This week in Subscription Publishing:
- Many news publishers have seen a slowdown in subscription conversions this year, and a reduction in traffic across all news sites is a key contributing factor.
- Lack of transparent pricing and bait-and-switch promotional offers are major reasons people cancel news subscriptions, a new survey from Nieman Lab confirms.
- A new initiative from Medill is aggregating subscriber engagement data from a range of local news publishers to help them benchmark their performance against their peers and better understand what types of content drive subscriber conversions and retention.
Traffic dip contributes to subscription slowdowns for news publishers
Most news publishers we work with at Toolkits have reported a notable slowdown in new subscriber conversions so far this year. Reasons for these slowdowns are plentiful and vary from one publisher to the next, but one major contributing factor is a notable dip in overall traffic to news publishers across the board over the past 12 months.
Data from Similarweb, published this week by PressGazette, illustrates this trend. Among the top 50 English-language news sites in September, 32 saw reductions in their top-line traffic over the past 12 months. Few sites in the list saw increases in traffic from August to September, as well, suggesting a slow bounce-back from common seasonal traffic dips that many publishers see in the summer months.
Precise reasons for traffic slowdowns of course vary from one publisher to the next, but the fact is that demand for news generally has softened. Interest in the coronavirus pandemic is receding from its peak, as is the appetite for information on other recent key news stories from major markets — such as the Trump presidency in the U.S., and Brexit in Europe.
Now more than ever, news publishers will find that highly differentiated content and original, high-quality reporting and journalism will be required to move the needle on new subscriber conversions and retention. With reduced base-level demand for news, publishers will increasingly need to explore ways to generate interest with new content initiatives and features, rather than relying on the news cycle itself to drive demand, as some have done in recent years.
Why subscribers choose to cancel
Confusing pricing, dark patterns, convoluted promotions and introductory offers can all help publishers effectively boost subscription conversion rates in the short-term. In the long-run, however, they inevitably lead to customer frustration and can irreparably dent publishers’ brands.
That was one of the findings of a recent research project by Nieman Lab, for which it surveyed 500 of its readers on the reasons they recently cancelled news subscriptions. While the research is by no means statistically significant — or representative of the attitudes of any broader market or audience outside of Nieman’s readership — it offers a rare glimpse into the specific motivations of subscribers.
Unsurprisingly, “money” topped the list of reasons for subscriber cancellations. Some respondents cited lack of funds, but many either canceled their subscriptions when promotional rates expired, were irritated or surprised when subscriptions renewed at prices they weren’t expecting, or felt that publishers were not transparent about their pricing.
Other major drivers for cancellations included ideological differences, and because the product didn’t live up to their expectations or provide enough value for money.
Nieman also published all 503 survey responses it received in full, which is well-worth flicking through. Just be sure to take answers with a grain of salt given the likely nature of Nieman’s readership and its heightened interest in journalism and media business models.
Medill launches subscriber engagement benchmarking initiative
Benchmarking is a constant challenge for subscription publishers. Useful apples-to-apples comparisons are hard to come by, especially for smaller outfits or those targeting niche audiences or geographic markets.
Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism has announced an interesting initiative to attempt to solve this, with a tool it’s calling the Subscriber Engagement Index. Forty-four local news organizations are participating in the project, which will provide aggregated data from across participants’ properties on a range of key metrics including what types of content are helping to drive subscriber retention, what content is most likely to contribute to churn, and a “what-if” tool designed to help publishers project the business impact of increased subscriber engagement on their sites.
This type of initiative could prove particularly useful for local news operations, which often produce similar types of content and products for their different audiences and markets. But publishers with different focuses — such as business-to-business publishers, or those catering to more niche interests and audiences — could benefit from similar sharing of information. We expect to see more publishers banding together to share aggregated data for mutual benefit, although the efficacy of such initiatives will depend on how transparent they’re willing to be.
For more practical guidance on building sustainable subscription and membership products and businesses, see the Subscription Publishing Toolkit.