From Behavioral Data to Exclusive Content, Newspapers are Creating Valuable Strategies to Retain Readers

By: Gretchen A. Peck
The New York Times hosts several live events as an added incentive for subscribers.

The “Trump Bump” phenomenon experienced by national and larger regional newspapers in the wake of the presidential election brought a sea of new subscribers to their print and digital titles. Whether that was a direct response to the anti-press rhetoric that’s been pervasive in national politics, or whether people just finally realized that news has value, is still up for speculation and study. But the phenomenon was real for those larger titles, which now must make concerted efforts and campaigns to appeal to these new readers, and to keep their interest and retain their subscriptions.

Smaller community titles and more regionally focused mid-markets may not have enjoyed the influx of new subscribers that their big-market brethren did, so audience/subscriber acquisition and retention are still very much daily concerns for their circulation teams.

To combat subscription churn-and-burn, newspapers are taking very different approaches to retention. E&P spoke with a few of them to learn how they were hanging on to readers.

Data and Retention

Gerard Brancato is passionate about data. As the vice president of digital subscription marketing at Tribune Interactive/tronc, Brancato is tasked with the monumental role of growing and retaining an average of 30 million unique users accessing tronc titles online.

In July 2018, Brancato penned a digital strategies blog for the International News Media Association (INMA), in which he spoke about “propensity models as cornerstones” of newspaper marketing. A propensity model is built on behavioral data, Brancato explained. In the most simplified terms, it identifies patterns of behavior, enabling the publisher to craft marketing messages and erect retention failsafes.

For example, if a particular site user comes to a tronc title’s site regularly and consumes five articles a month, only to hit the paywall when they attempt to read a sixth article, there is a high “propensity” that this reader can be converted to a subscription.

“Real sophisticated propensity modeling will count a number of dimensions and factors simultaneously, producing a ‘propensity to convert score,’” Brancato said.

Why is propensity modeling critical for newspaper publishers today? It comes down to budgets, pragmatism and targeted marketing.

Gerard Brancato

“With 30 million users or visitors, we don’t have the funds to aggressively market to them all, so we would like to market to the ones who have a higher propensity to convert..who display the greatest amount of engagement,” Brancato said.

Clearly, data of this kind can be invaluable in audience acquisition, but it can be equally as revealing for retention insight.

Brancato’s team recently completed what they’ve called “a churn-risk regression analysis” to better understand why readers opt out of their digital subscriptions. What they discovered was that 81 percent of voluntary stops come from subscribers who’ve made fewer than three payments for their subscriptions.

“And the risk of cancellation for subscribers who haven’t visited the site within the last 22 days is 133 percent higher than those who have,” Brancato wrote in his INMA blog.

He told E&P these figures continue to be the two biggest drivers hurting retention. “Customers who are with us longer are stickier. Customers who just recently joined typically churn at a higher rate, and that’s probably true of any subscription model. So there’s tenure—or negative tenure—that’s a predictor of churn risk.

“Frequency of visitation is another prime indicator of churn risk. So how do we execute around that? Well, once we’ve identified users or subscribers who fit either of those two categories—and we’ve identified the threshold, after 22 days have passed without a site visit—they have the propensity to churn. Or before they’ve made these three full-price payments, they are in a high-risk churn bracket. A lot of our churn is early-stage churn. People come in on a trial introductory offer and then lapse. With the data modeling, we can isolate those subscribers and then upload their email addresses to our ad platforms and re-engage them with content. At that point, it’s not so much about messaging as it about getting the right content in front of them.”

Brancato also noted that social media is playing an invaluable role in reader retention. Facebook, for example, is an excellent way to get content in front of churn-risk readers.

“It’s a friendly way to promote an article,” he said. “It’s visual, so you can have images or video. It’s great that we can promote articles to subscribers within their Facebook News Feed. We can upload lists of existing subscribers and synchronize it. That’s been very attractive to us. That environment lends itself really well to promoting content to subscribers.”

Brancato is sympathetic to smaller newspaper titles, who are challenged by retention yet don’t have the deep pockets and large staffs to manage it all. Still, he encourages his colleagues in circulation, data and audience to leverage some of the free tools and technologies available to them, such as Google Analytics.

“Cost should not be a barrier to implement a very basic version of (propensity modeling),” he said. “It’s not an approach that you need a six-figure-a-month marketing automation platform. Those do exist for good reasons, and based on certain organizations’ sizes, they may need something like that, but if I was a one-title publisher and I was in a smaller market, I would definitely get savvy about Google Analytics. If you’re really looking to get serious about digital subscriptions, this functionality is available, and I think that’s pretty exciting.”

The New Jersey Herald circulation day staff includes (front) Daria Sorgine, (back, left to right), Jay Gillispie, Anthony Muzikar, Bruce Clarke, and Ed McGowan.

Points of Contact

In Newton, N.J., the New Jersey Herald is the paper of record for the community. The paper’s motto is: “The New Jersey Herald…It’s how you know.”

Executive editor Bruce Tomlinson noted that it’s a community newspaper in the northern part of “blue state,” but in a definitively “red county.” It’s a community that largely prefers its newspaper in print, he said, though the newspaper’s digital readership has shown consistent growth.

“Anecdotally, in talking to subscribers, they seem to prefer the tactile feel of a newspaper,” he said. “As for the question about whether they’re easier to retain than digital subscribers, I think there is definitely a habit and tradition involved.”

In the digital space, subscription retention isn’t as great of a concern for the newspaper. Rather, it’s the printed newspaper that sees the most “fluctuation” in the subscriber base, according to Jay Gillispie, circulation director. The paper currently has a daily print circulation of 10,177 and a Sunday print circulation of 14,721.

The ebb and flow of print subscribers is largely a seasonal phenomenal for the newspaper, though there is also a dynamic housing market component (people moving in and out of the area) as well economic considerations that increasingly cause subscribers to “downgrade” their subscriptions from six-days a week to a long-weekend delivery, Thursday to Sunday.

“As we continue to grow our digital readership, in print we’re constantly trying to offset the high volume of (subscription) starts and stops,” Gillispie said. “As I mentioned, a lot of it is seasonal, and of course with digital, seasonal isn’t a factor. There, it’s more about great coverage and fitting in with their lifestyle. I think if you fit into their lifestyle, stopping isn’t something that you see a lot. Our print circulation fluctuates up and down, between 200 and 300 copies a month, so that’s the number we focus on.”

While mid- to large-market titles may have the luxury of sophisticated data teams and tools, at this small community newspaper, the best way to encourage retention is far more personal than digital messages. Subscribers get the personal service of phone calls.

“I don’t have a large customer service staff,” Gillispie said, “but they all have their roles, and so they’re calling the full stops. They’re calling to confirm vacation starts and stops. They’re checking on those. We’re on the phone daily with our ‘stops and starts’ and also addressing complaints.

“We try to maintain that level of contact, and it’s working fairly successfully, but only as long as those (strategies) remain systematic. When you let up on one of those areas, it doesn’t take very long until it starts going into the negative, so it’s very important to stay consistent on those contact points.”

Similarly, the newspaper makes a concerted effort to take part in special community events. The newspaper is a sponsor of a twice-a-year “monster garage sale,” a rousingly popular event with readers. They’ve sponsored an annual “Ladies’ Night Out,” which is now in its 10th year and showcases the community’s spa and luxury-goods retailers and services.

“We try to have a presence in all of the community days, as well,” Tomlinson said. “We have 24 individual communities in our country, and they each have a day, mostly during the summer. Certainly on the news side, we’re there to cover the events and to get photos, but we also want to have a physical presence.”

Gillispie added, “We have a kiosk at these events every year, where we pass out newspapers and talk about our online and print products. It has been very successful. For example, we have a county fair that we sponsor, and we’ll be there for a whole week. I think, like with any business, branding is important to us. So we work hard on branding ourselves. In a community, that name recognition is important.”

Fortunately for the Herald, the readership doesn’t require much enticement to maintain their subscriptions. Gillispie reveals that they’ve never had to dangle and discount or monetary incentives to keep readers, though “special offers” for retention is not something he’d rule out in the future.

Instead, the publisher is incentivizing its employees. Gillispie and Tomlinson spoke about their new company-wide program called “Think Tank,” which encourages—even with monetary rewards—employees to suggest ideas related to content, reader engagement and retention. The two executives are encouraged that fresh ideas will ultimately help the newspaper reignite interest from existing advertisers and to woo new ones with sponsorships, events, great content and personal points of contact.

The New York Times has been experimenting with hosting live events along with digital events.

Membership Rewards

Despite what you may have heard, the New York Times is not failing, particularly when it comes to its subscription numbers.

Ben Cotton is the executive director, retention and customer experience for the Times. Within his team, there are dedicated audience and marketing professionals who work on what Cotton calls “proactive communications” with customers.

“That’s everything from onboarding, when people become customers, to off-boarding—what happens when they cancel, thanking them for being a subscriber, and hoping that they’d come back—to messages they get if their credit card fails and needs to be updated. By managing communications with our subscribers, we can make sure that they’re regularly coming and engaging with us,” Cotton explained.

Within the team, there are also staff members devoted to customer-service strategy and operations, and others who are focused on keeping subscribers apprised of exclusive members-only benefits. Providing subscribers with exclusive content and other value-adds, like live and digital events, has been key to retention among subscribers.

The team also uses a number of messaging methods to advertise membership benefits to their subscribers. Email is an essential tool, Cotton noted, in addition to on-site or in-app links. They’ve leveraged ad space on the newspaper’s homepage (viewed across desktop and mobile platforms) to inform subscribers of what’s new, how they can access it, and why it’s worth their time and attention.

Cotton’s team has been leveraging live events for a few years and recently started to experiment with hosting digital events too. These can be intimate engagements or large gatherings for hundreds of attendees, Cotton said. For example, the Times offers a “lottery” to subscribers, with the reward of sitting in on an editorial meeting  during a “page one meeting,” so to speak. Larger-scale live events have been held in New York City, Washington, D.C. and California, all created around timely political topics.

Ben Cotton

“We’re doing periodic conference calls with subscribers on big news topics. Those are fun. We can turn them around really quickly,” Cotton said. “We can send out blasts to subscribers to say, “Hey, we’re going to have reporters on the line talking about climate change or the Supreme Court pick or the Trump Russia investigation, and we may get hundreds of subscribers on the line for an hour to hear reporters chat about it and then take questions.”

And sometimes a personal touch is all you need to satisfy readers. For example, Cotton recalled when publisher A.G. Sulzberger penned a letter to subscribers after the paper won three Pulitzer Prizes this year: “It was a way to say to our subscribers, ‘Look at these best things that we’ve done. They’re recognized at a very high level. And that’s what your subscription dollars are going to, and you should really feel good about that.’”

There is also a noteworthy cooperation with the newsroom, but that’s not surprising, Cotton said it’s because editors and reporters are excited to hear from subscribers and relish the opportunities to have relationships with them in this way. Based on feedback he’s received, Cotton said subscribers also appreciate the “community” that forms after viewing a more behind-the-scenes perspective of how the newsroom works.

As for the new subscribers who came in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, they have retained remarkably well and are measurably engaged, said Cotton.

“That was certainly something that we were monitoring very closely. It was a very large group of subscribers, and we were curious to know whether they were going to retain, or whether that sort of excitement about the mission was something that would sort of fade over time,” he said.

Cotton is cognizant that community or mid-market titles may not have the luxury of big retention teams, but he implores them to “find a way to invest in retention,” suggesting that it doesn’t take a large investment to continually think about how to make subscribers “happier and more satisfied.”

At the Times, he said, “We work on better marketing that speaks to subscribers in more of a relationship-driven way, and we always want to push ourselves to raise the bar…You don’t have to have a big team to focus on retention. Everyone at the company should be thinking about retention. How and what are you doing for your subscribers? That’s something that anyone, anywhere at a newspaper organization can be thinking about.”

Gretchen A. Peck is an independent journalist who has reported on publishing and printing for more than two decades. She has contributed to Editor & Publisher since 2010 and can be reached at gretchenapeck@gmail.com.

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Published: August 13, 2018

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