For many years now, ever more print publishers have been offering digital subscriptions. Historically, digital media revenue was mostly generated from ad revenue but, since approximately 10 years, most of these revenues have been captured by new numerical platforms such as Facebook or Google.

Around 2010, only a few select publishers  did so in France when it’s now the case for most. This change occurred in not even 10 years and the creation of paywalls on various digital properties of legacy publications is the symbol of this change. Looking for any proofs? In 2019, 95% of daily newspapers had launched a digital subscription offer. And it’s still evolving with ever more  magazines, regional newspapers, trade publications and generally all types of content producers (written content, audio, video…).

Switching from an ad-model to a subscription model is a core change for media. It means switching from 10-20 years of analysing digital performance based on impressions, audience size and visibility of articles to a subscription model based on the relationship with users, their engagement, their loyalty. More than a mere way to measure, this affects the whole organisation up to the employees incentives which still remain based on these volume indicators.

There’s no magic wand or example to follow to have a successful development strategy of digital subscriptions. It isn’t enough to create a paywall on your website and copy the strategy of The New York Times to reach 50k online subscribers in two years. Each newspaper has its own history, audience, brand, contents, objectives… therefore the way to develop digital subscriptions and revenue will be unique to each publisher. What’s the consequence of all of this? In order to manage your acquisition strategy of digital subscribers, you will have to measure, understand and little by little adjust your own recipe. Measurement and understanding will have to remain at the core of this strategic shift.

In concrete terms, what’s the use of this guide?

This guide results from our experience with 70 publishers who were faced with the same questions. It therefore aims at giving you tools to manage the performance of your engagement and acquisition strategy. You won’t find THE answer here, but key notions to measure, understand and manage your relationship to your readers. The indicators that are introduced throughout this guide can be summed up along these five lines.

1.       Value proposition

2.       Visibility of the subscription offer

3.       Engagement of users

4.       Conversion funnel (engagement, subscription)

5.       Stick rate and control of churn

1.       Content – a core element of value proposition

Value proposition is at the heart of the development strategy of digital subscriptions. For a 2019 reader, access to information isn’t a value that’s satisfactory enough. If the value proposition of a publication isn’t clearly set out, then why would a reader engage with this publication and subscribe to its content afterwards? The core of value proposition lies in content. Each content on your website must fulfil a set aim. Digital subscription becoming a priority doesn’t mean that you must only favour articles that generate last click conversion. A reader doesn’t subscribe on his first visit (without churn), it’s a whole process. From the first visit to the conversion, your content must fulfil different aims and accompany readers in their daily lives.

  • Attract users
  • Engage them with your brand
  • Convert users into subscribers
  • Reduce churn rate and maximise the Life-Time Value (LTV)

Here’s our selection of indicators on measuring the performance of content.

Indicator A

Articles that generate (new) traffic

  • Which articles generate the most page views?
  • Which articles or sections attract new users?

Note: Once a major indicator, this indicator is currently being overlooked by some publishers for other indicators introduced below. Yet, this indicator remains essential - each publisher must attract new users and generate traffic, because that’s where the base of the engagement funnel resides.

Indicator B

Articles leading to engagement

  • Which articles or sections generate most engagement?
  • Which articles are mostly read by returning visitors?
  • Which articles generate the most time spent on the website?
  • Which articles generate returning visitors?

Note: the concept of engagement is unique to each publisher. For some, the time spent will be important. For others, the frequency of visit will be essential. But most importantly, think about what your readers look for when they browse your website – have a good time? learn? get some information? the concept of engagement is directly linked to that.

Indicator C

Articles leading to purchasing behaviours

  • Which articles or sections generate most last click conversions?
  • Which articles or sections generate most conversions in the last session before subscribing?
  • Which articles generate purchasing behaviours from readers such as visiting the online shop, unlocking an article, taking a free discovery pass?

Indicator D

Articles mostly read by subscribers

  • Which articles are mostly read by subscribers?
  • On which articles do subscribers spend more time?
  • Which articles generate most engagement for your subscribers?

All these indicators will allow you to understand the role and value of each of your content pieces and their own use for your business model, be it for the subscription or for other sources of revenue.

2.       Visibility of the subscription offer via paid contents

A value proposition clearly set out, a strong brand and an engaged audience don’t necessarily mean a successful digital subscription. One of the indicators to take into account at this stage is visibility and clarity of the subscription offer. Content being at the core of the product, readers must understand and realise in concrete terms what it means to subscribe to your brand (even though it’s also a subjective and subconscious process). For a publication, enhancing the visibility of the offer means showcasing its paid content articles (on the home page, on the recommended content section and so on) AND the paywall that readers will see pop up when they’re reading an article designed for subscribers only. This second point is all the truer for publishers who designed a metered paywall like The New York Times.

Why is the visibility of content essential to the subscription process and stick rate?

1.       First, because it allows subscribers to understand why they are subscribed and should remain so. This will impact the control of churn, that is to say the ability of publishers to win their readers’ loyalty on the long-term.

2.      Because paid contents have an important value for your future subscribers, this will enable non-subscribed readers to visualise the reasons to subscribe.

3.      Lastly, the more a reader is confronted to a paywall, the more they’ll get used to seeing your message(s) so your value proposition which sets out a clear reason to subscribe.

Here’s our selection of indicators concerning the visibility of subscription offers.

Indicator A

Visibility of paid contents

  • Which articles are mostly read by your readers: premium articles? Free articles?
  • Is your paid offer highlighted enough?

*Visibility of premium contents (sample datas)

Premium articles: 22.2%

Free articles: 77.8%

Note: Working alongside with 70 publishers, we noticed that, naturally, there is a direct correlation between the % of traffic on paid contents and subscriptions. It’s also completely doable to increase the visibility of paid contents without having to increase the number of articles available. You can highlight paid articles on the home page, in the newsletters and the recommended search for instance.

Indicator B

The behaviour of your readers regarding this paid offer

How do your readers behave regarding paid contents?

  • Do they leave your website?
  • Do they browse the page presenting subscription offers?
  • Do they go to another page?

*Readers’ behaviours when confronted to the paid offer (sample datas)

Scenario where readers visit the subscription page: 0.8%

Scenario where readers leave the website: 34.5%

Scenario where readers stay on the website: 64.7%

Note: With this indicator, you will be able to measure whether the paywall pressure has an impact on the behaviour of your readers as well as the attractiveness of your subscription offer.

Indicator C

Does the correlation between “% traffic to paid contents vs total PVs” and subscription apply to me?

It’s not because we think it does that it necessarily applies to you! Just measure it and see it for yourself.

3. Audience engagement

Your brand is set out, you have a strong audience, your value proposition is defined, and your paid content offer is highlighted. There’s still a missing element to create the base of a successful business model: engagement. For the subscription business model, the concept of user engagement will be essential. Once again, this concept will be specific to each publication and to what publishers have already noticed. For some, the switching point from a volatile user to an engaged user is more linked to frequency, for others to the depth of the visit itself.

Here’s our selection of indicators regarding users’ engagement.

Indicator A

Measuring users’ engagement on devices

  • On which devices are users most engaged? Mobile, desktop, apps?
  • How does the engagement rate evolve on each of these devices?

*Engagement score (sample datas)

October 2018, January 2019, April 2019, July 2019

  • desktop & tablet
  • mobile devices

Note: the engagement score is the result of an internal calculation on the media’s behalf. Historically, the RFV segmentation (R for recency, F for frequency, V for volume) was used in e-commerce. Then, this segmentation was adapted and put in practice in all sectors in which the behaviour of clients can be measured, including in the media industry. Once put in practice, this method is, however, only relevant if the scoring and the answer to solicitations are strongly correlated.

Indicator B

Measuring engagement rate broken down by readers’ type

  • How are users divided up according to the frequency of visit?
  • How does each of these segments evolve in time?

*1 visit per month 2-5 visits per month 6-10 visits per month

71.8% of your visitors 17.3% of your visitors 6% of your visitors

12:19 minutes per visitor  42:57 minutes per visitor  2:32 hours per visitor

8.2 pages seen per visitor  20.1 pages seen per visitor 91.5 pages seen per visitor

Note 2: This indicator is particularly relevant on a large period length to measure how groups of users evolve from one month to the next. If you can correlate this indicator to your marketing campaigns to understand what can make a user evolve from a group to another, then it’s even more relevant.

Indicator C

Measuring the engagement rate thanks to content type

  • Which contents create the most engagement?
  • Are these contents aligned with the value proposition and content strategy?
  • If not, what contents or sections must be prioritized? (Contents, highlights…)

*Engagement score per section (sample datas)

International, Sports, Health, Economy, Minor News Item, USA

Indicator A

Engagement behaviour and conversion

  • In a general manner, is there a link between conversion and engagement?
  • Is there, for instance, a link between frequency of visit and conversion?
  • Is there, for instance, a link between the time spent on the website and conversion?
  • What’s the average time in days between the first browse of the website and conversion?

Note: The aim here is to find out the tipping point, that is to say the moment where a number of small, successive behavioural changes become important enough to create a more important change still (in this example, a subscription). Some publishers have, for instance, realised that 90% of conversions came from readers that browsed their website more than 10 times a month. In this example, a publisher can adapt the engagement and conversion strategy according to the frequency of visit.

Indicator B

Weak signals and conversion

● Is there a link between the subscription to your newsletter and conversion?

● Is there a link between the creation of an account and conversion?

● Is there a link between comment and conversion?

● Is a visitor who did any of the above more likely to convert than an anonymous reader?

Note : a subscriber will generally go through different steps of engagement with your brand before converting, that’s what we are referring to as the “weak signals”. If you notice a correlation between weak signals and conversion, then you’ll be able to understand the ways to optimize conversion on your website. Thus, you can set intermediary goals to reach and not alone the final aim of subscription.

4 – Subscription and engagement funnel

Your value proposition is set out, your content matches this value proposition and your offer is visible for your readers who are increasingly engaged with your website. In theory, it’s all good. In practice however, you must pay attention to how your readers behave and this, not only during your subscription funnel, but all along their life cycle on your website.

Indicator number 1

How many readers on your website are exposed to your paywall at least once a month?

Is the paywall visible on the reader’s screen?

Indicator number 2

How many readers come across the subscription offer page at least once a month?

Indicator number 3

How many readers convert for each step of the subscription funnel?

Note: this section of indicators will be useful to understand how most readers behave on your website but, before all, this will help you understand where you can find the biggest potential to develop digital subscriptions. Because you may well have the world best subscription offer and conversion funnel, if no reader is confronted to your paywall, it won’t succeed. And vice versa. You’ll have to follow how these ratios evolve with time and correlate them to changes that will be implemented in your strategies and on your digital devices.

Note: While measuring the engagement funnel to measure conversion remains important, measuring the engagement funnel also applies to other aims such as generating new members (especially when they correspond to weak signals as previously seen).

5 - Bonus: controlling churn and stick

Minimising churn and maximising the average value of a subscriber are two big challenges that await media in the next five years. This said, it’s already a central issue for numerous publishers that have recently launched their digital subscriptions.

For the media industry, the model of digital subscription is rather new but for many industries and companies basing their business model on subscription – be it on B2B or B2C – stick has been long thought about in the last years. So, the good news is that many people have already worked on churn, and more precisely on how it can be anticipated and mitigated.

Here’s our own selection of “churn and how it can be anticipated”. There are hundreds available, so make up your own mind!

1st step – Measure and follow the level of engagement

  • See part one to understand how to measure the level of subscribers’ engagement thanks to sections of content on your website. This indicator will enable you to adapt your contents according to the value they have for subscribers.
  • See part three to measure how subscriber’s engagement evolves and thus learn how to correct this evolution if you are noticing an important churn increase. Measuring this engagement level is most important during the first month and still more during the first 15 days. This is a key stage where your customers will become aware (or unaware) of the value of their subscriptions. Hence the importance of managing the onboarding well.

2nd step – Spot the weak signals generating unsubscriptions

There are many examples of weak signals, and some have been highlighted by American publishers such as Newsday or The Columbus Dispatch during a webinar organised by the Newspaper Association of America. These publishers noticed that a change in the payment method or a delay are very often correlated to a nearing unsubscription. Many other elements can be interpreted depending on publications (decrease in the time spent when visiting, decrease of the opening rate of the newsletter and so forth).

3rd step – Correct this trend

If we take again the example above, Newsday reduced churn and increased the LTV of its subscribers, as they did set some personalised automatic messaging (on both an online and an offline channel). Sending a gift to subscribers who have the highest risk of churn, such as a thank-you card or else a product, is a way to reduce churn. Suggesting to test a product (upsell) for free such as a magazine is another example to reduce churn when readers are very likely to unsubscribe. You can also choose to do this beforehand as preventive measures. For instance, the product testing or free ‘upsell’ has proved successful when it’s aimed at new subscribers during the first six months. It increases the reader’s loyalty and lifespan.

The advantage of a digital publication is that it can offer products or upsells to its readers nearing unsubscription without additional unit prices.

Conclusion

In terms of performance measurement, the subscription business model completely differs from the advertising business model. Publishers go from a measurement model based on volume to a model based on engagement and relationship marketing.

As we have seen through this guide, the indicators of measurement vary. We have highlighted five branches of key indicators: the analysis of value proposition, the measurement of the visibility of the subscription offer, the measurement of users’ engagement and lastly their lifecycle during the acquisition and stick phase.

This is a radical change in paradigms for publishers, because more than a change in the performance indicators to follow, it means that you must:

  • Hold a reliable tool of measurement, that is successfully integrated and set
  • Have a team that has enough time to measure and analyse these indicators
  • Have a team who has the necessary skills to understand these indicators
  • Have enough resources to put in practice corrective actions

And, on a larger scope:

  • The departments within your company should be interdependent to encourage exchanges between different departments (content, marketing, technical…)
  • You should share common targets between the different departments of your company
  • And naturally should incentivize each of your employees according to how these common targets have been reached instead of reaching targets that are opposed to one another

As you have understood, this guide doesn’t provide universal answers but a base, a marker with which each publisher can position itself and adapt its performance analysis according to its brand, its history, its audience, its value proposition and its goals. So it’s your turn now!