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Track reader regularity rates to optimize subscription success

November 24, 2021 | By Rande Price, Research VP – DCN

Reader-revenue strategies offer publishers a recurring revenue stream and positive audience relationships. A strong subscription business requires measuring and monitoring the core metrics of consumer engagement. More than likes and clicks, though, true subscriber engagement is characterized by regular usage. The Medill index developed by the Medill Spiegel Research Center provides insights to identify this important metric of at-risk subscribers for local news outlets.

The research includes data from close to 50 news outlets. On average, across all publications, 95% of subscribers pay for their subscriptions each month. However, they do not visit the sites that they subscribe to daily. And that could spell trouble.

Know your readers

The Medill’s subscriber index segments readers into three tiers based on outlet size to identify at-risk subscribers.

  • Tier 1, large newsrooms, shows a monthly retention rate of 95.4% and visit an average of 5.7 days per month.
  • Tier 2, mid-sized newsrooms, shows monthly retention at 95.7% and visit an average of 9.2 days per month.
  • Tier 3, small newsrooms, shows monthly retention at 96.2% and visit an average of 10.5 days per month.

Subscribers in smaller communities tend to look at their local news organizations for multiple purposes. These include local news events and sports sports, as well as national and international news. In contrast, many readers of medium and large newsrooms turn to secondary sources for national and international news.

Deep dive into audience analyses 

The Medill index tracks both subscribers and registered non-subscribers to assesses whether they are “at-risk” or “established” based on their regularity. “At-risk” is defined as two or fewer visits per month, while “established” means more than two visits. The research concludes that regular visits to a website is more important for retention than the number of stories subscribers read. Building toward habits of daily usage is a necessary retention metric.

Engaging with at-risk subscribers is vital to keeping retention high. Tim Franklin, Senior Associate Dean and John M. Mutz Chair in Local News at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, suggests getting subscribers engaged through regular communications. This connection point can be a newsletter, a news alert, an email from the editor or the publisher, or even emails about events. Reader retention needs to be a central focus and play a prominent role in a publisher’s strategy.

Experiment to engage

In addition, experimentation is essential to evaluate the effect of different pricing offers on churn. Lenfest’s Herts, a former Finance VP of the Dow Jones Consumer Media Group, recounts an experiment at a major metro news outlet. They offered an introductory price of $1 for six-month access. A higher number of sign-ups for the long-term introductory offer resulted in more total subscribers after one year than previous short-term offers.

Understanding cross-platform consumption is also crucial in understanding the total engagement picture. How often a reader engages in the site, app, newsletter, comments, etc., all represent an integration into the reader’s lifestyle experience. The publisher’s goal is to make its product a constant touchpoint and — as such — valuable to the subscriber.

Identifying and engaging with at-risk subscribers is necessary for reader retention. The Medill Index demonstrates the importance of publisher attention to reader regularity to build a long-term relationship with a core cohort of paying subscribers

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