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June 9, 2022updated 16 Nov 2022 5:54pm

Paywall strategies: How publishers can reduce subscriber churn

By Freddy Mayhew

Partner content*: How to reduce subscriber churn has become “one of the most pressing problems for publishers”,  leading digital subscriptions platform Evolok has warned.

More than 9m of the 23m subscribers to English-language news publications worldwide, as ranked by Press Gazette, are at risk of churn according to research by McKinsey, which estimates that 40% of subscribers go on to cancel and often do so early in their subscription period.

Evolok has published a new white paper offering Eight Steps to Minimise Churn and Maximise Retention for publishers looking to mitigate the attrition of paying readers (download here).

“Without addressing churn, content owners would risk entering a cycle of no net growth of subscribers, meaning they could be losing as many as they are acquiring therefore over time, growth is stagnated,” says Evolok co-founder Nina Juss.

“It is as important to focus on churn as it is acquisition, remember these users have decided to pay for a service so the hard part is done now the focus should be on retaining them.”

How publishers can reduce subscriber churn: Data insights are key

Understanding customer behaviour through data insights is key to avoiding churn.

“We know from analysing past behaviours how many articles a subscriber who averages X visits a week is likely to read, how likely one who reads Y articles is to sign up for special offers, and how in danger of churn is one who only visits Z times a month,” Evolok says in its white paper.

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“Armed with this data, a publisher is able to identify subscribers in danger of dropping off and act quickly to convert them back into an engaged customer.”

Using artificial intelligence tools to identify patterns of behaviour not just among a title’s subscribers but across large anonymous datasets from multiple publishers is something Evolok can provide for its clients, resulting in “increasingly accurate predictive analysis of customer segments”.

“These in turn lead to actionable, targeted interventions,” Evolok says. These same tools teamed with contextual data, e.g. location, can be used to improve content recommendation, making it more relevant to subscribers and increasing “consumer stickiness”.

“The key to any successful business in any industry in the digital era is using data to fully understand customer behaviour,” says Evolok in its white paper. “The volume of data that companies are able to capture on consumers, even within the limits of privacy legislation such as the GDPR, is immense.

“And once customers have subscribed to a service, their behaviour can be tracked and logged, so that a company knows what pages they are looking at, what order they tend to interact with content on a website, what content interests any individual reader, what they ignore, and more.”

Diversifying the way content is offered to subscribers – e.g. via web, social media or podcast – can help with understanding who they are and, in turn, how best to keep them happy.

Evolok says: “The more you can port your content across different platforms and channels, the more detailed the picture you can build up of your subscribers, analysing their behaviour in different contexts and environments to create ever-more detailed segments.

“Different media can also be packaged together as bundles to further encourage retention.”

How publishers can re-engage digital subscribers

In its white paper, the company suggests one way to re-engage a subscriber marked out as at risk of churn “is to offer them highly personalised offers and discounts that are tailored to their behaviour” as an incentive to stay, which can be sent by email or pop-up at the crucial moment.

Special offers and discounts to third-party products and services are an example of incentives that are already being used in other markets, such as in the Middle East. “The key is to add value to the subscription and provide offers that genuinely chime with your readership,” Evolok says.

“What will work and what won’t can be readily identified from the content consumption patterns on your platforms. What’s more, this sort of offer can usually be designed as part of a brand partnership deal, ensuring minimal expense and maximum impact.”

Games, such as crosswords and puzzles, are another way to keep digital subscribers coming back for more. The New York Times bought popular digital word game Wordle for an undisclosed sum “in the low seven figures”, the paper reported in January. It has since said the game has attracted “tens of millions” of new online users and has helped drive the best-ever quarter for its Games section.

In a statement on the acquisition of Wordle, which has millions of daily players, the NY Times said it “remains focused on becoming the essential subscription for every English-speaking person seeking to understand and engage with the world” and that games are a “key part of that strategy”.

The NY Times reported subscriber figures of 9.1m for the first quarter of 2022 – including those for The Athletic which is bought in February – of which about 8.3m are digital-only subscriptions.

Evolok says game-related content that inspires habitual visits in readers is “incredibly valuable and an excellent hedge against churn”. A points-based reward scheme offers another way to encourage “habitual engagement” with readers and incentives to keep away from the ‘unsubscribe’ button.

Events, from a short webinar to a multi-day exhibition, can also add value for subscribers – and even grow to become an important revenue stream in their own right. Evolok says investment in events “does not have to be dramatic”, with an online event targeting a “significant segment of your readership” reaping dividends far beyond the cost of hosting it.

Juss says that while there is no single biggest driver of churn – “simply put if customers are unhappy they leave” – failure to keep subscriber payment details updated, resulting in what’s known as “involuntary churn” through failed payments, is one of the most common.

This can be mitigated by identifying “all flows that lead to payment churn” and putting a system in place to issue notifications and updates that prompt subscribers to take action near the moment of subscription renewal or when a card has  expired.

Making payments easy and painless “needs to be a priority for publishers”, says Evolok.

*This article was sponsored by Evolok

Download Evolok’s free whitepaper Eight Steps to Minimise Churn and Maximise Retention for more on how to mitigate subscriber churn and keep subscription revenues healthy.

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