Why retention needs to be a bigger priority for magazine media in 2019


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This year may very well be the year of retention, for publishers will be looking at strategies to keep their audiences and subscribers and members and followers, if they haven’t already. As research suggests, retention is about engagement, loyalty, and long-term customer relationships, personalisation, and avoiding churn.

“Publishers, like all businesses, need to walk before they could run,” said Nikolay Malyarov, EVP, chief content officer and general counsel at PressReader. “In 2018, publishers were learning how to get people to subscribe again (walking). Now, they need to get them to keep coming back for more (start running).”

Create a habit by continually feeding readers’ desire for quality and diverse content, but do so without spamming them, he said. “People love discovering new, relevant content,” he said. “PressReader’s machine learning algorithm, which powers its home feed, has been shown to retain the interest of readers longer because it exposes them to interesting content they might otherwise not see.”

Publishers need a sufficient quantity of unique, and differentiated content, and should surprise and delight their readers with small tokens of appreciation, Malyarov says, like The Atlantic, which tries to find little rewards for subscribers.

A 2018 INMA survey of 60 companies found that 59 per cent of them spent less on engagement than on consumer acquisition. The report, “Unpacking the reader-subscriber-lifetime customer journey,” suggests news organisations know engagement is important – but publishers don’t often have resources, and spend more on acquisition than engagement.

“In 2019, newsrooms have to grab the reader and keep the reader. That loyalty is earned, which means news orgs need to put time, commitment and resources (ahem, staffing) into this strategy,” said Emma Carew Grovum, a product manager at The Daily Beast, in a Nieman Lab 2019 prediction.


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Publishers can do more around building deeper audiences by engaging their audiences and cultivating real relationships between themselves and their audiences. The key to loyalty is focusing on forming habits, with newsletters, podcasts, voice skills, or on whatever platforms they prefer.

At Condé Nast, there is definite focus on retaining subscribers and members, Ainul Huda, VP, audience development and analytics at Condé Nast explained. “Across industry, it is always much easier to retain somebody than to bring in someone new, because they already value and trust you, and they want to engage with your content and your product, versus trying to convince somebody why they should subscribe or join.”

Huda said once publishers reach a mature state, it’s loyalty that matters for people. Loyalty can occur as a result of the content publishers produce. At Condé Nast, Huda explained they have a data-driven strategy, “where we understand what kind of content drives more loyalty, and that allows us to focus more on those areas.”

In addition, loyalty can be a result of product experience. “What is your UX experience when a user is on your site? Do they have specific areas of interest?” Huda asked. “To inform all of that is all based on our data, resources, analytics, to have a very focused approached, how we spend our time and resources.”

One big aspect the industry is focusing on, are loyalty products. Condé Nast found the number one factor in whether a person would become a subscriber was whether they signed up for a newsletter. At the American publisher, newsletters are loyalty products – like Wired’s newsletters that are only for their paywall members. Exclusive newsletters create create a deeper connection with each brand’s consumers, but also hearkens back to the concept of membership, which has its privileges.

To deepen its connection with its audiences, New Yorker has a Facebook group which discusses new films. “In doing so, you create a conversation and community, where consumers feel deeply tied to your brand,” Huda said. “They support our journalism and they want to have a deeper connection with our editorial teams and our social teams. It’s all about creating loyalty, not just at one touch point, but at multiple touch points, which creates this overall comprehensive sense of loyalty.”

Publishers ought to look at the entire funnel – from their product, to their distribution channels – as a cohesive strategy, rather than treating everything separately, and understand what drives the highest amount of engagement and loyalty, according to Huda.


Personalisation and hyper-personalisation

Publishers need to understand their audiences, deliver content they want at the right time, in the right format, through the right channels, at the right cost. What can they do to engage their audience? What can audiences do on the publishers’ various channels? What can publishers do to target audiences more effectively so they get the content that they need and want much faster? What can publishers do to build that sense of community?

Some suggest personalisation and hyper-personalisation is key to retaining audiences. “Publishers have the ability to utilise data and natural language processing to tailor their home pages and articles,” said Zack Dugow, founder and CEO of Insticator.

Insticator is a platform that works with advertisers and publishers to create interactive content that leads to higher engagement levels and revenue. Dugow said the platform gathers data to make it available for publishers for targeting. “We pull all the data and insights on the content for the publisher, so that they can understand their audience a bit better,” he said.

With Insticator, publishers can use gamified elements for audience retention purposes, Dugow said. “We have curated trivia and polling content that’s customised for each site. And we use natural language processing to pull forward the trivia, the polling content that’s going to most engage individual readers.”


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Reducing churn

Audiences these days are sporadic in their information consumption – they flit from platform to device, from tweet to Snap, to Insta Story, grazing on news and special interest information and content whenever the mood takes them, in the 15 minutes they have while waiting for a bus in the morning, to the five minutes they have in commercial breaks while watching their favourite shows at night.

It’s not that they’re fickle, it’s more that they’ve a dearth of choice and hundreds, if not millions of options to read, watch, listen, learn, to be entertained or to connect.

Subscriptions rely on the relationship between publishers and readers. It’s about what people find interesting, useful, valuable. Some publishers are experimenting with different ways to increase subscription and reduce churn. The New York Times, for example, is trying a flexible paywall. In November, CEO Mark Thompson said the Times would experiment with efforts like discounts and a flexible paywall to improve retention and reduce churn, according to Digiday.

To improve retention, Schibsted has been trying to predict when people churn, building more topic-specific customer journey models and learning what content drives retention. Reader now drives 40 per cent of the company’s revenue. “You don’t get money from conversion, it’s from retention,” said Kjersti Thorneus, director of product management at Schibsted Media Group, speaking at the Association of Online Publishers event in London last year.

As digital subscribers are less loyal than print subscribers, retention is key. Keeping subscribers is much less costly than acquiring new ones. At Canada’s daily newspaper, The Globe and Mail, subscribers who hadn’t logged in for 30 days were emailed, which reduced churn by 27 per cent. Those who had the highest propensity to churn were emailed, and this reduced churn by 140 per cent, according to the INMA report.



While retention becomes an area of focus for publishers in 2019, there are lessons and insight for those looking to keep their followers, their audiences, subscribers and members more engaged and loyal to magazine media brands.

Huda suggests publishers be thoughtful about their brands, their content, their value proposition. “What is the best way to connect to consumers in a deeper, more meaningful way, that will allow them to spend time or dollars with your publication,” he asked. “At the end of the day, it’s about being very thoughtful about what your value is, and why someone should pay for a subscription or give you their time.”

Publishers ought to make retention as important, or more important, than acquisition, Malyarov suggested. Stop banning comments – in fact, publishers ought to encourage dialogue with subscribers. “Market to an audience of one (me) as much as you can,” he said. “This requires smart analytics and a genuine appreciation for customers. This requires empathy and will likely require a cultural change within some businesses.”

In addition, Malyarov suggested that publishers look outside of mainstream media at what other industries/brands are doing to increase engagement and loyalty. “See how ‘community’ plays into their retention strategies,” he said. “Our new issue of The Insider is all about community in publishing and non-publishing brands (hotels, airlines, libraries, cruise ships).”

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