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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Never-subscribers are hiding in plain sight. What are you doing about it?

September 1, 2021 | By Abhishek Dadoo, Co-founder & CEO – Fewcents@fewcents

How many publishers do you have a paid subscription with? While you may be a paid subscriber with one or two digital publishers, you remain a “never-subscriber” from the lens of the next publisher. The 2021 Reuters Digital News Report states that the majority of people pay for one subscription (for content from publishers and local papers), and that the median number of subscriptions for U.S. consumers is two. 

To digital publishers, never-subscribers mean lost revenue. But in today’s digital-first world, where ad revenues are unreliable and subscription fatigue is mounting, should never-subscribers remain a lost revenue opportunity? The answer lies in implementing dynamic paywalls.

A typical dynamic paywall journey looks like this: Place a first-party cookie so you can track user visits. Then, give the visitor access to a few pieces of metered content. After a set number of articles, it’s time to show a registration wall. Then, as soon as those views are up, it’s time to show the “all you can eat” subscription paywall/offer.

Many users traverse this journey but for those that don’t subscribe, publishers tend to “rinse and repeat” the same journey. Some publishers might try discount offers for “all you can eat” subscriptions or even suggest custom-bundles at lower price points before allocating dead end users to the “rinse and repeat” pool.

Untapped revenue opportunities

Despite visit recency and frequency metrics, there are users who defy registration, subscription, or custom-bundle offers even after relentless efforts by the publishers. These dead-end users are your never-subscribers. And there are hoards of them. There are also those users who churn after the subscription trial period is over, or sleepers who churn at the beginning of the month when they evaluate their credit card bills. All of these users offer an untapped revenue opportunity.

Putting never-subscribers (dead end users and churned users) back in the “rinse and repeat” bucket is hardly a strategy. However, there are a few questions that needs answers before a real strategy for never-subscribers can evolve:

  1. Who are the dead end users?
  2. What are the additional options available beyond discounting or custom-bundles?
  3. If users were given additional options, would fewer users subscribe?
  4. If users were given additional options, would there be fewer sleepers?
  5. If users were given additional options, would it accelerate subscription churn?

Dead end users could be visitors with high visit frequency who subscribed elsewhere. They might be casual visitors referred via social media. Or perhaps they are low frequency visitors from international geographies. The mix differs for each publisher, but retrospective analysis of user journey data should yield quick segmentation of never-subscribers.

Extending the user journey with discounted subscriptions or custom-bundles are good options for users approaching a dead end. But how do you know how much discounting would suffice? Or what custom-bundle offers will work for the user?

Unbundling solutions

To get this understanding, publishers have to unbundle the existing content pool to evaluate the true worth of each piece of content. Extending to unbundling solutions such pay per content provide insights for custom-bundles. They also provide substantial revenue streams for the long term.

Understanding the direct impact of unbundling solutions on the publisher’s existing subscription business requires sustained experiments and aligned goals between departments. For example, subscriber numbers dominate reader-revenue headlines. 

However, they fail to focus on subscriber retention or revenue. Marketing teams could be focusing on increasing pageviews without any consideration about the quality of the audience which converts into subscriptions. The editorial team on the other hand could be working in a silo without any revenue linked objectives.

Playing the long game to win

Improving audience engagement and customer-lifetime-value are high level goals that every department’s KPI should be linked to. For example, changing the KPI to net new subscribers and average revenue per subscriber are better health barometers of the reader-revenue business. New subscribers per-1,000 pageviews focuses the marketing team’s efforts on quality audiences. And, average time spent per page allows editorial teams to focus on quality content for their audience.

No publisher can escape the fact that subscriptions are a long game. The Google News Initiative reader revenue playbook carries an ominous message: 

“For some of the [news] organizations we’ve worked with, the transition can take years if not decades. But it’s achievable. For many news organizations, converting just 3-5% of readers into paying subscribers or contributors can support long-term sustainability”.

Therefore, understanding never-subscribers and the monetization opportunities that lie within is a long game too! But why is it that publishers are ever so quick to dismiss the never-subscriber cohort and bring them back into the “rinse and repeat” pool for subscriptions? It turns out that extending the user journey with unbundling options might bear more fruit.

About the author

Abhishek is a Co-founder & CEO of Fewcents, fintech-for-publishers that brings incremental reader revenue from “Never-Subscribers.” He is a seasoned business leader and technology product manager. He has worked in management consulting with PwC and Altman Solon in Boston, USA before moving to Singapore permanently. In Singapore, he started his own venture, Shoffr, a digital marketing solution that provides online to offline attribution for digital marketers. In 2019, Abhishek sold Shoffr to Affle, a publicly listed ad-tech company in India. After solving the advertiser’s offline attribution problem, Abhishek has now set his eyes on solving the content monetization problem for online publishers.

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