Immediate Media’s Million Subs Challenge

The start of the pandemic saw a huge increase in subs marketing activity from Immediate Media, as the company set itself ambitious subs targets. Jess Burney explains how they surpassed those targets and how they are now looking for further growth opportunities.

By Jess Burney

Immediate Media’s Million Subs Challenge

Our main challenge in the last few years has been finding enough new print subscribers to add back the number of subscribers churning each year… a familiar challenge for all mature subscription businesses.

During the pandemic and the related new, and difficult, experiences and demands we all faced, we developed and energetically embraced a new growth mindset within the team.

Getting to a million plus print subscribers was a bold mission that we set ourselves as part of this new mindset.

The last two years have seen a step change in print subscription performance, partly generated by a Covid spike in demand, but mainly generated by major changes to our marketing.

We have well over a million print subscribers today and plenty of ambition to keep our print sales buoyant and to invest in growth.

Let’s roll the clock back to March 2020

The famous Lenin quote, “There are decades where nothing happens and there are weeks when decades happen…” was an apt statement for the time we were living through.

Teams adapted to remote working, the impact of store closures, and cancelled events, alongside the pressures of getting magazine copy complete, printed and distributed, and the UK population being confined to home.

At this very difficult time, we were very excited to see a clear spike in responses to our subscription marketing campaigns.

We first thought the spike was coming from customers switching from newsstand to subscription. This was particularly true for Radio Times.

Inspired by what we saw, we wanted to do more to help our customers get copies of Radio Times at home. Our typical Radio Times subscription marketing offer is a discounted short-term trial. This automatically renews to a six monthly direct debit. It’s a tried and tested, sure fire way to create habituated and loyal subscribers.

But we also knew that some customers were reluctant to subscribe because they enjoyed the experience of buying magazines at their local newsagent.

With this not being as easy as it had been, we thought, why not give customers the benefits of subscription, without commitment.

We rapidly developed and put live a new offer in under a week. This new offer allowed customers to subscribe for three months, with a one off cash payment, and no further commitment.

This offer proved incredibly popular in lockdown with an immediate and clear interest and in the end, over 26,000 subscription orders were placed.

Excited by this success, we began to brainstorm other new ideas to amplify underlying demand.

We rapidly iterated another new offer, a spring promotion, which offered subscribers a longer than usual trial, six months, at a relatively high price. We were keen to build habit and wanted to give enough value to get traction, while avoiding acquiring cheap yielding subscribers who wouldn’t stick around.

We invested heavily in paid digital marketing while maximising promotion via owned media: brand websites, social media and extensive targeting of our database.

This campaign was a huge success; our subscriptions skyrocketed.

Getting to a million plus print subscribers was a bold mission that we set ourselves as part of this new mindset.

Headspace to think differently drove change

In this period of change, we pivoted to a much faster, much more experimental approach to allow us to take advantage of the opportunity sitting in front of us. This saw a small working group meeting three times a week to develop the thinking on new ideas and create the momentum for fast implementation.

The pace of change was very intense and the whole team, with support from the wider business, worked incredibly hard.

In addition to the new marketing, we were very focused on the quality of the customer experience: working to make sure customers had a good standard of customer service while segueing to remote working and keeping on top of postal disruption globally.

Having the right business intelligence was a huge enabler

We developed a brand new report which gave Immediate leadership visibility of the daily orders as they poured through our website, buysubscriptions.com. This was incredibly morale boosting in a period when everyone was living with so much uncertainty. As one senior figure commented – “subscriptions were keeping the lights blazing”.

We went on to develop other new reports and insights that gave us new ways of looking at our business and helped us to take a top down view, questioning traditional ways of doing things.

Audience research, along with database analysis of subscribers new to brand, told us that the percentages of subscribers new to reading our magazines had massively increased.

This insight fostered a belief that audiences in our large specialist markets, which include food, entertainment and gardening have the potential to spend far more than they currently do on a subscription, if we add more components into our product offer and move our thinking towards a membership approach. Having a vibrant, strong and growing subscriber base is a great place to cross sell, upsell and increase ARPU. We have subsequently begun testing added value offers.

Building on success created a virtuous circle

We invested more in new marketing in 2020, running campaigns that generated decent upfront yields and high retention levels as well as high numbers of new to brand subscribers. This saw us reinventing our Summer Sale and creating a bumper Christmas campaign. We developed and invested more in social, PPC and programmatic marketing campaigns. We saw a six figure increase in acquisitions across the year…

We developed new bespoke retention activity that gave lockdown subscribers offers that met their needs, for example, offering our no commitment offer subscribers the same (very high yielding) offer term to renew on. Early campaigns were very successful and retention was significantly better than expected.

Rolling out in 2021, when we saw how well these cohorts were renewing, we were even more encouraged!

Excited by this success, we began to brainstorm other new ideas to amplify underlying demand.

Keeping momentum going in 2021 was key

Our results and new mindset led to new marketing investments for 2021. This saw us challenging ourselves to get business buy-in and board approval to add a large amount of extra investment into our subscriptions marketing budget.

As part of the budget process, we began brainstorming new innovations for central investment. Over a series of intense workshops and modelling sessions, we developed a stretch investment proposal with ten individual investments. Seven were to grow acquisitions. These was extra investment in paid search, social marketing, programmatic, our Spring campaign, TV advertising, brand site promotion, and some additional direct mail. Three were to improve renewals: a loyalty reward for our most vulnerable trial cohorts, a new cancel “Save” intervention, and a new email win back programme.

Alongside this, we also proposed investments in extra people to implement new things.

Investing in more people was an important component in the business case. Subscriptions marketing is a specialist discipline and getting experienced people with the right skill set is crucial. The best subscription marketers are analytical, organised, and creative in thinking about targeting and marketing to customers.

Increasingly, roles require specific technical expertise in the various digital marketing disciplines and the greater the expertise, the more individuals can bring to their roles.

The business case for more marketing and people was 100% ROI driven and showed excellent LTV. Happily, the investment was signed off.

The business case for more marketing and people was 100% ROI driven and showed excellent LTV.

2021 has been so successful

2021 has seen a fantastic performance with results way ahead of our expectations at the time of budgeting. We hit the million milestone at the start of the year through the ongoing new marketing alongside our existing marketing programmes.

The impact of the extra investment was extremely positive. We have gained huge learning through adding additional scale to PPC and programmatic. Investing in more targeting and creative approaches has delivered social results ahead of expectations in a period where Facebook and Apple IOS data permission changes have seen many businesses struggle with delivering planned results.

We are really pleased with the results. We have ambitions to deliver further significant growth in 2022 and will be measuring our performance against these.

The payoff has been so satisfying

The team’s hard work was rewarded when Immediate won the inaugural PPA Subscriptions Strategy of the Year award in June. We were in the office together for the live award streaming and glasses were raised many times in the subsequent celebrating!

The success of our subscriptions campaigns was fundamentally underpinned by huge levels of support and help from the wider business, alongside the production of fantastic editorial from our hugely talented teams.

There are clear key learnings:

  • Be brave and be bold
  • Move quickly when the opportunity is in front of you
  • Capitalise on your successes to secure more investment
  • Keep focused on growth
  • Get people behind a clear mission

We are taking this learning into 2022 and beyond.

Looking ahead to the future we are excited about the opportunities

We remain well over the million print subscriber mark and believe we can continue to grow.

We have begun more radical thinking about how we could reinvent the subscriptions experience and modernise it. The world is always changing and so many businesses have developed subscription models: TV streaming, digital fitness, beauty, pet food, cars and meal kits to name just a few. Lessons from newer businesses and the impact on customer expectations are providing fruitful sources of fresh inspiration.

Our new growth mindset will help us compete and thrive in the subscription economy as we test, learn, pivot, evolve and adapt… We look forward to the new challenges and opportunities.

Lessons from newer businesses and the impact on customer expectations are providing fruitful sources of fresh inspiration.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.