For a while now, publishers have been offering digital subscriptions to their readers. Historically, most of their revenue was generated from advertising but, for about 10 years now, most of this monetization has been captured by new numerical platforms such as Facebook and Google.

Digital subscriptions were only just arriving in France in 2010, but since then a lot has changed and the creation of paywalls is a key symbol of this change. By 2019, 95% of daily newspapers had launched a digital subscription offer of some form. And it's still evolving, with ever more magazines, regional newspapers, trade publications and any online content producer getting in on this monetization point.

Switching from an ad-model to a subscription model is a significant change for media. It means moving away from the past few decades of analyzing digital performance based on impressions, audience size and visibility of articles to subscription strategies building relationships with users, studying their engagement and loyalty. The change also affects the organisation as a whole, up to the employees incentives which were based on these volume indicators.

Unfortunately, as we're all too familiar with, there's no magic formula or perfect example to follow that can be used by all publishers to successfully develop a digital subscription model. It may be true that The New York Times paywall strategy allowed them to reach 50k online subscribers in just 2 years, but copying them may not bring about the same results. Each content producer has its own history, audience, brand, content and objectives meaning that strategies and models need to be unique to each publisher. Therefore, in order to manage your digital subscribers acquisition strategy, you'll have to measure, understand and adjust your own recipe for success.

Measurement and understanding will have to remain at the core of this strategic shift.

In concrete terms, what's this guide for?

This guide results from our experience with more than 70 publishers who were faced with the same questions and issues. We therefore aim to provide you with the tools to manage your engagement and acquisition strategies performance.  You won’t find THE answer here, but key notions to measure, understand and manage relationships with your readers. The indicators 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 pay to subscribe to its content? The core of value proposition lies in content. Every bit of 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 their first visit (without churn), it’s a whole process. From the first visit to 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 maximize 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 who take preference 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 – enjoyment? learning? to get information? the concept of engagement is directly linked to that.

Indicator C

Articles leading to purchasing behaviors

  • 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 behaviors 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 of these indicators will allow you to understand the role and value of each piece of content and what role they play in your business model, be it for the subscription or for other sources of revenue.


2.       Visibility of the subscription offer via paid content

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 realize 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 premium articles (on the home page, on the recommended content section, etc) AND also showing the paywall that readers will see pop up when they view an article designed for subscribers only. This second point is all the more true 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?

  • 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 in the long-term.
  • Because paid content has an important value for your future subscribers, enabling non-subscribed readers to visualize the reasons to subscribe.
  • Lastly, the more a reader is confronted with a paywall, the more they’ll get used to seeing your message(s) and 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 content

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

*Visibility of premium content (sample datas)

Premium articles: 22.2%

Free articles: 77.8%

Note: Working alongside 70 publishers, we noticed that, naturally, there's a direct correlation between the % of traffic on paid content and subscriptions. It’s also completely doable to increase the visibility of paid content 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 behavior of your readers regarding this paid offer

How do your readers behave regarding paid content?

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

*Readers’ behavior when confronted with the paid offer (sample data)

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'll will be able to measure whether the paywall pressure has an impact on the behavior of your readers as well as the attractiveness of your subscription offer.

Indicator C

Does the correlation between '% traffic to paid content 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 clearly defined, you have a strong audience, your value proposition is set, and your paid content offer is highlighted to users. There’s still an element missing 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 it's connected to the depth of the visit itself.

Here’s our selection of indicators regarding user engagement.

Indicator A

Measuring user 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 data)

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 behavior 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 reader-type

  • How are users divided up according to the frequency of visit?
  • How does each of these segments evolve over 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 over a large period of time 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 move from one group to another then it’s even more relevant.

Indicator C

Measuring the engagement rate due to content type

  • Which content creates the most engagement?
  • Is this content aligned with the value proposition and content strategy?
  • If not, what content or sections must be prioritized? (Content, highlights…)

*Engagement score per section (sample datas)

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

Indicator A

Engagement behavior 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 a 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 behavioral changes become important enough to create an even more significant change (in this example, subscription). Some publishers have, for instance, realized that 90% of conversions came from readers who 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 visits.

Indicator B

Weak signals (*see below) 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 commenting 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 mean with 'weak signals'. If you notice a correlation between weak signals and conversion, then you’ll be able to understand the ways in which to optimize conversion. Thus, you can set intermediary goals to reach and not solely concentrate on 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 the subscription funnel, but all the way through their life cycle on your website.

Indicator A

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 B

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

Indicator C

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. Most of all, however, this will help you to understand where you can find the greatest potential to develop digital subscriptions. You may well have the world's best subscription offer and conversion funnel, but if no reader is confronted with your paywall, it won’t succeed. And vice versa. You’ll have to follow how these ratios evolve over 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 digital subscription model is rather new. For many other industries though, who base their business model on subscription (be it on B2B or B2C), stick has been a significant challenge for 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 on churn and how it can be anticipated. There are hundreds available, so make up your own mind!

For more information, we also have another article on how publishers can minimize churn risks.

1st step – Measure and follow engagement level

  • See part one to understand how to measure the level of subscriber engagement. This indicator will enable you to adapt your content according to the value they have for subscribers.
  • See part three to measure how subscriber engagement evolves and thus learn how to correct this evolution if you're noticing a significant increase in churn. Measuring a user's engagement level is most important during their first month as a subscriber to your site, perhaps even more so during the first 15 days. This is a key stage where your customers will become aware (or unaware) of the value of their subscription. 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 and The Columbus Dispatch during a webinar organized by the Newspaper Association of America (now News Media Alliance). These publishers noticed that a change in the payment method or a delay in payment are very often correlated to a future unsubscription. Many other elements can be interpreted depending on the publication (decrease in the time spent when visiting, decrease of the opening rate of the newsletter and so forth). See more in this article on reducing churn risk.

3rd step – Correct this trend

If we go back to the same example as above, Newsday reduced churn and increased the LTV of its subscribers by setting personalized automated messages (on both an online and offline channel). Sending a gift to subscribers who have the highest risk of churn, such as a thank you card or product, proved to be a successful way to reduce churn. Suggesting to test a product (upsell) for free (such as a magazine trial) was another example of a way to reduce churn when readers seemed 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 in their first six months. It increases the reader’s loyalty and lifespan.

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


Conclusion

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

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

This is a radical change in paradigms for publishers. It's more than just a change in performance indicators to follow, it also 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 analyze 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, history, audience, value proposition and goals.

So, now it's over to you!

If you have any questions about KPIs, subscription models or anything paywall related, don't hesitate to get in touch and we can give you a more personalized response. You can also find more strategy-based advice over on our blog!