Attend any subscription or media conference these days and the discussion will quickly turn to one of retention: How to keep subscribers, how best to engage them, and how to better predict and prevent them from leaving.

And while the science of acquiring a new subscriber is well optimised and measured, the art of retention is trickier still. Winning at retention requires playing the long game — focusing on proactively engaging subscribers, reading the right signals to mitigate churn, and having the patience to see the results of your efforts months, if not years, down the line.

Retaining subscribers is a long game requiring strategic planning.
Retaining subscribers is a long game requiring strategic planning.

So where do you start? And what do you do?

While many of us are in the same boat in a sea of exploration and uncertainty, here are some ideas that publishers can look to in tackling the retention opportunities ahead:

1. Listen to your customers. Companies (including media) often rely solely on operational data to “understand” their customers. They look at transactional level metrics like pageviews, clicks, or time spent to infer intent — or worse, satisfaction.

While operational data can certainly help round out the picture of engagement with your audience, one should avoid inferring intent or customer need from this data alone. Ask subscribers directly for their feedback through surveys. Or better yet, listen to what they are already telling you through customer care calls and transcripts, app store reviews, or social media mentions.

Do you hear common complaints or areas of confusion? Are there elements of the experience that they really enjoy that could be amplified? Subscribers are already taking the time to share their thoughts on their interactions with our brands — it’s on us to listen and act.

2. Reduce customer effort. It’s no secret that improving customer ease can bolster satisfaction and likelihood to continue. When thinking about preferred brands like Amazon, Apple, or Netflix, they not only focus on product quality and excellence, but are equally focused (if not more so) on ease of use. So why aren’t publishers equally obsessed over the end-to-end subscriber experience?

Look for ways to measure customer effort through survey questions at key interactions and touch points, such as in post-transactional environments (“How easy was it to complete this task today?”). Analyse existing operational data such as call wait times, first call resolution, or page load speeds to assess customer effort and prioritise areas for experience improvements.

3. Establish an engagement “North Star.” Look at the engagement behaviours that contribute most to subscriber retention for your business. It may be site frequency, time spent, active days, section or sub-section, or possibly some combination thereof. You may find that newsletters, alerts/notifications, or apps are particularly effective at driving subscribers (and overall users) back to the site as important communication vehicles.

Understanding the behaviour that leads to better engagement and retention helps you prioritise and deliberately design the benefits, content, vehicles, and communication cadence for subscribers.

4. Focus on onboarding. The opportunity to build brand loyalty and reader habit begins the moment someone signs up for a subscription. Capitalise on the post-purchase online subscription flow to surface key benefits or features that will keep them engaged and coming back.

This could include a newsletter sign-up module (ideally with pre-checked or recommended newsletters), the ability to customise their experience with topic alerts and contact preferences, or a landing page outlining the breadth of benefits available as part of the subscription experience.

Beyond the on-site experience, engage subscribers in an e-mail or omni-channel onboarding experience to reinforce the value of their subscription, paying particular attention to the first 90 days.

5. Say thanks. You may not have sophisticated data science or machine-learning capabilities to mine and model data and predictive analytics, but every publisher can take a moment to thank subscribers for their support and contributions. Engage and partner with newsrooms to craft thank you messages from editors or key journalists and personalities. Keep it simple and honest; don’t try to push other calls to action or upsells in the message.

6. Dive in on non-payment. Plagued with data breaches across retailers nationwide, credit card re-issuance is at an all-time high. While focusing on proactive subscriber engagement, publishers have a tremendous opportunity to reduce involuntary subscription churn by addressing non-pay stops (credit card failures). Look to credit card updater services and examine whether it makes sense to extend the grace period for affected subscribers, or to implement pre-grace communications even earlier.

7. Collaborate with newsrooms early and often. More and more newsrooms are focusing on acquisition and the business behind the sale. Far fewer are focused on retention and the role they play in subscriber engagement.

A key first step is to begin having retention conversations with newsrooms and sharing digestible data on the retention and revenue opportunities at hand. Share subscriber reading habits and the topics, vehicles, or features (like notifications) contributing to better engagement as a way to spark active newsroom participation and involvement.

8. Tell a compelling story. Retention and churn reports are important, but so too are the sound bites framing the retention opportunity for key stakeholders. Growing new subscribers is important, but what’s the equivalent revenue opportunity for retaining an existing high lifetime value subscriber for three to six months longer? And do you look at your retention data this way?

All customers churn at some point; focus storytelling on how much longer you kept a subscriber cohort year-over-year (or some period of duration) as a result of your engagement and churn mitigation efforts to help demonstrate the return on your efforts and the revenue improvement that results.