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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

3 Innovative ideas to fuel subscription success

August 16, 2021 | By Alycia Simpson, Senior Director Marketing – Recurly @recurly

For over 100 years, newspaper and magazine publishers made money in three basic ways: advertising, newsstand sales, and periodic payments from subscribers who awaited the latest news delivered  to their doorsteps. Most innovation in the publishing space revolved around the editorial content delivered to consumers rather than how people consumed that content. 

Then digital hit, and it changed everything. 

News and entertainment are widely available for free online. And the emergence of programmatic ad networks and news aggregators have put immense pressure on ad revenue. This means publishers need to shift toward a subscription-based revenue model if they want to survive—and thrive. 

Bringing in new subscribers and building durable relationships with them starts with revenue diversification. You need to segment the audience to focus on those subscribers that will drive higher LTV (lifetime value). And you must have a customer-first mindset. 

Your north star: delivering value in unique ways across the entire subscriber journey. The path to success: innovation. Here are three ways to deliver compelling digital experiences that’ll not only drive subscriber growth, but also encourage your subscribers to stick around for the long haul.

1. Diversify your revenue streams   

Publishers that offer more flexible subscription plans, innovative acquisition strategies, and hybrid offerings will win over those that only offer rigid pricing models or limited product offerings.

Offer newsletters and companion subscriptions

One way to remake subscriptions for the digital era is to provide new offerings that didn’t exist decades ago. Consider, for instance, Morning Brew, theSkimm, and the many successful Substack offerings. Well-written, targeted newsletters are an increasingly popular way to consume information. They are also a great way to drive additional revenue, be it through subscriptions or sponsorships. 

You might also consider developing a companion subscription product to your content offerings. GQ, for example, recently introduced its quarterly “Best Stuff Box.” It features electronics, grooming products, and accessories geared toward the same audience that reads GQ.

Drive interest through events

Events are another great way to drive interest in your subscription products (and to drive revenue on their own). You could hold a live event be it free or paid, virtual or in-person. This might be an in-depth interview with a celebrity or luminary. It could also be access to your on-staff experts, or gatherings of like minded audiences. Then you can use the resulting email list to nurture and help add new subscribers to your core offerings. 

2. Segment and personalize your offerings to drive LTV higher

While driving subscriber growth matters, you want to focus your efforts on those subscribers who will stay with you for the long term. Segmenting your audience into logical cohorts and targeting the most promising ones will help you both reduce your acquisition costs and ensure more sustainable growth.

Create and analyze subscriber cohorts

Start by looking at your existing subscriber base. Take a deep dive into the data to understand the characteristics of those subscribers with the highest LTV: Are they subscribed to a particular plan? Are they in a particular age range, income level, or geographic location? Perhaps they tend to take advantage of other offerings, like events or newsletters. Look at what’s working and optimize your subscription offerings appropriately for the cohorts you’ve identified.

Understand churn to boost retention

Looking at the “winners” won’t tell you the whole story. A big part of optimizing your efforts for the highest LTV is understanding who’s churning and why. Identify your “subscriber cliff, which is the point at which subscribers tend to churn. Then, work backwards to understand why they’re churning. Whether it’s due to a price increase, the expiration of a promotional introductory offer, or something else, you now have a starting point for your retention efforts.

Make increasing LTV everyone’s priority

Part of driving higher LTV is ensuring every member of your team is responsible for success across the entire customer lifecycle.  Reorient people’s roles around the whole customer journey. For instance, compensate your sales reps based on your subscribers’ product adoption and retention rates, instead of just the price of the deal close.

3. Embrace a customer-first culture, even if you have to rethink your product

To effectively digitally transform your business, you need to be willing to blow up your “sacred cows.” Ignore everything you thought you knew about your product offerings. It’s time to rethink every aspect of your offerings and reorient yourself around what your subscribers demand.

Rethink your product

First, your digital subscription need not be a one-to-one remake of your physical subscription. Say you’re a newspaper: instead of forcing subscribers to pay for access to the entire paper, maybe charge a smaller fee to allow them to access only certain sections, a set number of articles per month, or particular features (just the crossword, for example). Others may not care as much about access to your current journalism but crave access to your archives.

Offer bundles

Another way to orient your product offering around your subscribers is by partnering with a complementary brand (whether publishing or not) and offering a bundled subscription. The New York Times, for instance, partnered with Spotify a few years ago to offer a joint subscription to music lovers that was cheaper than the combined cost of both companies’ subscription plans.

Enact a cultural shift

To adopt a customer-first mindset, recognize it requires incorporating a new product culture and retraining your employees. For many publishers used to “doing things the way they were always done,” this will likely feel scary. But staying static in the way you monetize your offerings makes no sense, not when consumer expectations change so quickly or your competitors are able to move on a dime.

The pay off

The shift to digital has brought with it a tidal wave of change in consumer habits and expectations. The playbooks that served publishers so well for decades just aren’t that relevant anymore. By offering innovative bundles, unique subscription offerings, and creative merchandising models, publishers can build durable subscriber relationships and deliver value across the subscriber journey. 

The road to publishing subscription success is paved with a variety of revenue streams. It requires a focus on subscribers that’ll drive high LTV. And it requires a rethink — and possible overhaul — of your product and company culture. No one said it was easy. But it is sure to be worth it. 

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