There’s been heightened interest in “sleeper” subscribers in recent weeks, fueled by an eyebrow-raising datapoint from subscription tech provider Piano which said 43% of subscribers don’t use the products they pay for in any given month (based on data from publisher websites that use its technology.)
Media reporters understandably jumped on the stat, and it was used to reignite discussion about the viability of subscription models on social media. The data quickly prompted questions from Toolkits readers and clients as well, largely because 43% is significantly higher than the sleeper rates many see for their own subscription products. Are they actually performing way above average, or are they missing something?
There’s no escaping the fact that publishers with large numbers of sleeper subscribers may have a significant problem on their hands. But for publishers with viable subscription products and models in place, the sky isn’t falling. A nuanced approach tailored to the specific nature of their products and audiences is required to accurately identify, measure and manage sleeper populations effectively.
Key factors to consider when evaluating sleeper subscribers:
Definitions are important
Piano’s 43% stat is based on website usage, which only gives a partial view of engagement for most publishers’ subscription products. (The company also told Toolkits the datapoint reflects the month of March 2022 and refers to the median publisher site in its sample.)
For many publishers, however, their most loyal subscribers primarily engage with their content through apps, email newsletters, audio, and other channels, and may visit their websites infrequently. Some publishers now specifically orient subscription products around content and features that are not available via their sites, such as subscriber exclusives delivered via email and audio platforms. (I consume content from The Economist and The New York Times most days, for example, but rarely find myself on their sites.)
When attempting to get an accurate read on sleeper subscribers and broader engagement rates for their subscriber bases, publishers should ensure they’re factoring in engagement across all relevant channels and touchpoints. While it may not result in vastly different numbers, at Toolkits we tend to define sleepers as subscribers who have not engaged with content across any channel or platform in the prior 30-day period.
Visibility is a challenge
Even with a clear definition in place, measuring sleepers isn’t always easy. For publishers that distribute subscriber-only content across a range of channels and platforms, accurately tracking subscriber behavior end engagement to present a “360-degree” view can be difficult.
For less sophisticated publishers – or those without the budget to spend on data and analytics tools – it may be difficult to say with confidence which subscribers are asleep and which simply aren’t consuming content via channels where they’re being measured effectively. (For this reason, re-engagement campaigns can often appear highly effective if they specifically prompt sleeping users to visit a website where they are counted as “awake”, even if they had been regularly consuming content via other means previously.)
Sleeper rates vary significantly based on product, content, and audience
Perhaps unsurprisingly, sleeper rates vary significantly depending on the nature of a publisher’s content, product, and audience, and a good rate for one publisher might be considered a terrible rate for another. For business-to-business publishers, for example, it’s not uncommon for audiences to regularly “sleep” before waking around large news events, important content drops (such as quarterly reports), or seasonal factors. Sleeper rates increase for many B2B publishers during the month of August, for example. Elsewhere, a sports publisher might see periods of subscriber inactivity during the offseason, while a daily news publisher might expect its sleeper rate to remain relatively consistent year-round.
Seasonality aside, some products simply lend themselves to more frequent engagement than others. In some cases, 30 days may not be long enough to reflect the value that subscribers derive from a product, particularly if it’s being sold on a quarterly or annual basis. Publishers should consider the nature of their products and audiences and how they factor into their definitions and understandings of inactive subscribers.
Price is a key factor
Based on what we’ve seen across our clients’ data, subscription prices closely correlate with volume of sleeper subscribers. Products with high price points typically see fewer sleepers than those priced more modestly (although, as above, this also depends on the nature of the product and audience in question.) This dynamic might be explained by smaller charges simply standing out less to subscribers on credit card statements and receipts, and/or it may suggest they’re happy to pay for products they engage with less frequently provided the price remains commensurate with the value they receive. (Billing frequency is also a factor here since longer subscription terms usually come with larger price tags than shorter ones.)
Industry-wide benchmark data for subscription products is always useful, but publishers should interpret it carefully and thoughtfully to ensure it doesn’t skew their perception of their own performance or pull their priorities off course.
That said, publishers should ensure they have mechanisms in place to measure sleeper subscribers accurately, identify “sleeper risk” subscribers early, and are implementing tactics to prevent subscribers from sleeping in the first place. For further detail, see our guide to managing sleeper subscribers.