Beyond Print Toolkit: Print subscriptions based on tenure

Publishers transitioning from print to digital must retain as many loyal subscribers as possible.

By Richard E. Brown

June 27, 2024

Two hands, one holding a credit card and another holding a credit card reader, in red circles on a blue background.
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Long-term print subscribers are often newspapers’ most loyal consumers, and it is crucial that publishers planning to transition from print to digital retain as many of those customers as they can to ensure the continued success of their businesses. The journey entails assessing the subscriber’s relationship with the print medium over the years, exploring platform strategy, adoption considerations, and potential conversion pathways for both print and digital subscribers.

In this intricate transition, your organization’s journalistic mission will guide your tactics and actions, with vetting and data analysis playing crucial roles in ensuring audience satisfaction and revenue growth.

Publishers must assess the tenure of print subscribers, ensure a baseline understanding and a comprehensive evaluation of subscriber lifetime value, and forecast costs associated with transitioning to a digital platform. Balancing the retention of current subscribers throughout this shift is vital, requiring a nuanced understanding of factors contributing to subscription longevity. 

Focusing on long-term print subscribers provides insights into subscriber loyalty, engagement habits, and preferences of your most ardent readers. This knowledge forms the gateway to defining consumer engagement strategies, emphasizing points of interest, and tailoring content to align with constant reader preferences. Ultimately, the strategic assessment of subscriber tenure becomes the cornerstone for shaping a clear and effective digital strategy, ensuring the successful navigation of this transformative journey from print to digital.

The essentials

Subscriber loyalty analysis

Initiate the print-to-digital transition by conducting a thorough survey to understand critical indicators influencing subscription loyalty. Gain insights into the motivations, timing, and factors behind varying levels of subscriber tenure. Explore why certain subscribers remain engaged for extended periods, delving beyond benefits and features. Uncover the reasons, whether tied to community support, generational preferences, or demographics. This comprehensive understanding becomes the strategic compass guiding subsequent actions. Addressing the “why” behind loyalty becomes pivotal in crafting your approach when transitioning from print to digital.

Subscription tenure and content preferences

Explore the relationship between subscription tenure and content preferences to refine your print-to-digital strategy by analyzing whether certain sections or specific coverage appeals to your longest term subscribers. Identifying these preferences shapes the transition strategy and provides insights into the factors driving subscriber loyalty — and increases the likelihood that print subscribers will make the transition to digital with you. This understanding becomes vital in tailoring the strategy, helping you identify and engage subscribers likely to remain committed for the long term. While content preferences are a familiar concept, integrating them with an assessment of subscription tenure is a powerful and strategic approach to developing an effective print-to-digital transition plan.

Retention incentives

As you assess subscriber tenure, consider implementing incentives for those who have been loyal over an extended period to encourage them to make the transition to digital. Exercise caution to avoid overzealousness, aiming for equitable and tasteful differentiation between incentives for various subscription levels and tenures. Some incentives could include exclusive subscriber-only coverage, access to online games and puzzles, coupons, or early access to tickets to local events.  An approach that celebrates the community effort in transitioning from print to digital reflects an appreciation for the enduring support from long-time subscribers. Remember to be cognizant of the cost of the incentive, and also assess how it might impact whether subscribers continue their subscription in the long-run.

Transition communication

As publications prepare to eliminate or reduce print frequency, it is imperative to pay special attention in how you communicate the news to long-term subscribers. Invaluable subscribers who have supported your organization for years embody your news organization’s brand. The key is to ensure that communication is authentic, heartfelt, and warm. Messages should express gratitude and appreciation consistently, highlight the significance of the journalistic mission, and clarify the reasons behind the move from print to digital

Subscribers with longer tenure necessitate delicate handling as they represent core supporters. Communication with them must be careful and meticulous, always mindful of their loyalty. Emphasize the benefits, features, and resources provided during the transition, and ensure communication remains empathetic and genuine, avoiding a pragmatic tone. Prioritize empathy and maintain a subscriber-centric approach throughout the transition process.

Monetization strategies

As the discussion progresses, the focus is on identifying a monetization strategy that ensures a justified return on investment for the website. While it’s true that many organizations include digital access with print subscriptions due to higher print margins, evaluating this approach is essential to ensure a seamless transition to a digital model. Any new product introduced should demonstrate a positive return on investment. Therefore, it’s crucial to assess if digital subscriptions add value to the subscriber’s lifetime value or generate additional direct ad sponsorship revenue or programmatic revenue from higher pageview volumes — and both can be true at the same time. Activation of print subscribers online can help you better understand its value proposition and its potential revenue generation capabilities after you reduce or eliminate print products.

Feedback infrastructure

As this journey progresses, establishing a feedback infrastructure becomes paramount. Collaborate closely with customer service personnel to understand the dynamics of introducing readers to digital products, subscription enhancements, and transitioning from print to digital. Regardless of the specific approach or strategy outlined, ensure that customer service comprehends the importance of gathering feedback and insights, especially from subscribers with longer tenure. Their feedback serves as a crucial indicator of the strategy’s effectiveness.

Prevent a scenario where long-tenured subscribers rapidly cancel their print or digital subscriptions. In such cases, the established feedback infrastructure should act as the first line of defense, swiftly identifying any red flags or issues that may indicate missteps in the approach or strategy. This feedback mechanism will provide valuable guidance and insights into how the strategy is perceived among some of the most loyal subscribers.

Key indicators

Before implementing any strategy, it is crucial to thoroughly examine which key performance indicators  to monitor. Start by understanding your current retention rates and the lifetime value of your subscribers. Throughout the print-to-digital transition, the overarching goal is to mitigate churn, maintain high retention rates, and ensure that the lifetime value of subscribers continues to grow.

In general, aiming for a first-year retention rate of around 50% is a good benchmark, with anything above indicating positive performance. Ideally, organizations should target a retention rate of 70% to 80% by the second year. It’s essential to assess retention rates on a rolling basis, tracking the percentage of subscribers acquired in the past year who remain active. This metric helps evaluate the effectiveness of onboarding communication strategies. Maintaining two forms of retention analysis — rolling retention for the first year and retention beyond two years — can help you monitor the effectiveness of your  acquisition and retention strategies. Paying close attention to long-term subscribers, who typically form a higher volume, ensures continued engagement and loyalty.

For example, the Denton Record-Chronicle initially lost about 10-12% of its print subscribers when it announced that it was eliminating print, but it was ultimately able to win many of them back over time.

Meanwhile, calculating the lifetime value of a subscriber is relatively straightforward. You determine the average tenure of your subscribers, or how long they stay active with your organization, and multiply it by the average revenue generated per subscriber, usually on a monthly basis. This calculation provides a key metric to monitor consistently throughout the transition process. Understanding the lifetime value helps gauge the number of longtime subscribers that need to be retained during the transition phase.

Pay close attention to how many print subscribers convert to digital readers, especially among longer-tenured subscribers, as their smooth transition to new content and subscription models is pivotal. Equally important is identifying engagement patterns, particularly in relation to subscription tenure. Analyze whether older, more tenured subscribers are actively engaging with digital content, serving as a benchmark for determining if your organization has developed the most effective, accessible, and reader-friendly platform.

Customer service feedback becomes a valuable source of insights, with a surge in subscriber issue tickets indicating potential challenges in the transition process. Finally, scrutinize overall revenue growth. A noticeable dip or stagnation in recurring revenue could signal issues that require immediate attention.

The primary objective is to enhance reader revenue, making these KPIs instrumental in steering the success of the print-to-digital strategy. Regularly monitoring and interpreting these indicators will guide strategic adjustments and ensure the desired enhancement of the overall reader experience.


Segment subscribers by tenure

Begin by categorizing subscribers based on their tenure. Group them into short-tenured (less than 6 months), mid-range (6-24 months), and long-term (24+ months) subscribers. Tailor communication test strategies for each group, recognizing the need for different approaches based on subscription length. The goal is a seamless transition for the maximum number of subscribers, with each group requiring a unique testing flow or methodology.

Personalize on-site communication

Test different strategies and personalized offerings tailored to the same subscriber groups based on tenure — experiment with promoting exclusive content online to increase engagement and retention, or consider customized offers, such as special subscription rates for long-term subscribers, to create a seamless and personalized experience for subscribers, encouraging longer-term commitment.

For instance, you could implement a bottom footer ribbon that remains visible as users scroll through the page, highlighting exclusive content or important information tailored to specific subscriber groups. For example, if certain subscriber groups enjoy traditional crossword puzzles in print, the ribbon could direct them to the online version. Placing this ribbon on article pages or the homepage creates a seamless transition for subscribers, making the digital experience more familiar and convenient.

Feedback loops

Establish a robust feedback loop to assess and adjust strategies based on real-time performance. Implement safety valves to turn off disruptive testing methods and set benchmarks for effectiveness. 

By establishing parameters based on the average volume, organizations can anticipate increases during the transition from print to digital platforms. These parameters could include triggers to pivot in real-time if the increase in complaints exceeds two or three times the average or if specific niches or tactics raise concerns. Disruptive testing involves implementing researched strategies that are likely to yield higher ROI and customer engagement, despite potentially disrupting the normal routine for subscribers or advertisers. However, it’s essential to have safety measures in place to mitigate any negative impacts on subscriber engagement or revenue. These safety parameters help organizations navigate necessary pain points and ensure a more promising and profitable outcome in the long run.

The feedback loop serves as a continuous improvement mechanism, allowing for identifying successful approaches and eliminating less effective ones, as a vigilant feedback loop contributes to a successful transition, fostering sustained engagement and revenue growth.


This guidance underscores the necessity of relying on data throughout the entire print-to-digital transition. Understanding various facets of print subscriber behaviors, tendencies, and statistics is crucial, with subscription tenure being a readily available and valuable identifier. Subscription tenure often correlates with subscriber loyalty and the likelihood of retention. When discussing the transition strategy, emphasizing the higher value associated with longer tenure is essential. Evaluating tenure involves a comprehensive assessment of available data, including surveys, to gather insights into subscriber preferences and motivations.

Optimize communication

After collecting relevant data, consider conducting small-scale A/B testing on different communication types and points. Clear, concise, empathetic communication that expresses gratitude for the subscriber’s long-term support is vital. The goal is to identify compelling communication elements that drive higher conversion rates, particularly concerning tenure. Test various verbiage and messaging strategies to understand what resonates more effectively with subscribers based on their tenure. Optimization throughout this process ensures the best user experience and sets the stage for a successful print-to-digital transition.

User experience and content optimization

Optimize the entire user experience and ensure that the new digital platform meets the demands of legacy print subscribers and has a high adoption rate. Work collaboratively with product leaders and subcommittees to develop  digital platforms and coverage that aligns with subscriber expectations. Given that subscription tenure plays a role in subscriber behavior, consider tailoring the platform’s features based on tenure-related preferences. Early engagement metrics can guide the prioritization of certain subscriber segments, potentially enhancing acquisition efforts for the new digital platform.

Navigating a print-to-digital transition while enhancing reader revenue, especially by focusing on the tenure of print subscribers, is a critical aspect that forms a broader picture of the entire journey. Tenure, which is often a bedrock indicator of subscriber loyalty, should never be underestimated. The key lies in leveraging this loyalty authentically while strategically transitioning into the digital realm. 

This process demands a thoughtful approach, requiring careful consideration of each step and decision. It’s crucial to slow down, ensuring a systematic execution that fosters a genuine and appreciative connection with subscribers. Although challenges may arise, a determined, patient approach often yields substantial growth. Immediate results aren’t always necessary; rather, a commitment to doing right by subscribers during the transition can lead to a flourishing relationship, bringing a significant return on investment over time. Our foundation is built on the enduring support of those who have been with us for years, where the story is not just read; it’s experienced, cherished, and shaped by the unwavering bond between a news organization and its readers.

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