ONA Weekly #357: Which Retention Strategies Do Publishers Trust?

By on April 28, 2021

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Seen from above, hands point toward a MacBook

Which retention strategies do publishers trust?

Earlier this year, the American Press Institute asked news publishers which retention strategies were the most valuable. They surveyed publishers about nine specific strategies, ranging from offering subscriber-only benefits to fixing credit-card expirations. 

“Onboard new subscribers” – which covers actions like encouraging readers to subscribe to newsletters, sending personal notes from someone in the newsroom or offering educational materials about their products – was the highest-rated strategy, with 86% of publishers saying this was “very” or “extremely” valuable. The tactic considered least valuable was offering subscriber-only benefits, with only 62% of publishers seeing this as valuable. However, this could be because this tactic is not widely used. Fewer than half of publishers offered rewards such as discounted access to events or meetups with staff. The New York Times, in contrast, did testing a few years ago that found that subscriber-only content increased retention, even for those who just got the messaging and didn’t use the exclusive content. 

Perhaps the most interesting data is the discrepancy between the strategies publishers rate as valuable versus the strategies publishers believe they are proficient in. These differences point to further opportunities for training to close the gap between value and confidence. For example, 76% of publishers think it’s important to track what subscribers are reading, but only 30% feel “fairly” or “very” proficient at doing so. And 84% of publishers said that it was valuable to identify at-risk subscribers, but only 19% felt proficient. 

One example of identifying at-risk subscribers comes from the Arizona Republic, which considers killing “zombies” a key part of its digital strategy. After analyzing metrics, the publication found that almost half of digital-only subscribers weren’t visiting the site once a month, according to John Adams and Alia Beard Rau. To survive this “zombie apocalypse of subscription churn,” they began tracking which content was performing well with various segments of the audience and gave reporters data on which stories were engaging the zombies. 

It eventually became clear that one winning strategy was for reporters to incorporate more trending and social stories into their beat. (However, this strategy worked best if the stories came from a beat reporter, not if they were identified and written by a social or breaking news team.) The metrics also made it clear that it was important to be creative. While Facebook and Twitter were important distribution channels in general, they didn’t engage zombies — and so it was necessary to think about TikTok, WhatsApp, Reddit and more. By using analytics and experimenting, the Arizona Republic increased the subscriber pool by 63% and reduced its overall churn rate by more than a percentage point.

We’re always on the lookout for helpful resources and tips. If you have other examples to share, please reply directly to this email.

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Two opportunities for students at ONA21

Five students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) will receive free registration to ONA21, intensive digital training and a one-year membership to ONA. The HBCU Digital Media Fellowship has been supported by the Knight Foundation since 2014. Apply here by May 6. 

The Student Newsroom and Innovation Lab provides a unique opportunity for undergraduates and graduate students. Ten students will receive complimentary conference badges and guidance from experienced mentors as they create their own multimedia video packages. Applications are also due May 6. Selected students must be available to participate in an orientation on May 19. 

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Get ready for the 2021 Online Journalism Awards

Submissions for this year’s Online Journalism Awards (OJAs) will open on Wednesday, May 5. Launched in May 2000, the OJAs are the only comprehensive set of journalism prizes honoring excellence in digital journalism around the world. We will announce new and updated categories this year. And in the meanwhile, check out the 2020 OJA winners for inspiration.

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Stat of the week

More than 1,800 journalists unionized with the NewsGuild and Writers Guild of America in 2020, up from 1,500 the year before. Learn more about the newsroom’s path to unionization from this ONA18 session with Matt Pearce, Alicia Ramirez and Meghan McCarron.

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Important dates

Note: All ONA events are currently happening online, and open to all regardless of where you’re located.
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Career opportunities

ONA’s Career Center is an excellent resource for jobs, fellowships and internships in digital journalism. Recent postings include:

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On our radar

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