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Subscriber acquisition 

Key stages

Welcome to our latest subs special, this time taking a fresh look at new subscriber acquisition. All of the insights and opinions come from leading suppliers to the publishing sector and from subs experts at UK publishing companies.

By James Evelegh

Key stages

This special feature on subscriber acquisition has four sections:

The big picture

Key stages

Present & future

Suppliers spotlight

In this section:

Replenishing & maintaining the prospect pool

Moving prospects through the sales funnel

Closing the deal

Managing your newly won subscriber

Replenishing & maintaining the prospect pool

Finding prospects

“In essence,” says Jamie Wren, commercial & marketing director, InterMedia, “publishers can find new prospects anywhere; there should not be any restriction on where a prospect can come from. What publishers need to ensure is that they are looking for the right prospects.”


Jamie Wren says that publishers can “mirror their existing data set and find like-minded customers – which works well if the subscription file is in growth of course. This relies on the quality of the data to be high and the level of insight to be deep and meaningful enough to be able to frame the like-for-like profile of the customers.”

Finding like-minded prospects is also a good reason to “profile competitive set data, typically available via a third party agency,” says Mike Halstead, managing director, HH&S.

John Sheehy, chief solutions architect, AdvantageCS, adds that “most publishers have what they think of as their core pool of potential prospects. That should always be at the forefront as they presumably have the lowest acquisition cost.”

Mine your existing properties

Steve Russell, client services director, Circdata.

The first place publishers should look is their exiting digital properties, says Steve Russell, client services director, Circdata: “Make sure that everyone who engages with you is invited to engage with you further. Most commonly, a quick pop-up that invites people to sign-up to a newsletter or if you have several newsletters, align the pop-ups with content. All you need at this stage is their email address. You can get more information further down the acquisition chain.”

Patrick Lidstone, managing director, The Engine Shed agrees – publishers should focus on “converting visitors to their own websites who haven’t signed up, especially recurring ones.”

And it’s not just your digital properties where prospects can be found, says Graham Elliott, managing director, Gordon & Gotch Publishing. Event attendees are an obvious prospect pool, as are, potentially, customers to other brands in your portfolio.

Use influencers

According to Tom Mullen, head of B2B client services, Air Business Subscriptions, “influencers / content creators are now a huge part of media and daily life. Some of these creators can have audiences in the hundreds of thousands, even millions. Entering a partnership with one of these figures can easily open your publication up to a very large pool of prospects.

“Similarly, consider collaborating with well-known public figures each issue for a segment. Most, if not all, key public figures will have a following of some sort – having regular contributions from celebrities or sector experts would bring a huge amount of exposure. People just following news about various sector experts may see that they contribute regularly to a particular title. These prospects would then learn about the publication and could be encouraged to subscribe.”

Patrick Lidstone agrees: “Use influencers and subject matter experts to drive your subscriptions up. Collaborating with other content providers will increase SEO and help spread the word.”


According to Madeleine White, head of international, Poool, “niche media repeatedly perform well above average when it comes to conversion performance – likely thanks to their specialist content that speaks to very defined, engaged audiences.

“But that’s not to say that more generalist media brands can’t learn from their example.

“Half of new subscribers to The New York Times, for instance, come from games, a very focused, niche product within the NYT bundle that forms a habit and brings the user closer to the publisher’s content.

“Whilst The Mail+ in the UK provides subscribers with 45+ daily puzzles and an archive of 50,000+ puzzles, with more than 90% of players having a 30-day streak at a minimum, meaning these users are continuously coming back to engage.

“This ‘niche-ification’ of generalist publishers can take a variety of forms, including newsletters, pop-up newsletters for TV series, apps, podcasts and more.”

The list is endless…

“Social media is definitely a major player in both B2B and B2C spaces,” says Lorna Fenimore, senior VP, audience, ePublishing.

The list is of potential sources is long says Sam Shedden, head of customer loyalty, National World Publishing, and includes social media, newsletters, paid search, partnerships with related industries, participation in events, and content marketing.

Add to that list, says Seema Bilimoria, head of acquisitions marketing, Immediate Media, influencer partnerships, online communities and forums, TV advertising, podcasts and outdoor advertising.

HH&S’s Mike Halstead urges publishers not to “forget the offline opportunities as well. The product itself whether with an in-paper advert or an insert is an obvious place to advertise but also there is still a place for mechanics such as direct mail, attending events and working with other publications.”

Patrick Lidstone agrees that “bricks and mortar establishments that see your preferred clientele segment” are worth using; for example, providing copies of high performance car magazines to high end dealers on the agreement they will be placed in the customer waiting area.”

Andrew Parkinson, head of client relations, NewsTeam Group.

Air Business Subscriptions’ Tom Mullen adds: “In-page ads in related titles can work well, as readers looking at publications in a similar sector may be interested in having alternative options to add to their subscription list. It may not always be desirable to advertise a competitor, but if the deal works both ways then it could be beneficial for both parties!”

And, adds Tom Mullen, consider “contacting existing subscribers with “Refer a Friend” offers. If a subscriber can get a friend or relative to sign up, then offer a kickback for the referrer (1-month free issues potentially) and a discounted subscription for the referee.”

Andrew Parkinson, head of client relations, NewsTeam Group, stresses the importance of timing: “Don’t just think about the where, consider the when. Is there an event in your calendar that drives interest to your brand such as a World Cup, start of the season or awards ceremony. Target this for specific activity with a well thought-through offer.”

Using data / registration walls

“Barriers to content need to be used strategically,” says Circdata’s Steve Russell: “In the first instance, you may want to allow them to consume your content for free, but make sure you’ve recorded that interest somewhere, so when they make a return visit, you know about it. Then set a threshold on how many visits they can make and when that is met, start inviting them to subscribe or at least provide you with enough information that will enable you to process them through your sales process. But… if they reject your cookie policy, put the barrier up straight away.”

“Regwalls can be powerful tools,” says National World’s Sam Shedden: “The key is finding the optimal point in the user journey to place them and to ensure registration comes with appropriate incentives. Publishers might offer free access to premium articles, special reports, or newsletters in exchange for basic information. Being upfront about why we need people to register doesn’t hurt either.”

“It is absolutely key,” emphasises InterMedia’s Jamie Wren, “that a prospect feels that they are receiving something in return for any information that they may be giving up. The more information being requested, the more the customer should receive in return.”

Create a value exchange

“Registration, just like subscription, involves a value exchange,” says Poool’s Madeleine White: “You provide additional value to a user and, in exchange, they provide you with key data points and a custom reader ID. Given this, registration should be thought of as a product in and of itself, one with clear benefits and a value proposition that explains why users should convert. With this defined value exchange, you’ll be able to get something back from your reader, often in the form of data.”

“When registering people,” advises David Coveney, director, Standfirst, “give them real incentives to sign up to newsletters and give them options as to whether to subscribe to a daily, weekly or monthly summary. Having said that, I love my weekly industry newsletters, but the daily ones end up being ignored.”

Robert Jay, board member, Realfin.

For Robert Jay, board member, Realfin, “Freemium models, free trials and free newsletters are the best, but don’t just use that data to start selling your product; this relates to the distinction between lead and demand gen.”

To encourage registration, suggests Tom Mullen, “hide articles or content behind these walls. Giving a short snippet to get the prospect reading first could entice them enough to sign up through a data wall to read the rest of the article. You can use the data wall to offer extra services, rather than just reading articles, for instance, signing up for email newsletters.”

Also, Tom Mullen continues, “add comments sections to articles which are only accessible past a registration wall. Customers may wish to read and contribute to comments on topics they have an interest in, so getting them to sign up for an account would enable them to do this, as well as provide the publisher with valuable data.”

“If publishers have not started investing in their data collection platforms, they need to start ASAP,” advises Blake Pollard, co-founder and CRO, eMagazines: “Collecting the right data helps publishers identify their top users – age, gender, race, income levels, print vs. online activity, etc etc. This data will help companies figure out who they should be targeting as new users.”

Start small and build

Mike Halstead says: “It is important to get the right balance between collecting valuable data and ensuring you still deliver a positive user experience. Instead of asking for lots of data upfront, it would be better to collect basic details at first and then gradually gather more data over time as customers engage more with the content and you learn more from their behaviours.

Standfirst’s David Coveney agrees: “Don’t scare people with a big data grab. It’s possible to set up a system to ask for a little data at a time. Alternatively, use an annual customer survey to learn about your most engaged readers. And publish the interesting data. People like to know about themselves!”

“We’re seeing, more and more, progressive registration pages on customer sites,” adds ePublishing’s Lorna Fenimore: “This approach provides a way to begin gathering information little by little about your site visitors to gradually build their profiles.”

It’s important to “ensure that registration pages are easy to complete and not overcomplicated,” says Tom Mullen, because “prospects could very quickly lose interest in what they are looking for if signing up through a data wall becomes a laborious task. Only make fields mandatory which are important for the publisher; it should be more of a quick data collection exercise than a full-on survey or questionnaire.

“Include messaging around how popular signing-up is! Wording such as ‘Over 500,000 new readers signed up with XXPublicationXX last year!’ could help prospects to feel more comfortable going through a data wall if they know a large group of others have done the same.”

The Engine Shed’s Patrick Lidstone recommends adopting a “single sign-on, integrated with an e-commerce platform. One sign-on to rule them all!” This will, he continues, allow publishers to “seamlessly track activity across the diverse media estate, cookies be damned!”

Have an onboarding programme

A regwall is “a low barrier to entry and will have a lower conversion, so make sure to continue to provide interest and value to that data pool, using intent, engagement and inbound indicators to convert,” says Realfin’s Robert Jay.

Madeleine White recommends publishers “make the most of account creation to increase engagement (and so propensity to subscribe) by leading newly registered readers through a dedicated onboarding journey, just like they would for new subscribers. For instance, publishers could consider: newsletter subscriptions, encouraging app downloads, promoting subscription through a free trial or reduced offer. Part of this is personalising the user experience and offering the prospect ‘proof of concept’ to show the value that they now have access to as a registered user.”

The data you should be collecting

Keep initial data requests to a minimum

“In the first instance,” says Steve Russell, “you only need an email address. You can get more information further down the acquisition chain.”

AdvantageCS’s John Sheehy agrees: “Collecting data should be limited to the minimum (the customer’s email address) to reduce friction.”

For Immediate Media’s Seema Bilimoria, it’s also important to “get the correct data permission opt-ins which are essential to be able to target them again.”

“More niche publications,” notes Sam Shedden, “might be able to ask for postcode preferences, and possibly profession or industry.”

Asking for as little data as possible chimes with the public mood says NewsTeam Group’s Andrew Parkinson: “Just as publishers are finding data more valuable than ever before, consumers are becoming more wary about handing over their personal details.”

It’s worth remembering that a great deal of data can be derived with “minimal user interaction”, says Patrick Lidstone: “for instance, historical viewing history, content preferences, platform preferences, engagement level and frequency.”

Mike Halstead advises publishers not to forget postal options: “Often people make the mistake of not collecting postal addresses. Since GDPR, it is harder to target people via email without unambiguous permission whereas there is more access opportunity via post.”

Use progressive profiling

“You can continue to improve and collect data after the initial sign-up with progressive profiling,” says Robert Jay.

Seema Bilimoria says, “collecting preferences based on interests will allow publishers to create a truly segmented and personalised journey and ensure that new prospect unsubscribe rates remain as low as possible and prospects are only being sent content they are interested in.”

John Sheehy, chief solutions architect, AdvantageCS.

“Additional data can be associated with that identity through first party data tracked behaviours, targeted surveys or email response campaigns,” adds John Sheehy: “The outcomes of that additional data can be used to segment customers into meaningful buckets for acquisition outcomes. Segmenting based on customers’ active participation (eg. survey) is much higher in value then perceived behaviour (eg. uses Safari so must love Apple).”

To facilitate this, says Steve Russell, publishers should “make sure they have tagged their online content to reflect how they would categorise that content against the profile of their audience.”

The types of information publishers might look to collect, adds Tom Mullen, includes: “how the prospect found their way to the website (this shows which channels or marketing methods are driving the most traffic), interests (this will allow the publisher to better segment prospects and push more relevant marketing to each group), location (this can be used to implement geographic segmentation and market key benefits offered), usage data (technographic or behavioural segmentation is important when deciding what key features need to be pushed to each group in marketing communications).”

Segmentation tips

Segmentation is extremely important,” says eMagazines’ Blake Pollard: “Traditional magazine media can learn a lot from newer media groups like Morning Brew and The Hustle. Both groups do a great job putting their subscribers into specific buckets. If they have users that stop engaging, they ultimately leave them alone. This focus allows them to build a more refined plan for new subscriber acquisition by focusing on those who want to hear from them and what they actually want to hear about.”

“Segmenting prospects can be done by analysing the reading habits of your logged in readers using collected first party data,” says Sam Shedden: “Then customers can be packaged into interest groups which advertisers can then sell to. There’s more value for advertisers if you can say, ‘we have 10,000 unique visitors a day reading two or more property articles’ than ‘we have 100,000 registered users but we’re not really sure what they like’.”

“In terms of collecting new prospects,” advises Madeleine White, “instead of starting with engagement, turn to look at your most loyal subscribers to discover what engagement actions are linked to high value users. If you can link engagement to LTV, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of how you can increase engagement to secure high conversion and retention rates.

“For example, if you know that a registered reader is ten times more likely to subscribe, you should consider an audience segment of logged readers with a personalised experience that will most likely convert them into a subscriber.

“But the most simple, effective strategy for segmenting audiences and building dynamic user journeys is to use engagement groups. We suggest dividing readers into four groups based on a RFV (recency, frequency and volume) engagement score – volatiles, occasionals, regulars and fans. This allows publishers to present readers with an adapted journey that will most likely convert them into higher value readers.”

Top tips

1. Use content marketing: “It is vital to offer relevant and high-quality content to entice new prospects and have a segmented and targeted onboarding journey to maintain this pool,” says Seema Bilimoria.

2. Offer a clear value proposition: “Ensure the prospect is getting some benefit! Newsletters, comments sections, increased free article limits, discount code off a first subscription order, are all ways to give a prospect some encouragement to sign up through a registration wall. They need to feel like they are getting something in return for handing over their data,” says Tom Mullen.

3. Keep the sign-up process simple and transparent: Gordon & Gotch’s Graham Elliott says publishers should, “keep it simple and easy to complete and not present the prospect with too many options. Input should be kept to a minimum at this stage.”

Madeleine White suggests “integrating form fields into your registration wall to make account creation as frictionless as possible.”

Transparency is key, says Mike Halstead: “Publishers should share clear and explicit reasons why they are collecting the data and what the benefit to the consumer is. If providing addition content in exchange for details, it has to be of sufficient quality for there to be a perceived value. If it isn’t, the consumer won’t stay engaged and so their data will have no value.”

Afterall, adds Jamie Wren, “customers are comfortable in giving information if they can see the benefit and if they feel it will improve their experience with the brand.”

4. Use progressive registration pages: A good way of collecting data, says Lorna Fenimore, is to use “progressive registration pages. This is an approach that “eases” subscribers into providing both personal and demographic data. Because the initial sign-up form is small, a user will be walked through the registration process gradually. And the technology behind progressive registration pages ensures that all data elements are stored and the profile of the subscriber is built. As additional demographic elements are received, these can be added to the profile.”

5. Be data-driven: “Publishers should use data and engagement metrics to determine the next interaction and ensure that any communications sent to new prospects allows them to engage with the brand on a deeper level,” says Seema Bilimoria.

“Any data collected can be used to improve both the user experience and the reader’s propensity to subscribe,” adds Madeleine White.

It’s important to ensure, says Jamie Wren, that “data is segmented within the data warehouse to enable dynamic messaging that aligns with the customer responses when marketing to them.”

Steve Russell advises publishers to “use content consumption tags to set your segmentation and ensure that the content of messages you send out are aligned.”

6. Keep testing: “Always track key email metrics like open rates, click-through rates, conversion rates, etc, to evaluate the performance of your email marketing campaigns, onboarding and re-engagement initiatives,” says Sam Shedden.

7. Clean your lists: “Regularly update and clean your contact list to remove duplicates, correct errors and eliminate inactive or bounced email addresses,” advises Sam Shedden: “Ultimately a list full of stagnant contacts will only hurt your marketing efforts.”

8. Play the long game: “When building a prospect pool, keep in mind that it can take up to a year to see these leads engaging with the brand and converting them to a paid subscriber. Ensure that offers are clear and aligned with other areas of the business and that any content used to attract new prospects is timely, relevant to the audience you are targeting and high quality,” says Seema Bilimoria.

It’s important to create a bespoke strategy for new leads, continues Bilimoria: “This is essential to closing the deal or at the very least, being given the opportunity to talk to them again. It is much easier to lose prospects than acquire them…”

The aim of the game, says Patrick Lidstone, is to “keep moving prospects through a well organised sales funnel”.

9. Study how social media giants do it: “Look at how the giants do it,” suggests David Coveney: “Facebook, LinkedIn et al are competitors for attention and information. They got there through a combination of easy entry, being useful in some way, and teasing data out gradually.”

Moving prospects through the sales funnel

Building awareness

Identify your audience and promote to them

Ask yourself, “who is the customer and where are they? Be there. Advertise and let them slowly notice you over time,” suggests David Coveney.

“It may go without saying,” agrees Sam Shedden, “that understanding the target audience is paramount. Publishers need to understand their target audience, who they are, what they like and how to reach them.”

Because, says John Sheehy, “publishers don’t want to waste resources by marketing to prospect pools of little value or being associated with negative market actors.”

The next question, says Tom Mullen is to ask, “what are the best platforms / channels to use to raise awareness? Use collected data to determine the main demographics which the publication is targeted at. And then… advertise accordingly. One tactic that works well is to run marketing campaigns prior to publication anniversary events and sector-specific notable events.”

“SEO is a proven way of building awareness,” says Angus Chenevix Trench, managing director,, so publishers should “optimise content for search engines to ensure visibility. Another option is to regularly post on social platforms where your target audiences are most likely to visit.”

Lucy Davis, growth partner, Atlas, suggests publishers “take a broad approach to driving awareness and salience amongst their target audience. Use emotionally-driven benefit-focused messaging to evoke a response.”

Adopt strong and consistent branding

“Nail your brand codes (3-5 consistent visual (or audio) cues) so your brand is instantly recognisable across consumer touchpoints,” recommends Lucy Davis: “Marketers can get bored of their own creative and messaging and change it too frequently. Be clear about the purpose of your brand and how it’s the best at the job for your target audience. Make it easy for your target audience to recognise you and absorb just two or three pieces of information about your brand.”

Measure the right things

“When measuring the effectiveness of an awareness driving campaign, take attribution into consideration,” says Seema Bilimoria: “Regardless of where the lead has come from, adopt a subs first strategy and work closely with other teams in the business to adopt an integrated and aligned proposition across all products and channels.”

Madeleine White says: “Traditionally, when looking at converting users into subscribers, publishers tend to measure the single metric ‘conversion rate’, using this as a way to understand and optimise subscriber acquisition.

“In fact, this metric derives from the e-commerce industry where the buying process differs greatly from a reader making the decision to subscribe. Specifically, purchases on e-commerce websites are a lot more impulsive, whilst a digital publisher’s conversion rates rely greatly on pre-paywall engagement.

“For this reason, it’s actually very difficult to optimise conversion rates by considering just the single conversion step alone.

“Therefore, we think that a more effective way to analyse and optimise conversion rates, one that takes into account the steps prior to the paywall, is to break conversion down to four metrics based around a user’s journey to subscription:

  • Percentage of users who visit premium content and have the potential of being exposed to the paywall
  • Percentage of users who see the paywall
  • Percentage of users who click on the paywall
  • Percentage of users who convert

“This approach takes into account the user engagement journey prior to the paywall, understanding that a user’s decision to convert doesn’t just happen at the point of the paywall.

“Breaking the single conversion rate metric into four allows you to pinpoint exactly where you’re losing traffic to make very targeted corrective action.”

Creating interest

Educate prospects

The key, says Sam Shedden, is to work out how you can “educate prospects about the products and content you offer”.

“What do they think? What do they currently do in the category? What are their problems?” These are the questions publishers need to answer if they are to move prospects through the funnel,” says David Coveney.

This involves, says Atlas’s Lucy Davis, “clearly communicating your customer value proposition, understanding the benefits your content provides to your audience, what challenges it solves and communicating this concisely.”

Build engagement

“Create engagement via content or other means. Engagement is the first step to action and eventual retention,” says Mike Halstead: “Engagement will then help capture their interest to move them to the next stage.

“At this stage, publishers might consider capturing some data so they can start to drip feed them more content that they think will be of interest to them based on their behaviour to date.”

Central to this, adds Graham Elliott, is the provision of “compelling content on your website allied to good and relevant social media content.”

Some tips to build interest

  • Increasingly, consumers are seeking out publisher values as a contributing factor to subscribing, which is often omitted from marketing material. (John Sheehy, AdvantageCS)
  • Don’t get bored of marketing messaging / images and be tempted to change them too often. Audiences give you so little attention that consistency is needed to cut through and build brand equity. (Lucy Davis, Atlas)
  • Consider the use of social proof to gain credibility and trust in your brand. (Lucy Davis, Atlas)
  • Make sure any customer satisfaction stats are displayed clearly on acquisition and content sites, with links to any third-party review companies used. (Tom Mullen, Air Business Subscriptions)
  • Offer a mix of long reads, quick summaries and visuals. Create interesting articles, graphics and videos that visitors would like to share. (Angus Chenevix Trench,

Prompting desire

Double down on meeting their interests

“How are you helping them with their thoughts, deeds and problems? Make sure you communicate that. What problems do you solve for them? How do you entertain them. Make it clear,” advises David Coveney.

“Once interest is gained and their data has been captured to market to the customer further, we need to dial into the specific interests that have been gained from the data capture,” says Jamie Wren: “Desire is driven by a value proposition and this value is subjective and based on meeting the customer’s needs. If we know what these needs are, we should use that knowledge wisely!”

John Sheehy agrees: “The personalisation of the offer should amplify the interests. The messaging should connect what is known about the prospect with the interests laid out.”

Tom Mullen suggests publishers look to “create buzz and excitement around the publication. Hold yearly (or more frequent!) events with special subscription offers and activities; indeed, any ways for prospects to engage with the brand. This might include partnerships with well-known brands in upcoming issues or ongoing segments / articles from popular figures relevant to the brand. Try to create a feeling of ‘must-have’.”

Start to introduce offers

“Only at this point should any introductory offers, discounts or incentives start to become more dominant in the messaging hierarchy. Ensure they are of suitable value and relevant to the brand,” says Lucy Davis.

“This is the stage where they are considering taking out a subscription,” adds Mike Halstead: “It’s important that you provide them with the information they need to make the right decision.”

Patrick Lidstone suggests making “time-limited offers to create a sense of jeopardy”.

Who’s doing it well

The key to success, says Sam Shedden, is having “the time, resource and executive will to focus on improving the acquisition process. The usual suspects of New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal are all very good at moving customers along the sales funnel. As they’ve grown in confidence of their subscription offering, they’re giving less and less away for free. With the WSJ, you will hit a paywall on article 1.”

The formula is, adds Lucy Davis, to have a “long-term customer-centric approach, driven by insight which is agreed and embraced by the organisation.”

Some notable success stories

  • The Economist are exceptionally good at the end-to-end process. They use a very sophisticated data modelling tool to deliver dynamic content to the audience but critically, in the background, they are capturing the analytics on their website to grow their knowledge base on individual users. This is linked to their emails and allows marketing and remarketing through web advertising of offers to get a short trial or free copy and progress the customer through the sales funnel swiftly. (Jamie Wren, InterMedia)
  • The New York Times continues to be a kind of bellwether for publishers, especially on acquisitions. I can think of a few key reasons they are particularly successful. Brand awareness and quality – there is a large emphasis on their brand and the type of quality to expect. Complementary content – they are very good at offering subscribers different, related content from games to cooking content. This really increases the interest. And they do a tremendous amount of testing with paywall / registration techniques in addition to price points. (John Sheehy, AdvantageCS)
  • The Guardian has been hugely successful in delivering clear and emotive messages to gain financial support from over a million people. These individuals could choose to access this content free of charge, without registration or paywalls preventing access. It is a very different business model to most news businesses and a big success. (Lucy Davis, Atlas)
  • The Telegraph: A paywall that’s hard… then sometimes is brought down so people get to learn to enjoy it, then raised up again with strong calls to action. They use offers that are free or low cost to enter, but eventually ramp up and rely on subscriber inactivity to raise the long term revenue. A canny buyer can navigate around this, but most won’t. I think it’s well suited for consumer level sales. (David Coveney, Standfirst)
  • ELLE magazine focuses on KPIs to optimise performance at each step in order to move prospects through the funnel towards subscription.

    To increase the number of visitors moving through to premium content, they’ve integrated a variety of promotional placements across the home and article pages, making sure a reader always has access to the subscribe button.

    Our research shows that an average of 54.72% of visitors visit a premium article but never even see the paywall… It raises the question: What’s the point of having a well-designed paywall and running tests on the CTA and wording if half of your readers don’t actually see it in the article? ELLE therefore tested moving the paywall from blocking 80% of text to 90%, increasing click-through rates from 0.34% to 0.48%.

    Their team also increased performance of the wall itself by A/B testing, continuously modifying design and messaging, and adapting the wall to a user’s profile or context through audience segmentation.

    Finally, the team at ELLE also ran a ‘random paywall’ project, randomly presenting readers with five different paywall variations across two months to find the best wall for increasing conversion rates for each audience segment (volatiles, occasionals, regulars and fans). (Madeleine White, Poool)

Dos and don’ts


  • Do have a plan. Create and agree a marketing strategy, based on customer insight, which the wider business is aligned with. Don’t confuse a list of tactics and objectives with a true strategy. (Lucy Davis, Atlas)
  • Do provide an easy purchase process: make the buying process as simple and user-friendly as possible. (Sam Shedden, National World Publishing)
  • Do adopt an always on-approach and be ready to pivot when something isn’t working. (Seema Bilimoria, Immediate Media)
  • Do be open and honest. Build trust through the funnel. (John Sheehy, AdvantageCS)
  • Do show your propositions and the different levels of memberships clearly and simply. (David Coveney, Standfirst)
  • Do provide great content. A no-brainer but there really is no substitute for engaging content which is of value to the reader. (Sam Shedden, National World Publishing)
  • Do have clear and attractive incentives for subscription: make it clear what the benefits are for taking out a subscription and present these benefits to readers through the user journey. (Sam Shedden, National World Publishing)
  • Do talk to your customers and broader audiences regularly. It’s far too common for acquisition marketers to think about how a product suits their own needs as a consumer and opt for acquisition channels to suit their personal experiences, rather than using audience insight to drive decision-making. It’s worth repeatedly reminding ourselves as marketers that we rarely represent our customers. (Lucy Davis, Atlas)
  • Do use discounts with caution. There’s an inherent difference between introductory offers and long term discounting. The former reduces barriers to entry and allows the content to establish a place in the life and routines of the consumer before profitable pricing is triggered. Long term discounting devalues a brand, alters consumer perceptions and leads to significant impact on profitability. (Lucy Davis, Atlas)
  • Do realise that small monthly costs are attractive to many individuals, but annualised contracts are more interesting to many businesses because of the reduction in admin. Offer both. (David Coveney, Standfirst)
  • Do track and store all relevant data regarding website activity and use this to generate relevant campaigns and offers. (Graham Elliott, Gordon & Gotch Publishing)
  • Do offer targeted and specific reasons to subscribe to individual customer segments. (Jamie Wren, InterMedia)
  • Do get prospects to engage with your brand through using content that is relevant and timely. Think about the time of year and what is happening in the world and consumer concerns and needs and ensure that anything you promote addresses one of these issues / interest areas. (Seema Bilimoria, Immediate Media)
  • Do use an annual content calendar to build out a testing plan working closely with editorial teams to make sure that the content is aligned with the brand and the value exchange is compelling. (Seema Bilimoria, head of acquisitions marketing, Immediate Media)
  • Do use differentiation in your messaging. Why are you worth signing up to compared to your competitors? (David Coveney, Standfirst)
  • Do ensure ongoing targeted communications through the onboarding process. (Jamie Wren, InterMedia)
  • Do analyse performance and share results with teams: Regularly track metrics and analyse subscription acquisition performance, but also ensure the results are shared with the wider business. (Sam Shedden, National World Publishing)
  • Do add a deadline to any form completion to drive urgency. (Jamie Wren, InterMedia)
  • Do deliver any rewards for the interaction quickly and seamlessly to the customer on receipt of form submissions. They deserve it! (Jamie Wren, InterMedia)
  • Do track KPIs throughout the user journey towards subscription, helping you to better understand where in the funnel you’re losing readers and where it needs the most work to improve performance. (Madeleine White, Poool)
  • Do use data analytics at each stage to understand user behaviour and optimise strategies. Test and iterate, with the unique needs of your audience always in mind. (Angus Chenevix Trench,


  • Don’t present a million different offerings – it’s confusing. (David Coveney, Standfirst)
  • Don’t assume all customers will react to the interactions in the same way. If they don’t complete a form – don’t simply ignore them. They may come back to complete with a reminder. (Jamie Wren, InterMedia)
  • Don’t overwhelm with information: Avoid providing too much information at once, especially in the early stages. (Sam Shedden, National World Publishing)
  • Don’t underestimate the link between acquisition and retention. Retention starts at the point of acquisition. Targeting customers who look like your most loyal audiences will deliver profitable rewards. If separate teams hold responsibilities for acquisition and retention then an aligned set of KPIs is essential to ensure everyone is working towards the same goal. (Lucy Davis, Atlas)
  • Don’t bombard them! When you get a customer’s interest, you need to nurture it but not bombard them. Anything you send them should be optimised for them based on their interests. Don’t bombard them with emails about sport if they’ve never looked at a sports article. (Mike Halstead, HH&S)
  • Don’t neglect customer service: there can be many reasons why readers might need help when trying to make a purchase. Offer support and assistance to enhance satisfaction. (Sam Shedden, National World Publishing)
  • Don’t fear failure – always keep testing. A hypothesis-driven testing roadmap ensures testing aligns to agreed marketing strategies. Allow a percentage of marketing spend for testing to eliminate risk. Open communication about failures as well as success is good for a business and encourages younger staff to voice ideas. As long as there are learnings taken, it’s never a waste of time. (Lucy Davis, Atlas)
  • Don’t try to collect too much information at sign-up; keep it to the minimum at the start of the relationship. More information can be gathered later in the customer’s journey with you, when time has allowed the customer to build up their trust and is likely to be more willing to provide additional information that wasn’t gathered at sign-up. (Andrew Parkinson, NewsTeam Group)
  • Don’t ignore feedback: be willing to make necessary adjustments to changes made to your website if you receive negative customer feedback. (Sam Shedden, National World Publishing)

Closing the deal

Best methods

“Remember always that you’re establishing a relationship with a subscriber. Closing the deal is a bit like getting to a marriage. You’re hoping to create a long term commitment to each other. And that means both sides need to feel like they’re getting something out of it. And tricks, where you pretend to be one thing and turn out to be something else, just create resentment. So, pretending to be cheap for year 1 then increasing the price to the expensive, greyed out small print default in year 2? Yeah – that’s not a great move unless the subscriber is blindly in love with you,” says David Coveney.

Make the right offer

It’s important to “clearly articulate a compelling offer with a strong value proposition,” says Patrick Lidstone.

The offer might be, says Sam Shedden, “access to exclusive content, time sensitive discounts, introductory offers (free trial, £1 for two months, etc) or bundling with related products.”

According to Seema Bilimoria, “initially, a low-priced introductory offer, such as trial pricing which allows prospects to sample the content, is the most effective offer to convert a prospect to a paid subscriber. Highlighting the value they are getting and that they can cancel at any time will help to ‘close the deal’.”

John Sheehy offers a note of caution: “Consumers are too smart these days to rely on the old ‘for a limited time’ messaging techniques. Instead, be straightforward with customers about the value of the content and terms of the subscription. Anything that is perceived as too sales-y will turn off important prospects and may damage the brand long-term.”

“Fear of missing out is a strong incentive to finalise a purchase,” adds Jamie Wren.

Offer reassurance

“Reminding the customer of all the benefits of what they are about to do is key at the final stage,” says Jamie Wren: “Most customers waiver at the point that money will be transferred – and this is the moment to ensure we inform them why they have no need to waiver. The value proposition can be re-presented to them and a reminder, where possible, of the speed of delivery of everything they are about to buy into. Where possible, a great trick here is to offer one more thing not yet previously mentioned – an added positive surprise to ensure continued momentum through the final stage.”

Tom Mullen, head of B2B client services, Air Business Subscriptions.

Good ways of providing reassurance, says Tom Mullen, include offering a ‘moneyback guarantee’: “Make it clear to customers that they are able to receive a refund on unmailed copies if they are not enjoying the subscription. This demonstrates confidence in the product that the publisher is willing to refund in the case the customer isn’t satisfied.”

“Clear and transparent messaging” also helps at this stage, Mullen continues: “Making terms of continuous offers very clear and not hiding any devil details. Customers are more likely to subscribe if they know all the information and trust that everything is being relayed to them upfront, especially when it comes to payments.

“And display customer reviews. You can use a company like Feefo to garner (and actively act on) customer feedback and display this rating on the acquisition site. Prospective customers will always look to see how existing subscribers are finding their experience with a publisher or publication. Having a good review rating and positive subscriber feedback could give a prospect the push they need to subscribe.”

Make it easy

“Keep it simple for the subscriber. Both the messaging to the customer, and the platform / payment method they are using to sign up on, need to be intuitive and easy to follow,” says Andrew Parkinson.

Mike Halstead agrees: “Ensure the actual purchase process is as straightforward as possible. Make sure your pricing is clear and don’t give too many pricing options; this can be confusing to a customer and put them off.”

“To facilitate sign-ups being easy,” adds David Coveney, “allow account creation via Google, Microsoft, Facebook etc type logins.”

The right offers

Horses for courses

Jamie Wren says, “there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to the best offer/price and incentive. The right price, right place, right person and right time is going to vary across the audience. It is imperative that the data captured up to this point is utilised at this critical stage.”

Lorna Fenimore, senior VP, audience, ePublishing.

“Pricing strategies will vary by the audience (B2B vs B2C), and the efforts in developing your pricing should not be minimised,” adds Lorna Fenimore: “Internal teams can start by examining what the competition is charging, analysing the subscribers’ ability to pay, understanding the value of your products to the organisation, and testing (testing, testing, testing) the success of your rate structure. Additionally, there are companies that will analyse your market and determine the appropriate pricing that will maximise your P&L (taking into consideration the loss of some subscribers because of price, but a gain in overall revenue).”

Ultimately, what is the right offer for your brand and your prospects can only be determined through testing.

“A/B testing and personalisation to each audience segment is essential at this stage, ensuring you present readers with the messaging and offers that most appeal to their interests,” says Madeleine White.

David Coveney adds a word of caution when it comes to discounting: “Let’s say you offer a discount, say 30% off for new subscribers. Immediately your current subscribers see it, they feel like they’re paying over the odds…”

Use trial offers

“Trial offers work well although the churn can be high when the price point steps up. The same goes for free gifting,” says Mike Halstead.

High churn with trial offers is also noted by Sam Shedden: “Offering a risk-free trial period for a week or a month allows potential subscribers to experience premium content without commitment. However, it also comes with increased churn and you’re not getting the customer used to paying for news. I personally prefer, and have tested, introductory offers where some sort of payment is needed upfront, even if it is small. For example, £1 for the first month.”

Tom Mullen has done some work on this: “recent analysis on one client showed that there was actually a better conversion rate onto a full-price follow-on term when the subscriber started with a paid trial (£1.00 for six issues) as opposed to a free trial offer (£0.00 for six issues).”

Other strategies worth considering

  • Use step-up pricing: We have seen step-up pricing be particularly effective to ease subscribers into the full pricing. This gives customers a lower barrier to get into the content and time to get acquainted with the value. (John Sheehy, AdvantageCS)
  • Selective use of incentives: The more engaged a prospect is, the more likely it is that they will subscribe to a longer-term offer, and this is when incentives such as a slow cooker on a food title can really work to get them over the line. (Seema Bilimoria, Immediate Media)
  • Free delivery: If it is a subscription for a physical product, free delivery is always a great offer. This serves 2 purposes, it separates the cost of the product away from the delivery charge, meaning the product itself isn’t devalued by heavy discounting, but the subscriber feels they are getting a good deal. Secondly, a long-term discount on the product eg. 25% off, makes the subscriber feel valued over casual purchasers. (Andrew Parkinson, NewsTeam Group)

Dos and don’ts


  • Do offer clear and concise communication and offers. (Graham Elliott, Gordon & Gotch Publishing)
  • Do provide clear value propositions. (Sam Shedden, National World Publishing)
  • Do provide messaging about the value of the content they are subscribing to. (John Sheehy, AdvantageCS)
  • Do have a clear pathway in your website UX to help your subscriber make their decisions quickly and easily. (David Coveney, Standfirst)
  • Do make abundantly clear the savings percentage customers will benefit from if they subscribe, compared to buying issues at RRP every week / month. (Tom Mullen, Air Business Subscriptions)
  • Do provide consistency across marketing and the order journey. Ensure that: marketing communications, in-page adverts etc link up correctly to acquisition sites and customer service teams; promotion codes bring up correct offers; messaging is consistent and up-to-date; marketing campaigns have the same bespoke imagery across adverts and acquisition sites. (Tom Mullen, Air Business Subscriptions)
  • Do offer flexible and simple pricing models. (Sam Shedden, National World Publishing)
  • Do ensure a range of offers are available to suit a variety of customer needs. Not everyone is comfortable signing up for continuous subscriptions; manual payment options should be offered too. (Tom Mullen, Air Business Subscriptions)
  • Do have knowledgeable and well-trained customer service teams. Potential subscribers may try to contact publishers to find out more about subscription offers they have seen, and ask for more information on how various aspects of the offer may work. Having world-class customer service teams to answer any questions and give prospects confidence in the publication and its operations is invaluable, and could be the difference in converting a sale. (Tom Mullen, Air Business Subscriptions)
  • Do reconfirm the benefits of subscribing. (Jamie Wren, InterMedia)
  • Do commit to delivering the benefits swiftly and seamlessly. (Jamie Wren, InterMedia)
  • Do outline something not yet mentioned – an added incentive that gives them reason to continue. (Jamie Wren, InterMedia)
  • Do make the check-out process very clear and simple. If a subscriber must search for information about the product, such as the price, the auto-renew policies, the cancelation policies, etc, the user will lose momentum and may abandon the purchase. (Lorna Fenimore, ePublishing)
  • Do allow readers to pay within the wall itself – the form fields are email collection, password creation and card number / expiry date. This helps maximise on impulse subscriptions. This significantly reduces the number of clicks needed to subscribe and leads to increased conversion rates. (Madeleine White, Poool)
  • Do confirm order details before ordering! Ensure that a summary of the order is displayed to the customer online, or read out over the phone, before the order is completed and payment details entered. Prospects will want to double check exactly what they are signing up to before committing, so it’s important to make this clear. (Tom Mullen, Air Business Subscriptions)
  • Do put yourself in the customer’s shoes. If I wanted to sign up to my own subscription, how easy do I find it? What if I’m doing it on my mobile? Ask independent people to test it, get their honest feedback and use it to constantly improve the user experience. (Andrew Parkinson, NewsTeam Group)
  • Do look at what other publishers are doing; it is easy to get left behind. (Andrew Parkinson, NewsTeam Group)
  • Do give the subscriber the ability to easily cancel an auto-renewal subscription. (Lorna Fenimore, ePublishing)
  • Do look for failed subscriptions to make sure you’re not missing geographic opportunities due to your payments process. If you’re working across the world, a payment provider that works perfectly in the UK won’t work in, say, Kenya or Japan. An example being PayPal. (David Coveney, Standfirst)
  • Do constantly revisit the process. Can you improve the customer’s experience? (Andrew Parkinson, NewsTeam Group)


  • Don’t hide costs or terms. (Sam Shedden, National World Publishing)
  • Don’t spam or be too aggressive with messaging. (Sam Shedden, National World Publishing)
  • Don’t give away your content for free. (John Sheehy, AdvantageCS)
  • Don’t offer too much choice in subscription variations. Having multiple different terms, packages, prices, gifts, terms and conditions, could put people off from subscribing. Too much reading, researching, comparing, could be enough to cause potential sales to go cold if it’s not relatively easy to figure out what to subscribe to. (Tom Mullen, Air Business Subscriptions)
  • Don’t increase pricing too quickly. (John Sheehy, AdvantageCS)
  • Don’t have distractions on your sign-up pages. I see too many that still have sidebars with content in them. Why? This is a key moment when you don’t want to distract your customer! (David Coveney, Standfirst)
  • Don’t use sales or pop ups that detect the movement of the mouse towards the back button which then offer a lower price or a voucher. You’re falling for a trap. (David Coveney, Standfirst)
  • Don’t create too many hurdles in the sign-up process. Having too many mandatory fields, especially telephone number, can create unease with prospects. Even with the option to opt out from marketing communications, it may put people off continuing with an order if they are forced to supply a telephone number. (Tom Mullen, Air Business Subscriptions)
  • Don’t make it difficult to find key documentation like terms and conditions and privacy policies. Prospects will always be wary of subscribing, no matter the payment method. Manual payments are usually large payments upfront for a long term, and auto-renewal payments come with their own stigmas which should be acknowledged and addressed. Don’t shy away from allowing prospects to build confidence in the way their subscription will work, and what they are and are not entitled to during their subscription term. (Tom Mullen, Air Business Subscriptions)
  • Don’t succumb to paywall blindness. In the advertising world, we talk a lot about becoming blind to campaigns if you don’t continuously change colours and design to surprise the consumer. The same applies to paywalls – it’s called ‘paywall blindness’, and the solution is incredibly simple, effective and really not maximised enough! We’d recommend: creating a calendar event to remind you to update your paywall at least once a month; building designs around key events on your editorial calendar (sales, launch events, anniversaries, etc) and your audiences’ calendar (Christmas, summer holidays, Black Friday, Mother’s day, etc); using colours and design to mark sales or special offers; preparing designs ahead of time. (Madeleine White, Poool)
  • Don’t assume that the hard work is done – the customer can still decide to leave the funnel. (Jamie Wren, InterMedia)
  • Don’t get creepy. (David Coveney, Standfirst)

Managing your newly won subscriber

Opportunity & risk

The moment your prospect, who you have nurtured through the sales funnel, has become a paid up subscriber is a moment full of opportunity and risk…

Start of the retention journey

“Onboarding is vital and the first stage in renewals,” says Robert Jay: “You need to engage the reader right away otherwise they already might be lost. I recommend an omni-channel approach as you would with any campaign.”

Madeleine White highlights “research by a variety of publishers that has proven that the first hours, days and weeks of a subscriber’s journey are the most crucial for retention. The key is to therefore study your own subscribers to discover which actions are the most valuable to a high LTV.

“The Washington Post found a limited window of 14 days to showcase the value they can provide and build engagement. What’s more, subscribers who made fewer than four visits exhibit a retention rate that is ten percentage points lower than those who have made 15 or more visits, and subscribers who use the app and visit 15 or more times showcase higher Net Promoter Scores (NPS) than other subscribers.

“This research dictates their subscriber onboarding experience.”

Sell them something else

“The opportunity here is that you have the customer’s attention,” says John Sheehy.

“The customer has just put trust in your product and process and they are likely feeling very positive about the decision they have made,” says Jamie Wren: “There are a number of things that can be done to use this positivity!”

So, adds’s Angus Chenevix Trench, why not use this time to “offer a welcome bonus – a discount on another subscription, access to an event, recommend-a-friend offer, free trial of a related product.”

“At the time of purchase, the engagement level is typically very high,” agrees Lorna Fenimore: “In addition to thanking the subscriber for their order, this is a perfect time to share about additional products, upcoming webinars or podcasts, gift subscriptions, or upgrade options for additional users.”

Solidify relationship and capture more data

“The post-subscription moment is filled with potential,” says Sam Shedden: “Publishers have the chance to solidify a relationship, gather valuable data, and showcase the subscriber experience of their brand.”

It is, adds Andrew Parkinson, “the perfect opportunity to welcome the new subscriber to the community they have joined.”

“Now is also the time,” says Jamie Wren, “to ask them more questions to even better hone their experience – as part of the welcome pack, it is an opportunity to gather yet more data.”

And, cautions Robert Jay, “you should ask for feedback early on. Don’t wait until it’s too late.”

Avoid pitfalls

“The risk with a new subscriber is that they have a negative onboarding process,” says Mike Halstead: “It might be that the sign-up process is onerous or that the first issue or welcome message is late or doesn’t arrive. Subscribers with a negative early experience are less likely to give the brand the benefit of the doubt and are therefore more likely to churn or cancel immediately.”

“Missteps here will quickly lead to lost trust and maybe even a cancelled subscription,” agrees Sam Shedden.

This might happen, says Patrick Lidstone, if the subscriber is “not clear on the commitment they are making,” or, says Tom Mullen, where “the subscriber doesn’t understand ‘what happens next’, for instance, not knowing when the first issue will be arriving, or being unaware of payment schedules for auto-renewing subscriptions.”

“The risk inherent at this stage is a lack of delivery,” adds Jamie Wren, InterMedia: “If they expect to get access to the app immediately, this needs to be delivered in line with expectations. In a world of instant gratification, customers have become impatient and they also have become more cynical. If they feel that they are not being given what they have paid for then a communication to customer services will likely follow and a bad start to a relationship is much more difficult to come back from.”

David Coveney, director, Standfirst.

Technical failures in the check-out process can hurt publishers too, adds David Coveney: “Failing to actually sign up the user due to a technical issue or failed payment can be a real threat! I had that once with a prominent magazine and in the end, I just gave up as support didn’t help me.”

It’s also important to make sure that your new subscriber is not exposed to further marketing and discount messaging.

“Once the prospect has subscribed, don’t show them better offers for the title they have subscribed to,” says Seema Bilimoria, Immediate Media: “Make sure that any active subscriber data is used as exclusion lists especially through Meta, paid search and email.”

John Sheehy agrees: “The risk is that you turn them off somehow with more marketing messages rather than thanking them and welcoming them into your brand.”

What needs to happen next

“As soon as a subscriber has decided to ‘buy’,” says Lorna Fenimore, “this is the moment you know the subscriber is engaged and excited about your offering. The subscriber should receive an email with everything they need to know about what they can expect to receive from their subscription purchase. This might include a receipt for their credit card charge, login credentials, when they will receive their first issue, etc.”

“Onboarding is the poor relation in the acquisition journey,” adds Angus Chenevix Trench: “In addition to the initial welcome, where you should include all the details of the subscription and instructions how and where to create an account, access content etc, there are various ways to reinforce brand values and affirm their decision to subscribe.”

Confirm the order

“Welcome, welcome, welcome your new subscriber,” encourages Mike Halstead: “They have just committed a purchase in advance and need an immediate response positively confirming their transaction.”

“A quick response with relevant information about their subscription is essential,” says Graham Elliott: “If access to a paywalled website is part of the package, then details of how they can get immediate access should be included.”

Tom Mullen adds: “Display an order confirmation page post-checkout, or ensure that the phone agent gives a full order summary once the order is complete. Follow up ASAP with official order confirmation communications, either via letter or email.”

Critically, says Angus Chenevix Trench, you must “make them feel they’ve made a great decision to subscribe”.

Activate pre-planned onboarding series

“Publishers need to have a welcome series in place that highlights all the benefits of subscribing and any subscriber exclusives that are available,” says Seema Bilimoria.

“A slick on-boarding process is vital,” agrees Patrick Lidstone: “This should include immediate response to the initial sign up, well thought through personalised communications that are tailored based on subscriber engagement.”

To that end, says Robert Jay, “you need to map out the entire customer journey and lifecycle. How they are contacted and when. I would physically write this out and have it up in your office or at home.”

Madeleine White, head of international, Poool.

When mapping out the customer journey, adds Madeleine White, “study your own subscribers to discover which actions are the most valuable to a high LTV and use this to dictate the onboarding journey. What actions do you want to encourage subscribers to complete? Via which mediums (app, email, onsite)? What engagement KPIs do you seek to improve (recency, frequency, volume, etc)?”

Onboarding the subscriber, says David Coveney, might include “calling them and walking them through product areas that they might not even be fully aware of. This is especially true if you have a sophisticated product such as a data suite as part of the offer.”

It’s important, adds Andrew Parkinson, “to not only remind them of the benefits that they are getting, but also to manage their expectations. If they get instant access to benefits, how do they access them? If they will receive a product / benefit in the post, when should they expect it to arrive?”

Special consideration needs to be given, says Angus Chenevix Trench,, to gift subscriptions: “Gift subs can constitute up to 30% or more of some brands’ subs base. This is a sizeable proportion that should really be given special attention. The unique challenge with gift subs, particularly if the giver is not a reader of the magazine, is retention. With that in mind, here are some things you can do:

  • Upsell a copy of the magazine when selling a gift, that the payer can give / send to the recipient.
  • For online sales, along with the order acknowledgment to the payer, attach a letter from the payer to the recipient (which they can forward) welcoming them to the magazine and giving links and instructions for setting up an account, how to access online content and when their first issue is due to land.
  • Text or email the payer just before the recipient receives the first issue.
  • Create a feedback loop from the recipient’s ‘Your Account’ area to the payer.
  • Recognise long-term or multiple gift givers in your communications. Make them feel special.

Critical success factors

  1. Speed.

    Publishers should ensure “quick delivery of a welcome email and any content that may have been expected, such as digital issues or app access,” says Jamie Wren.

    “Subscribers should see and feel the value of their subscription early,” adds Sam Shedden.

    “New subscribers should have to do very little to gain access to the premium content experience they have just signed up for,” says Blake Pollard: “We have trademarked the term ‘Instant Start’. This can be used for print subscribers, giving them immediate access to the current issues (and past issues) digitally within seconds.

    “We all know in the industry that it takes weeks or months to get your first print issue with a typical subscription, but we also know many times, new subscribers are drawn in by specific covers and features they see now. Giving them that instant gratification without having to log in, download or do anything extra improves the overall customer journey and has been known to help with retention.”

  2. Seamless.

    “A positive and enhanced experience must be provided from the off,” advises Sam Shedden.

    “The important thing,” adds Mike Halstead, “as soon as you get a new subscriber on board is to keep their experience seamless and positive as it’s in those early days that it’s easy to lose them. Not enough emphasis is put on the customer once they have been recruited.”

  3. Accurate data-capture.

    “To communicate effectively,” says Andrew Parkinson, “you need the correct email address for the customer. Verification is a great way to ensure accurate information. A customer mistype might mean you lose a potential lead when trying to increase LTV, or could result in frustration from the customer if they miss an important service update.”

  4. Good systems.

    “Publishers need good systems – and more importantly systems that interact with each other seamlessly,” says Jamie Wren: “The front end web platform will need to deliver all details into a well-constructed database. Integrations and APIs with this database should be tested thoroughly before being set live. Email platforms that will deliver the comms need to engage immediately and the email and communication templates need to be correctly set with quality copywriting. The segmentation of the customer will need to be recognised by the email platform from the point of purchase.”

  5. Encourage reviews.

  6. “Build subscriber confidence from the get-go,” suggests Tom Mullen: “Word of mouth and feedback through third-party review companies could go a long way towards bringing in further acquisitions. It is crucial to make sure that any review requests or surveys which go out after order completion are focused on the order journey and service, rather than the product itself. There won’t be any product feedback to give if the customer has only just signed up!”

  7. Encourage engagement.

    “If possible,” says Sam Shedden, “encourage new subscribers to participate in comment sections, forums or social media channels related to the publication. The aim is to enhance their connection to the brand and other readers.”

    To improve retention rates and LTV, it’s important to spot early signs of non-engagement.

    So, Angus Chenevix Trench advises publishers to “monitor whether they’ve created an account, and, if not, to schedule a triggered email reminder to them. Also, monitor (if part of the package) whether they are accessing online content. Again, if not, trigger an engagement email.”

  8. Don’t overlook win-back efforts.

    David Coveney advises publishers to “make sure to use a reliable payment provider that has a process to fix failed transactions. Look out for failed sign-ups and contact them directly, with a human, to see if anything can be done to help.”

Dos and don’ts


  • Do send a welcome email including what the subscriber should expect as soon as possible. (David Coveney, Standfirst)
  • Do offer clear onboarding communications. Ensure that all instructions, terms, conditions and benefits are explained clearly and transparently. (Sam Shedden, National World Publishing)
  • Make communications welcoming, clear and simple. No one wants to read 32 pages of Ts&Cs. (Andrew Parkinson, NewsTeam Group)
  • Do allow subscribers to get access to all the features they’ve paid for instantly. (Sam Shedden, National World Publishing)
  • Do make next steps very clear in your order confirmation. Detail the first issue to arrive, when subscribers should expect it (based on region). Confirm the payment schedule for auto-renewing payments. (Tom Mullen, Air Business Subscriptions)
  • Do offer instant digital access (if applicable). If a subscriber has signed up to a subscription package which includes both print copies and digital access, it’s key that the digital access is enabled immediately. (Tom Mullen, Air Business Subscriptions)
  • Do offer customer service contact information once subscribed. The customer may have just thought of a question or two which is not covered in the initial order confirmation. Make customer service details easy to find to enable a quick resolution to any queries. (Tom Mullen, Air Business Subscriptions)
  • Do remember that a paying customer is not the same as a lead – they can and should be treated differently. (David Coveney, Standfirst)
  • Do encourage engagement. The onboarding journey should reflect actions that are most valuable for high subscriber LTV and retention rates. This of course differs from publisher to publisher, but our benchmarking has found three common steps amongst successful subscription publishers: downloading the app, signing up to a newsletter (ideally one that is sent on a regular basis to form a habit) and a ‘proof of concept’ step (show and deliver the unique value that you offer in your subscription product, perhaps by highlighting some of the content and features that they now have access to). (Madeleine White, Poool)
  • Do spend as much time thinking about the onboarding process as you do at the initial recruitment process. Don’t think the job is done when the now new subscriber clicks the accept button. The whole brand experience has just begun. (Mike Halstead, HH&S)
  • Do run tests on the systems and integrations and complete spot checks. (Jamie Wren, InterMedia)
  • Do test and revisit the customer journey regularly on all types of devices. Consider what areas can be improved and be open to feedback from subscribers and other sources. (Mike Halstead, HH&S)
  • Do take out a subscription to understand the journey from the customer perspective. Ask friends and family to take out orders – they are more likely to be critical than you are! (Jamie Wren, InterMedia)
  • Do provide an easy feedback loop. Quick resolution of early questions creates trust. (Angus Chenevix Trench,
  • Do make it easy to cancel – you shouldn’t annoy anyone. (Patrick Lidstone, The Engine Shed)


  • Don’t assume that this is the end of the customer engagement – this is the first part of the retention cycle. (Jamie Wren, InterMedia)
  • Don’t disregard community engagement. (Sam Shedden, National World Publishing)
  • Don’t just treat them as a cash cow. Keep them engaged and feeling loved. (David Coveney, Standfirst)
  • Don’t assume that everything is working in the background. (Jamie Wren, InterMedia)
  • Don’t bombard new subscribers with too many emails. (Sam Shedden, National World Publishing)

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