guided walk-through of all that’s available to them.
  • What journey is your reader on? Now that you’ve laid down the things that generally work for most readers, it’s time to segment your subscribers and build experiences for the most important groups. The Los Angeles Times has launched several automated campaigns using email and site prompts to engage existing subscribers, registered users, newsletter subscribers, multi-visit users and recent unsubscribers. As Kelcie Pegher, audience engagement editor, explains:These journeys are automatically triggered, meaning a subscriber will begin a journey based on certain “triggers” which can include:
    • Subscription tenure — for example: new subscribers are now automatically receiving phase 1 of our Welcome Series, which is a grouping of email communication to onboard them.
    • Engagement — for example: a subscriber who has dropped in engagement based on their historical behavior patterns may be entered into a re-engagement journey that consists of emails and social posts to invite them back to the site and re-engage them.
    • Subscription type — for example: print subscribers who have not activated digital will receive messaging to encourage them to activate, or “win backs,” those who have recently unsubscribed who we extend a special offer to, to try and win them back, or even those who have registered, with the goal of nurturing a relationship with them and ultimately converting them to a paying subscriber.
  • Be personal. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has someone responsible for replying to readers who reach out to the organization in response to its onboarding campaign. “I probably talk to 5 to 10 new subscribers a week,” said Bob Rose, VP of digital content and strategy. “They are surprised there is a person behind the welcome email.”

Want even more inspiration for your onboarding experience? You can see a diverse group of onboarding experiences at UserOnboard.com.

Your retention curves, not just monthly churn rates, are the key to fixing your churn pains.

Understanding when your readers are likely to churn and the difference in churn rates based on different offers (deep discounts versus standard pricing; monthly versus annual; etc.) is key to seeing where you can improve retention.That’s going to look something like this:

In this example, we can see retention curves for different publishers in this Accelerator. At an individual publisher, each of those curves would correspond to a group of subscribers such as annual subscribers, monthly subscribers and those who entered on a discount offer.By tracking the curves, you can see where readers start to drop off and implement plans to stop them.

  • The Philadelphia Inquirer went from looking at churn rate month by month to creating full-blown multi-year retention curves. They now follow specific cohorts of readers on specific subscription offers and study when they fall off. “We’re trying to understand exactly what variables make our long-term retention rates go up or down,” said Liz Menna, manager of digital marketing. What variables are they following?
    • Promotion price
    • Subscriber engagement
    • How often subscribers visit the website
    • Type of content consumed
    • Active newsletter consumption
    • Price increases or price testing
    • Perceived value of product
    Taking into account all these variables, we’re trying to figure out how to isolate each one and truly understand if they’re influencing our retention rates. And if so, how? And an even bigger question: are these the right categories to be focusing on?

“Retention is a hugely complex animal,” said Tim Griggs, the Accelerator’s executive director and an independent consultant/advisor and former New York Times and Texas Tribune executive. “News organizations have a tendency to focus on acquisition at the expense of retention, in part because mitigating churn is so difficult. It also can take a very long time to see results, so it’s even more critical to focus on the data that matters most, including segmenting churn in all sorts of ways that can lead to actionable insights.”

Fixing your billing is boring lucrative.

If you don’t know how long your grace period is — or what a grace period is — you’re probably losing subscribers that could be sticking around.

That’s because the dynamics of your billing system are extremely important to improving your retention. Thirty percent of media cancellations come from payment failures, on average, according to ProfitWell CEO Patrick Campbell, a frequent Accelerator speaker. Of those payment failures, seven in ten are gone forever — and some companies will lose all but one for good.

“For a lot of publishers, fixing billing problems should be at the top of the list of retention opportunities,” Griggs said. “That means implementing best practices in account updater settings, optimizing the length of grace periods, fixing the timing of ‘recycling attempts’ (when and how often to attempt a credit card transaction), adding on-site billing notifications, offering alternative payment types, and knowing when/how to reach out to customers.”

What are a few of those best practices?

  • Extend your grace period. How long do you give subscribers to pay you before you cancel them? Extending the period of “grace” affords publishers (and the software systems they’ve implemented) more time to successfully charge what would otherwise be a failed transaction, and more time to communicate directly to readers who are about to lapse. At The Seattle Times, the combination of longer grace periods and a sharper credit card updater processes cut their cancellation rate from non-payment by 21% to the lowest in their history. At The Dallas Morning News, similar changes resulted in a 44% improvement in credit card-driven cancellations in a single month.

Which leads us to something you definitely should not do.

  • Do not send emails asking readers to fix their credit cards before a subscription expires. While well-intentioned, these emails create a 11-18 percent increase in active cancellations, according to ProfitWell’s research. Instead, extend your grace period to allow credit card updating technologies more attempts to reconnect things seamlessly. Resort to emails and on-site prompts only after the credit card fails and the customer’s subscription has entered its grace period.

A word of thanks

All of the publishers in this Accelerator worked extremely hard on initiatives that crossed organizational silos and, in some cases, took months to implement. Their wisdom is hard won and we are so grateful for their work.

If you’d like to be in touch with any of the publishers mentioned in this article, or if you have any questions, please email [email protected]. We would be happy to connect you to others fighting hard to secure local journalism’s future.

Results provided by the publishers.


The Accelerator Program
The Facebook Journalism Project’s Accelerator program helps news publishers build sustainable businesses. Funded and organized by the Facebook Journalism Project (FJP), each Accelerator includes a three-month period of hands-on workshops led by news industry veterans, grants administered by non-profit journalism organizations, and regular reports on best business practices. The Accelerator’s executive director is Tim Griggs, an independent consultant/advisor and former New York Times and Texas Tribune executive.

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