By Nina Juss, co-founder at global digital subscription platform Evolok

With the UK heading into potentially the longest recession on record this winter, it’s little wonder that industry insiders are warning of a “car crash” in the £720bn global advertising market next year.

Even the buoyant digital subscription economy, expected to reach $1.5T by 2025, will be caught in the crosswinds of spiralling costs, reduced household spending and squeezed media budgets. For English-language publishers, who now boast more than 23m digital news subscriptions between them, this means working harder than ever to dodge subscriber churn; which McKinsey estimates to be as high as 40%.

There is, however, good news amid the turmoil. If media brands can leverage the power of a dynamic paywall, with granular-level insight on user behaviour, they can identify the precise risk point at which a subscriber in a particular segment is vulnerable to churn. This, in turn, can be used to shape a more meaningful and resilient subscription strategy that keeps audiences engaged with a raft of highly tailored content.

Use targeted interventions

Hordes of publishers have found success with what Justin Smith, CEO of global news publisher Semafor describes as “a sea change in subscription” over the past five years. But in a model where brands fought churn even before Covid, the industry must increasingly find answers in an evolving armoury of tech.

Chief among these tools is AI analysis, which can be used to drill down subscriber behaviour in forensic detail; looking at everything from how someone interacts with particular content, to what they ignore, which times of day they tune into a platform and more. This can then be compared with large, anonymous datasets across a cross-section of publishers to more accurately predict customer habits.

The larger and more descriptive these learnings are, the more they can fuel actionable, targeted interventions. For example, as a publisher, if you know from data readings how likely someone in a given segment is to unsubscribe – based on whether or not they redeem a special offer, or how frequently per month they engage – you can be proactive in re-capturing their attention.

Create tailored incentives

With reports from the INMA and other research bodies showing that converting infrequent or “zombie” subscribers is central to sustainable growth, the next step for publishers is to craft highly personalised retention incentives.

For example, business bible Quartz has premium newsletters based around specific verticals, including The Forecast and Weekend Brief, that paying members can access. Publishers could also analyse user behaviours to offer free games, free access to another title in a group of magazines, a subscriber discount or a special offer from a brand whose ad an individual has recently clicked on. This kind of third-party partnership might also entail money-can’t-buy access, such as a preview stay at a new hotel, or an exclusive restaurant tasting menu.

Get your timing right

Using razor-sharp data analysis, publishers can draw patterns in both broad and intricate ways. For example, examining contextual detail such as subscriber location, time of day, or even the current weather forecast, can be a great way of matching individual users to a roster of real-time content recommendations.

There are so many ways to enhance and interpret behaviours here, using the lens of anything from national holidays to how a certain age group responds to different formats (a 2022 Ipsos survey shows Gen Z prefer hours-long video content rather than bite-size offerings; a valuable insight that publishers could test via their own datasets).

This kind of consumer stickiness is also found through presenting content on a multitude of channels, from LinkedIn to podcasts and beyond. The more publishers can build a picture of audience interactions within a myriad of platforms, the more agile and responsive they can be. To further drive retention, it’s possible to package different media together, too.

Avoid easy blunders

Fine-tuning content to user behaviour, then, is vital in preventing churn; but a more basic challenge lies in streamlining payment options. Failed transactions account for nearly 50% of subscription churn, according to FlexPay CEO Darryl Hicks, with “back-office optimization” the fix for this astonishingly widespread problem.

Publishers need to make subscriptions as easy as possible to maintain and renew. Auto renewals are the ideal route to follow, but where this isn’t possible, any additional hurdles – for example, requiring people to enter a password – should be avoided or simplified; for example, via the use of a One Time Password via text. It’s also important to have a system whereby users are prompted to update their payment methods when a card expires.

Think outside the box

There’s a reason why the New York Times spent so much money on acquiring Wordle. The humble crossword has survived the migration to digital platforms, and this – along with other game-related content – can inspire habitual visits, creating a lucrative buffer against churn.

Events are another helpful way to tempt users away from the “unsubscribe” button. Brands can manifest the appeal of different content niches with curated shopping experiences, workshops or seminars (including online pop-ups). In 2019, women’s lifestyle website Stylist opened a London-based fitness studio coupled with a subscriber content platform packed with workouts, nutritious recipes and expert tips.

Points-based schemes are another anti-churn tactic, with subscriber points available for a range of user activities, such as subscription renewal or referring friends.

Above all, a great subscription service is one that can not only intuit its users’ needs – but also build on the spark or sense of passion that has prompted someone to subscribe in the first place. How can you further incentivise subscribers, helping them get under the skin of your brand to engage more fully with the content and producers that they love?

As fiscal pressures wax and wane, publishers can draw on incrementally gathered data to retain even the most fickle of subscribers. The key is to unlock incentives that are tailored, creative and that add genuine value to audiences – taking into account the exact reasons why a particular kind of content resonates with them. Pair this with smart tech to predict the behaviours behind that engagement, and churn will naturally reduce its sway.

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