An inconvenient truth for most subscription publishers is that their businesses are driven — to some degree — by revenue from people who don’t actually use the products or services they’re paying for. They might be paying subscribers, but they’re inactive — or “asleep.”
Deciding what to do about sleepers can be tricky. They often represent a meaningful chunk of publishers’ subscriber bases, and attempting to “wake” them risks triggering cancellations and denting revenue.
At the same time, relying on revenue from users who are unaware they’re paying for a product — and/or see no value in it — is not an effective strategy for a sustainable business. Subscription publishers reliant on revenues from sleepers should ask themselves serious questions about the value of their products and services, and their long-term viability.
What are sleeper subscribers?
Definitions for sleeper subscribers vary based on the nature of the publisher and product in question, but users can typically be considered sleepers if they have not accessed a site or service they have an active subscription to at least once within the past 30 days. Sleeper subscribers are also sometimes referred to as “zombie” subscribers.
Subscription software provider Piano said sleepers represented 40% of subscribers to media sites who used its technology during the month of January.
Why ignoring sleepers is not an effective strategy
Opting to minimize contact with sleepers while continuing to charge them for a product they don’t use can be tempting. Most publishers bend over backwards to minimize churn, so the idea of taking actions that might trigger cancellations is tantamount to blasphemy.
On paper, the numbers may support a laissez-faire approach. Sleeping subscribers often demonstrate extremely low churn rates because they have no idea they’re paying for the product in question.
In practice, however, a large number of sleeping subscribers is a ticking time bomb for a subscription product, and any publisher attempting to build a sustainable (and honest) subscription business will be better served in the long run by addressing the issue.
Sleeping subscribers eventually wake up, and the vast majority cancel their subscriptions within a year of going inactive. Ignoring sleepers may preserve a little revenue in the short term, but it comes with significant opportunity cost: Publishers who do so waste chances to forge long-lasting and more lucrative long term relationships with pre-qualified users who have already demonstrated a propensity to pay for their content.
A better approach is to be proactive with outreach to sleeping subscribers rather than tiptoeing around or hiding from them. If a product isn’t a good fit for a subscriber’s needs, it’s in the interests of both parties to part ways on amicable terms, leaving the subscriber with a positive experience and boosting their likelihood to return if and when they’re in a position to realize more value.
Why subscribers become sleepers
Subscribers can become “sleepers” for a long list of reasons, some of which are primarily the fault of the publisher, and some of which are driven by the circumstances and situations of individual subscribers.
Drivers often vary from one publisher to the next, largely dependent on the nature of their content and audiences. Some are prosaic, such as subscribers who don’t bother canceling because they aren’t the ones paying. Others can be more serious, such as subscribers who can physically no longer make use of the product.
Subscribers most commonly become sleepers because they:
- Don’t see ongoing value in the product: Subscribers who don’t receive value on an ongoing basis from a product are highly likely to become sleepers or to cancel their subscriptions. In some instances this is simply because a product isn’t meeting their needs or interests, but in others it may be because a publisher isn’t effectively communicating, packaging or delivering value optimally. Some subscribers may prefer to consume content exclusively via email, for example, in which case publishers might ensure that those subscribers receive content regularly in their inboxes.
- Forgot they purchased a subscription: Contributing factors for this include users changing email addresses, or accidentally opting out of all email communications from a publisher.
- Can’t log in or access content and features smoothly: In some instances this is caused by user confusion around login processes and technologies, such as two-factor authentication and magic links. In other cases it’s caused by the poor implementation of technology on the publisher’s part. A user’s primary browser may not be well supported by a publisher’s site, for example, or janky technology may cause users to be repeatedly logged out of their accounts or required to reset their passwords.
- Purchased a subscription to access a single piece of content: Delivering immediate value to new subscribers is an important part of the onboarding process, but some subscribers may find little ongoing value in a product after they’ve accessed the content or feature that drove them to make an initial purchase.
- Changed circumstances: Subscribers often have fleeting interests, or their need to access content about certain topics may expire. For example: professionals might purchase access to a niche industry publication but subsequently change jobs, or a person might subscribe to a publication to follow news about a specific event or trend — such as a political movement or global news event — that becomes less important over time.
- Someone else is footing the bill: Subscribers are much more likely to become sleepers if they haven’t paid for a subscription themselves. If someone else is footing the bill — such as an employer — users often have little incentive to cancel their subscription even if they’re well aware they’re not using it. These subscribers may also see value in having the option to access their subscription in future, if and when they need it. These dynamics are particularly common for publishers of business-related content, or content geared toward professionals.
- Purchased vaporware: Some publishers — intentionally or otherwise — oversell their products and mislead customers in their product positioning, marketing language, sales efforts and checkout processes. If a product falls well short of expectations, subscribers are likely to cancel or sleep.
Preventing sleeper subscribers
The best strategy for mitigating the effects of sleeper subscribers is — simply — to prevent subscribers from sleeping in the first place. The following tactics can be used to help keep subscribers awake and engaged:
Improving onboarding processes
Most sleeper subscribers fall asleep quickly, typically becoming inactive within two or three months of purchasing a subscription. Robust onboarding experiences can therefore help mitigate sleeping subscribers drastically by promoting early product engagement and ensuring regular consumption habits are built.
Onboarding experiences can also prove invaluable for learning about subscribers interests and consumption habits. For example: They can be used to understand the specific types of content a subscriber is most interested in and — more importantly — the types of content that may put them to sleep. They might also be used to better understand and cater for specific subscribers’ consumption habits. If a subscriber doesn’t have time to read content in their email inbox during workdays, for example, a better way to keep them awake might be via a weekly digest email sent at the weekend.
In order to effectively protect against sleeping subscribers, onboarding processes should also go well beyond the first few days or weeks of a subscription term. For annual subscribers, the initial onboarding process may stretch anywhere from three months to a year. For subscribers on monthly or quarterly plans, onboarding processes should typically be carefully mapped out for the entirety of their first subscription term — and often beyond — to ensure early engagement and help reduce churn and sleeper subscribers.
For more information on building robust onboarding processes, see the Guide to Onboarding Subscribers.
Promoting regular engagement
Ensuring ongoing engagement is crucial for minimizing both churn and sleeping subscribers. Publishers should ensure they have tactics in place to regularly reach subscribers with the content that interests them most, and via the channels that suit them best. This is particularly important for keeping subscribers awake, but can also add value for engaged subscribers, too.
A lack of regular and ongoing communication is a key driver for sleeper subscribers. As subscribers are bombarded with more information every day, and their inboxes become more clogged than ever, high-quality subscribers appreciate regular reminders of the value they’re paying for and the content and features they have access to.
Publishers that are confident in the value they’re delivering should typically err on the side of too much communication, rather than too little. And as outlined above, selling a new subscription and disappearing after conversion might help prolong churn to some degree, but it isn’t a recipe for a sustainable subscription business.
Identifying sleeper risk subscribers early
One effective tactic for minimizing sleeping subscribers is to identify those “dozing off” and nudge them before they sleep entirely. This can be achieved by identifying users that visit a site or use a product one or two times per month, and attempting to re-engage them before they reach zero.
Sophisticated publishers might go a step further and identify cohorts of users who are demonstrating declining engagement over time. For example, users who visited a site twice in one month, and only once the following can be flagged as high-risk of sleeping. Dedicated email journeys, notifications and other communication channels, and even manual outreach can be used to help reengage sleeper risk subscribers.
Waking up sleeper subscribers
For the reasons outlined above, ignoring sleeping subscribers is not a viable long-term strategy for any subscription product. Publishers building healthy and sustainable subscription businesses will be better served in the long-run by attempting to wake sleeping subscribers, even if it means triggering an increase in the process.
Churn isn’t always a negative for subscription businesses, and sleeping subscribers is one instance where publishers will ultimately benefit from having disengaged users filter themselves out in order to optimize their products and content to high-quality subscriber bases instead. Turning away revenue is easier said than done, of course, but relying on large numbers of sleeping subscribers for revenue is a ticking time bomb that’s better addressed sooner rather than later.
Using “wake up” campaigns
Subscribers should not be woken without a robust “wake up” plan and process in place. Effective wake up processes often look very similar to onboarding processes — and in some instances can effectively mirror them — since the goals for both are similar.
Any wake up plan or journey should seek to deliver immediate value to the awoken subscriber, to communicate and demonstrate the ongoing value they have access to, educate them on how best to derive optimum value from the product, and collect (or refresh) information on their interests, preferences and needs.
Wakeup plans don’t need to acknowledge how long a subscriber has been asleep for — or how much they may have been charged during that period — but should instead focus on the content, features and value they have access to. In rare instances — depending on the nature of the brand and the content — it may be appropriate to flag to subscribers that they haven’t used a product in a while, or to ask them how it might better suit their needs. This approach can work well for smaller publishers or solo creators, for example, where relationships between subscribers and the publisher are often more intimate or direct.
Once sleepers are awake (and haven’t churned) they can continue to be nurtured as sleep risk or churn risk subscribers — using the approaches outlined above — to ensure they’re kept awake and engaged and don’t immediately sleep again.
For more information on repurposing onboarding processes as a wake up campaign, see the Guide to Onboarding Subscribers.
Being opportunistic with “wake up” initiatives
Wake up campaigns often prove most effective and trigger fewer cancellations when tied to a high-value event or hook. For example, news publishers might find that sleeping subscribers wake up by themselves around major or particularly significant news events, presenting a valuable opportunity to re-engage and effectively re-onboard them.
For the same reasons, publishers should consider timing any proactive wakeup campaigns around major news events, or saving those efforts for when they have extremely high-quality content or new features to showcase. Sleeping subscribers fell asleep for a reason, so it’s advisable to be opportunistic and to wake them when a publisher has its best foot forward, rather than to do so with automated campaigns.