“How can we enhance our conversion funnel to maximize new subscriptions”🤷‍♂️

We’ve heard this sentence so many times from our clients.  

Even if content remains (by far) the most important topic, the user journey complexity, the amount of requested information, the lack of payment methods are as many hindrances to turning readers into subscribers.

And that is no easy topic:

  • How should I present offers to users?
  • Which payment methods should be prioritized?
  • Should payment be requested before or after creation of the account?

After listening to our customers, we decided to come up with a series of articles called: ”From content to subscription to... content, how many touchpoints? , in which we analyzed 11 conversion funnels from content editors and media outlets, among others. These were French and international, ranging from Quartz to the Athletic, as well as Netflix (VOD), Majelan (Podcast) or the New York Times.

What’s the objective here? To allow you to save time for your benchmarks. We also secretly hoped to find a pattern between all these paths, some sort of ideal funnel that would bolster your conversions. But that didn’t happen. Each media has its own identity, audience, and paths.

For that reason, we decided to synthesise these articles, to provide you with a condensed overview of the good techniques we observed in these 11 editors. This should, we hope, help you save some time and most of all help you in your own thought process towards an ideal conversion funnel for your media, and primarily your readers.

In this summary, we will analyse every step of the content to subscription path in detail, as follows:

  • Blocking content via the paywall
  • Presenting subscription offers
  • The document (account creation + data collection)
  • Payment
  • Order confirmation and onboarding
  • Going back to the article

For each step, we’ll ask the following questions:

  • Why is this step important?
  • What are the step’s objectives and key elements
  • What indicators should be followed for this step
  • And one or more pieces of advice from the team to enhance your performance

We’ll also add a summary of the summary of the summary (#inception), with a recap table of each of the 11 website paths. You’ll be able to get started right away.

Let’s go !


Step 1 - The Paywall

The paywall is the first step between reading paid-for content and the reader. It may well be the first interaction with your premium offer, and it’s without a doubt the first time that the reader will be frustrated and potentially interested in your subscription offer.

Why is that step so important?

The element that will have a bigger impact on your subscriber acquisition strategy than the paywall is the share of traffic on your paid content. This indicator represents the ratio between the number of premium articles seen by your readers and the total amount of articles seen (premium or not). The Digital Media Review (the paid content observatory that we co-created with GESTE) has allowed us to show the importance of that indicator, on two levels:

  • Traffic in the subscription funnel and conversions seem partly correlated to the visibility of paid-for content. When blocked content on a media site had less than 10% visibility, there were little or no clicks on the subscription page. Then, with 10-40%, there was a sharp increase in paid-for content visibility, heavily linked to the surge in traffic in the subscription funnel and to the number of conversions.
  • There is, however, a direct correlation between the frustration caused by the increase in paid-for content visibility and the rate of exit from the website by users facing the paywall (graph below).
x: % of paid content traffic // y: % of users who leave the site when faced with a paywall

Concerning the paywall, the number of times and the way it’s displayed will have a direct impact on the rate of visiting the subscription funnel, and thus on the conversion rate. You’ll need to keep an eye on this.

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What are this step’s objectives?

This step has three key objectives:

  1. Raise the reader’s awareness and spark their interest: developing readers’ direct  funding via subscription after 30 years of free internet, we must raise the public’s awareness. We must stop simply showcasing frustration arguments to convince readers. First and foremost, readers should be interested in your rationale, your added value, and what you offer. They should crave the next step. For more information on this subject, please read this article on UX writing.
  2. Obviously, to drive traffic towards the subscription funnel: raising awareness is important, but it’s unfortunately not measurable. Therefore the primary quantifiable objective is the rate of visits of the subscription funnel, and the secondary one is the conversion rate. If the paywall states that there is a 12 month free trial when that isn’t the case, the click through rate (CTR) will be better, but conversion will be weaker. Thus,, in order to drive traffic to the subscription funnel, paid-for content visibility must be improved, as well as paywall design and vocabulary.
  3. Preventing users from leaving the websure : even though it’s often disregarded, it’s a very important indicator. Indeed, the majority of editors with premium models combine several business models, at the same time, on their website (advertising, events, training, …). These other business models depend on traffic and on the engagement rate. If you block all of your content, there will be a 6-month subscription increase. You will, however, negatively impact all other business models and you won’t get any new subscribers after 6 months, once your loyal user base is transformed. Monitor the website exit rates, and if there is a sharp drop, keep an eye on the traffic share for your paid-for content.

Naturally, the indicators we recommend surveying at this step are : traffic share for paid-for content, number of readers confronted to the paywall per month, viewability rate of the paywall, and also its CTR.

Here are a few examples from which to  draw inspiration and succeed in this first step.

The New York Times and the Washington Post have understood a key point, in order for the paywall to be clicked on it must be visible. We, at Poool, have observed an average 50% paywall visibility for editors. This means that 50% of readers don’t see the paywall when they read a premium article.

Both editors get close to 100% visibility rate with this design.

The second important element, that has been well understood by The Financial Times and Quartz, is that, for the paywall to be clicked on, one needs to create a desire and clearly outline the value proposal.

As we can see with the Financial Times, the value proposal is clearly put forward and explicit (“Leverage our market expertise : Expert insights, analysis and smart data help you cut through the noise to spot trends, risks and opportunities”). The same goes for Quartz.

And as a final example of good practice: simplifying the conversion funnel. As we will see later, and have seen before in the Digital Media Review, once a reader is in the subscription funnel, conversion rates remain relatively low (and it’s even worse on mobile phones with a 1 to 5 differential VS desktop 😱). Hence, the simpler the path and the fewer steps the better (generally). The Financial Times and The New York Times  have implemented this (pictures above). In the case of the Financial Times, one step of the funnel is ‘’saved’’ as the subscription offers are directly presented on the paywall, and once readers click, they are redirected straight to the form (account + payment). In the case of the New York Times, the account creation form is integrated into the paywall. This is another step in the simplification process.

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Our final recommendation for this step: it may be hard, but most importantly, you must find a balance between content discovery and captivating your audience, with the frustration generated by the paywall and conversion. This symmetry between engagement and frustration will allow you to create a durable stream of income. Setting up a dynamic paywall strategy will help you adapt to the reader profile, the type of content, or the source of traffic. This will help you in getting commitment AND conversion simultaneously, by simply tailoring the content access experience.

NB: you got it, this is ad time n°2 :). To learn more, have a look at our clients’ cases on our blog and our website.


Step 2 - Offer presentation

The step that follows the paywall is (generally) the offer presentation page. As we will see, this isn’t always the case, and this step can be essential or completely useless according to context.

Indeed, there’s no consensus regarding the offer presentation step. There are two main approaches to this first step of the conversion funnel.

  • Case n°1 : Showing a page presenting the offer or several offers, and taking this opportunity to showcase and insist on the media’s value proposal (even though this isn’t constantly done). This is the case of the New York Times or  Netflix for example. For the New York Times, only one offer is put forward, whereas Netflix puts several forward (there are, once again, two views on the matter).
  • Case n°2 : skipping the offer presentation page, and leading the user straight to the next step (form, payment, …). This, for example, is the case of The Athletic or Quartz.

Another clarification, the type, number, and order of the conversion funnel steps are an ongoing debate. During our benchmark we have observed 3 points of view on the matter of conversion funnels:

What is this step’s objective (if you choose to implement it)?

For those that use this offer presentation step, the objective is obviously to strengthen the value proposal, and direct the user to the most relevant offer. This may seem obvious, but it  is important: redirecting the user towards the most relevant offer implies that there are at least two offers, actually different from one another, and for which the user will be able to tell the difference and weigh the benefit. When they have several offers, most media generally suggest 3 offers, with the ‘’best value’’ offer highlighted in the middle. Pro tip: on mobile, put this offer forward in first place, visible straight away on the screen.

The indicators that will need to be followed are, naturally, CTR, time spent on the page (to measure traffic quality), and potentially also differences in performance (CTR and time spent) according to the source. If a user coming from the paywall has already seen the subscription page or is visiting the website for the first time, performance will be drastically different, and, maybe, the presentation page will be different according to the context.

Our final recommendation for this step: Should the user be directed to the subscription page or straight to the form + payment step?

And the answer is … 🥁🥁🥁 … there is no ‘one fits all’ answer. This depends on each media and the context in which the readers find themselves.

If you run a paid user acquisition campaign (on Facebook or Google e.g.) on users that don’t necessarily know you very well, you’ll likely have to redirect them to the presentation offer page with a clear and explicit value proposal. On the other hand, if the user has already seen the subscription offers for which you have retargeted, or who perfectly fits one of your offers, one solution could be redirecting them straight to the form and payment step, with the offer pre-selected. To sum it up, keep both kinds of pages, and run tests to see what works best according to the user context. Pro tip: don’t rely on what others are doing.


Step 3 - The form (account creation and data collection)

Your reader was peacefully going through your paid-for content, and was brave enough to click on the paywall to see your subscription offers, maybe he/she clicked on whichever offer suited him/her best, and he/she’s now being redirected to the form step. S/he now becomes an intentional reader. Good job! Now you have to close the sale.

Why is this step important?

For two main reasons:

  1. It’s a crucial step because it will allow you to collect the information necessary for managing the user’s life: email address, password, etc.
  2. It’s also a dangerous step, because if you ask for too much information or irrelevant information (address for a digital subscription, say), you risk chasing intentional readers away.

So what are this step’s objectives? And what are good practices?

There are, once again, three viewpoints:

  1. There are those who ask, admittedly, for a lot of information, like the Financial Times and The Times. The Times, for example, asks for 9 boxes to be filled at the form step for a digital offer. This, we can imagine, may be more of a technical limitation related to subscription solution constraints, rather than a desire from the marketing and product team.
  2. Those who ask for the bare minimum: email address and password. This is the case for Canal + and Audible. The Washington Post goes even further, only getting an email address (a password is requested after having paid to simplify the conversion process).
  3. And then there are those who ask for even less than the bare minimum: nothing 😱. That’s the case for Quartz who asks for account information after payment.

Pro tip - A little something to improve on this step: offer a social sign-in like The Athletic or the New York Times does. This will help boost the conversion rate at this step.

At this step, the most important thing will be to monitor the following indicators: the conversion rate to the next step (obviously) and the form completion rate for those who stop (to see where they stop).

Our final recommendations for this step

1 - Don’t ask for too much: we always see the benefit of asking for additional information, without necessarily measuring the hidden costs that represent (negative impact on the conversion rate).

2 - Test, test, and test again… Amazon, after 20 years of experience on the matter, still makes A/B tests on their conversion funnel. There will always be improvements to be made on your part too.


Step 4 - The payment

HERE WE ARE! The toughest part is behind us. The reader has been blocked by the paywall, has seen the subscription offers, chosen one and filled in the form. You’ve won 🥳. Well, almost. There is still a minor detail. Paying.

Why is this the important  step

I think we all agree here. The goal is to (not to state the obvious), get the user to pay and complete his subscription.

This is true, but not as simple as it may seem...

What are this step’s objectives?

We’ve said it enough times, the objective is to turn the user into a subscriber. For this, we must:

1 - Offer the proper payment method. Again, there are several schools of thought:

  • some offer a unique payment method, like Canal + or Quartz;
  • Others offer several payment methods, like The Times or the NYT. The credit card is generally/usually proposed, sometimes Paypal, sometimes Amazon pay, like the Washington Post, owned by (surprise surprise) Jeff Bezos :).

2 - Reassuring your user! If  users have arrived at this step, it means they are very interested in subscribing. But  can still leave. That is why they should be reassured. Reassurance is generally a key element in a successful conversion funnel (that is true for the media, like it has been for e-commerce for a long time).

Just like The Times, who, during the whole conversation flow, suggests the subscription content, the start of the subscription, the possibility of contacting for support or the detailed billing.

In the case of Canal +, secured payment is put forward, as well as the possibility of cancelling one’s subscription at any time. Netflix displays the same arguments.

Audible and the New York Times, as well as emphasizing on standard reassurance elements (“customer care”, “secure transaction”), go in detail to explain the billing process, including times when there are offers, indicating at every step that it’s ‘’non-binding’’ and that there is a ‘’cancel at any time’’ possibility.

Which indicators are to be followed during this step?

At this step, we recommend observing the following arguments:

  • The exit rate at this step (obviously)
  • % of choice of payment method (VS any other)
  • % of payment method conversion
  • Conversion rate / choice rate. There may be a 1st payment method making more conversions (volume wise) then a 2nd, but in reality the 1st method has a smaller rate (conversion / number of times that method is chosen) than number 2

Another indicator to keep an eye on would be the ratio between the choice of a payment method and the Lifetime Value (LTV). Indeed, a payment method may have a smaller conversion rate but a bigger LTV, hence producing more revenue. This could be debit payment for example (which isn’t mentioned here, as none of the 11 editors in this study use it).

Our final recommendations to this step. There are 3:

  • Always reassure (as in every step of the funnel)
  • Suggest several payment methods. If you are a ‘’small editor’’, prefer third-party payment methods (e.g. Paypal), in order to comfort the reader (even Netflix does it)
  • If you have the time and resources, find out which payment methods allow for the best conversion rate (compared to the number of choices), and ideally the best LTV, which will allow highlighting a payment method, and maybe even offering a discount if it’s chosen

Bonus. We’ve now seen there are several types of subscription funnels, with or without a page presenting offers, with the creation of an account before or after payment, etc… Each funnel’s objective is to be coherent with the media’s characteristics, and enhance the conversion rate. But, as we all know, the conversion rate of a subscription funnel is relatively low. Some editors, for that reason, look to improve the number of subscriptions, by allowing one to do so directly on the article page.

That’s the case, for example, of Alternatives Economiques, one of Poool’s clients, who allow users to create an account and to pay directly on the paywall, in just 1 click.

Here, the objective is the same: easing the user experience and boosting subscription numbers.

Advertisement time n°3 (we swear this is the last one): If you wish to put similar strategies in place for your paywall, contact us or discover our dynamic paywall solution, Poool Access.

Go on, test our demo (it’s free :)).

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Step 5 - The subscription confirmation, and sometimes the onboarding

Why is it an important step?

We all know that it’s harder, and that it costs more money to gain a new subscriber than securing the loyalty of an already existing subscriber.

The first subscriber experience you’ll give to your readers is the payment/subscription confirmation. And there is nothing worse than buying something on an e-commerce website or subscribing to something and not getting an order confirmation (via email or on the website).

The result is that you spend the first 5 minutes of your subscriber life trying to find out whether you are one (either by checking your emails, or in an optional ‘’account’’ section on the website). All that despite the fact that a simple email confirmation can create a satisfying experience leading to more.

What is that step’s objective?

  • First step: reassuring (yet again). As explained above, confirming a subscription is a reassuring element for the reader and a positive first experience. It isn’t always the case, although it’s becoming more common (thankfully). Here are the Canal + and Financial Times examples.
  • Second objective: welcoming. The confirmation clearly is a good chance to speak to the new subscriber, to thank them, and welcome them. This can take many shapes like thanking and recommunicating his value proposal, like The Times does.
  • Or even the third objective: onboarding. Some editors go even further and offer users the option to choose some key features, or to state their reading preferences. These types of initiatives allow editors to improve their subscribers’ engagement (which is crucial during the first few days) and reduce future churn.

We can see for example that the New York Times encourages users to download their app and subscribe to its newsletters. This is likely due to the fact that their Data teams have observed that subscription to a newsletter or downloading the app in the first days is correlated to reducing the churn.

Or even Netflix who seek to gather new users’ preferences to tailor their experience.

Finally, more rare but just as interesting

Fourth objective: finalising account creation. This is the case of Quartz, who focus on the payment step in the conversion funnel before, once the payment is confirmed, creating an account for the user and getting to know him.

For this step, we recommend following these indicators:

  • The post subscription article reading rate: as we’ll observe later on, once the subscription phase is over, many media don’t redirect the readers to the article they were reading when they subscribed. A user who has just subscribed will obviously want to consume. If that’s not the case, it needs to be understood why. Is it a technical problem? Is it the path?
  • The activation rate for your features if you do onboarding: if there is an onboarding offer (such as Netflix or the NYT for example), it may be good to know the feature activation rates,  to make sure the right features are put forward, and that the activation has a positive impact on the life-time value

Our final recommendation for this step

At minimum, offer reassurance and welcoming. Offering a good user experience isn’t just a competitive advantage anymore, it’s a norm. Reassuring and welcoming is, hence, the bare minimum in 2020 (at least do an on-site confirmation and an offsite welcome).

Why is this an important step?

It may seem obvious, but if you are reading some content and get blocked, the least that can be done is redirecting you to your article once you’ve made the effort of subscribing. Again, this is a detail, but the reader has just subscribed, you should make a good first impression. Unfortunately, half the editors we observed in the benchmark, such as the Washington Post or the Financial Times, don’t redirect to the reader’s article after subscription.

What is this step’s objective?

This is very simple: automatically redirecting the users to his article, or offering them to go back by themselves. An excellent example of this is that or Quartz, as shown below.

Indicators to be observed at this step

Like for the previous step, you’ll have to look at the post-subscription reading rate (number of new subscribers with at least one article read after subscribing / number of new subscribers). If your new subscribers don’t read articles, there is probably a problem somewhere.

Our final recommendation for this step
“Just do it”


Summarizing the summary #Inception

After having made a series of articles presenting the subscription path for 11 content editors. After having summarized (with this paper) those articles. We wanted to the summarize that summary (#inception), that is, a Google Sheet presenting a condensed version of the key informations for each path:

  • The number of steps needed
  • The steps’ order
  • The number of clocks between 1st contact with paid-for content and subscription
  • The number of offers put forward
  • The amount of information requested
  • The different payment methods available
  • Our little bonus

The summary is available here


Conclusion

As we have been able to observe throughout this whole summary, editors have different preferred methods, and make different choices to enhance their conversion funnels.

With the New York Times aiming for 10 million subscribers online, the tempting option would be to replicate their subscription path. If you do make that choice, I predict a bit of short-term success, but very little on the medium to long term. What works for them won’t necessarily work in time for you: to each media its identity, public, and, thus, uniqueness.

As discussed in the introduction, we can now confirm, after this summary: there is no single conversion funnel that guarantees optimal conversion.

We can still, as well as having outlined good examples and practices, share 10 methods that will help you in bettering your chances of building your ideal conversion funnel.

  1. Have a mobile first design
  2. Have a simple and elegant path
  3. Put forward reassurance elements
  4. Limit the number of clicks to the strict useful minimum
  5. Take out as many distractions from the page as possible
  6. Have clear messages in case of errors in the forms
  7. Always guide the user in his path (e.g. progress bar)
  8. Always show an order recap
  9. Offer the possibility of contacting support
  10. Always putting forward and reminding of your value proposal

NB : This last point is very important because, as opposed to e-commerce, the user isn’t buying an offer but rather a value proposal.

To summarize, don’t take anything for granted. Go out there with good sense, iterate and optimize according to the first bits of feedback you’ll get.

Don’t take anything for granted.