Key performance areas

Welcome to our latest subs special, this time looking at all aspects of new subscriber acquisition. All of the insights and opinions come from leading suppliers to the publishing sector and from senior management at UK publishing companies.

By James Evelegh

Key performance areas

Our ‘new subscriber acquisition’ special feature consists of five separate sections:

Key stages

Key performance areas

Organisational structure

In a nutshell

Suppliers Spotlight

In this section:


User interface & user experience

The customer journey

Data collection & usage

Segmentation & personalisation

Marketing communications

Newsletters & other forms of engagement building

Datawalls & paywalls

Metrics & KPIs

Testing & learning

Social media

Pricing & offers

Checkout / payment process


“The majority of online traffic is driven by search engines – which is why organic search results (instead of paid) is so important,” says Louise McHale, marketing director, ESco.

“SEO is a black art,” adds Angus Chenevix Trench, managing director,; “it's something that you have to just stay on top of the whole time, especially with Mr Google changing algorithms.”

Recruit experts

Jo Adams, marketing director, New Scientist advises: “Employ an expert or use an agency; you need someone “on it”.”

Duncan Taylor, joint managing director, Air Business Subscriptions, agrees: “Engage a proven SEO expert who is at the forefront of current keyword trends and search engine algorithm developments. Being such an important first link in the journey to appear in a prominent spot in the search engine is best achieved by a dedicated expert in the field.”

Focus on your target audience

ESco’s Louise McHale says: “Your goal is to increase traffic to your site – quality and quantity. In order to do this, you need to really know your audience – increasing your SEO is about your readers and target audience even more than it is about search engines. Who are they? What are they searching, which words / phrases pique their interest?”

Louise McHale, marketing director, ESco

“Having said all of that – content remains King – don’t fall into the trap of writing a website aimed at attracting search engines instead of people or your bounce rate will be huge and you’ll struggle to ever convert web traffic to paid users.”

Graham McDougall, head of audience management, DC Thomson Media, adds: “Key is remembering that SEO is really about optimising for people, not algorithms. We ask journalists to imagine a reader has overheard two people talking about a story and wants to find out more – what would they search for to find the story? And, importantly, when working on a hero story, it’s important to pull in SEO expertise when something is being shaped and not just optimising at the point of publication.”

From a subscriber acquisition perspective, Julian Thorne, chief customer officer, Dennis, cautions: “Understand that the content that attracts audiences that will convert into high lifetime value subscribers is not always the same as the content that attracts a large audience.”

Some tips

“SEO is part of the ongoing marketing mix. A little focus and dedication will put you up if not ahead of the competition,” says Mike Halstead, managing director, HH&S. And, adds’s Angus Chenevix Trench, “there's dozens of incremental things you can do to improve your SEO.” Such as:

  • “Monitor keywords that pull in new readers and ultimately lead to conversion. The key here is editorial, marketing and digital working closely together utilising all stats for best performance.” Tracy Larner
  • “Make sure that the taxonomy is sound, and that each piece of content produced is aligned with the taxonomy, and SEO optimised, to drive forward engagement.” Markus Karlsson
  • “Paid marketing and campaigns will yield results but building these on a core website with strong SEO foundations to ensure brand visibility on page one should pay for itself in the long term.” Duncan Taylor
  • “Ensure some good strong backlinks are in place – get your site linked to by other trusted high traffic sites.” Louise McHale
  • “Check out what your competitors are doing. See what terms they are getting traffic from and take the best for yourself.” Mike Halstead
  • “Do add headings in your articles online. Trust me, they matter a lot more than you might think.” David Coveney
  • “Make sure your platform correctly recognises search engine crawlers and has the ability to hide the paywall so the crawlers can index the content.” Andrew Morris
  • “Create great thought leadership – this is always better than paid.” Patrick Lidstone
  • “Site load speed is absolutely critical.” Angus Chenevix Trench


“People demand a good user experience. If yours is bumpy, they will abandon ship and go elsewhere very quickly. Don’t we all do that all the time?,” Dan Heffernan, vice president, sales, marketing & product planning, AdvantageCS.

Dennis’ Julian Thorne advises publishers to “constantly monitor user experience through a mix of quantitative and qualitative research combined with continuous testing.”

Make process frictionless & simple

Louise McHale says, “We’ve all visited sites that have been so clunky and confusing that we’ve immediately hit the back arrow and gone to the next site in the search results.”

The whole experience, adds New Scientist’s Jo Adams, “should be frictionless (as possible!), clear, simple and easy; relevant and without dead ends!”

David Coveney, director, interconnect, adds: “If you keep it smooth, clear, conventional, and keep the customer in the flow with easy ways to buy, then they’re just more likely to pay up. It amazes me how many subscription forms are complex, ask too much, and are poorly integrated.”

Avoiding confusion is essential. Patrick Lidstone, managing director, The Engine Shed, has seen some publishers having “issues with people confusing logging into a paywall site with the process required to renew a subscription. This can be solved by using a single login but also providing links to make payment for subscription renewal from behind the paywall rather than dividing the two activities into separate groups.”

Minimise steps to purchase

Romano Sidoli, head of magazine relations, NewsTeam Group, says: “Reduce the steps to purchase. As Baldwin said, ‘always be closing’; if someone has been attracted to your brand, don’t hang around, or you’re just creating leads for your competition with sub-standard UX.”

Alan Leech, founder & chief architect, CRM Australia

“Audiences are strapped for time,” adds Alan Leech, founder & chief architect, CRM Australia, “and the digital space is noisy, so creating a simple, straightforward acquisition experience that works every time will help increase subscriber numbers.”

Andrew Morris, director of client relations, Pelcro, says publishers should put up as few barriers as possible: “Make it as easy as possible to use, and as fast as possible to get through the process. The reality is, no one wants to take time to actually create a membership, create a subscription, make a payment, get their credit card out or fill out long forms.”

Part of this is keeping prospective subscribers on site, says Angus Chenevix Trench: “We've all been to sites where you get taken off to other sites and you have to do something and then you come back. Those steps are potential areas for attrition, as people drop off the site.”

For Pelcro’s Andrew Morris, it’s important to keep them on the same page: “We see this all too often, where people are reading a piece of content, and then they get a paywall, and then they are forced to go to another page. The average page load time is about 22 seconds but the average human attention span is seven seconds. So, there’s a disconnect and the potential for high drop-off rates.”

A tailored experience

Jonathan Harris, founder & CEO, Sub(x) advises: “Make the experience feel intuitive, tailored and relevant to the user.”

At William Reed Business Media, says Tracy Larner, head of subscriptions, they are offering “more personalised experiences for customers whether they are individuals or corporate customers.”

“If you have mapped your user journey,” adds Jo Adams, “then you will know where you want your costumers to go as a result of an action or inaction. And this starts at the top of the funnel, at the first contact point, be that a piece of email marketing or social post.”

Mobile optimised

Angus Chenevix Trench says: “It absolutely astonishes me how many sites are not yet optimised for mobile. The ability to transact on a mobile device is absolutely essential.”

Air Business Subscriptions’ Duncan Taylor adds: “In 2021, we are mostly focusing on the potential subscriber and their smart phone. Mobile optimisation goes without saying these days, but this must be matched to a clear and simple presentation.”

And also…

  • “Ensure that your digital approach is ready for the post third party cookie era which is now on us (it’s fair to say 99% of sites are not).” Markus Karlsson
  • “The use of images to guide and encourage potential subscribers to commit to the purchase is important. It also is crucial for brand connection and confidence.” Duncan Taylor
  • “Publishers with multiple titles should consider a microsite for each brand – we've found a lot of our larger publishers have moved away from having that central shop. Microsites can be more relevant and targeted to each audience and have resulted in an uplift on conversion rates and subsequently overall revenue.” Louise McHale
  • “Often, publishers’ sites can be unclear that there is an actual magazine associated – which given the goal to convert to paid users, is a fall at hurdle number one.” Louise McHale


“A publisher should map each possible customer type through all the touch points and journeys they could take from different channels. They should then regularly monitor them to check they don’t have too many leaks,” says interconnect’s David Coveney.

Map the journey

“Once a customer samples your content,” says Anthony White, head of UK publisher development, Passendo, “it is important to move them from an anonymous to a known state so you can identify them as an individual entity and market to them effectively.”

Jo Adams says that it’s “marketing’s responsibility to map and test end to end journeys and to ensure that they work and that they make sense to the customer; that they monitor their performance and test to optimise conversion. You must map your customer journey by channel, making sure your landing pages are relevant and enticing to take customers on to the next stage of the journey you have planned for them. This is one of the most vital and neglected areas of marketing. Yet it can be very lucrative when you get it right!”

Julian Thorne adds: “Set KPIs for each part of the customer journey and make sure that the KPIs for each part of the journey are fully supportive of and integrated with the objectives for the next part of the journey.”

It should also be remembered that, often, the customer journey starts offline, says Angus Chenevix Trench, so it’s important to have “seamless, creative between offline and online, to make sure the creative on your landing pages mirrors what you've already produced in your offline creative.”

Optimise the journey

“It is no longer acceptable to be delivering broken user journeys to your audience. Everything needs to be joined up – a single user account for all the experiences with all your fulfilment as seamlessly delivered as possible,” says Markus Karlsson, CEO & founder, Affino.

CRM Australia’s Alan Leech adds: “Think about having as few steps as possible for the customer between seeing your ad, your social media or your website and accessing your content on sign-up.”

For Louise McHale, clarity and simplicity are vital: “Don’t list out ten different price points – pin your best price offering to the top and limit the remaining visible options. The best price should always be recurring (obviously!) and the frequency / number of issues should be clear at this stage.”

“Don’t leave your customer hanging – ensure all info is listed in the FAQ area of your site; there should be no questions left unanswered, even if it’s the question you don’t want them to ask! And, finally, communicate confirmation of order immediately, confirming all of the important details once more.”

Duncan Taylor advises that “there is a balance to be struck between data capture and closing the sale. The order of data capture can be strategic. For example, capturing the email at the beginning of the journey opens options for further call to action emails to a near miss subscriber who did not complete a purchase.”

“Making use of auto fill data entry forms to reduce keying errors and remove data input roadblocks for customers makes sense. The same may be said around the payment checkout. Making use of mobile devices that have credit / debit cards stored in device wallets or third-party payment processors like PayPal can remove drop off due to customers not having details to hand.”

“Optimising the information provided in the acquisition pipeline to prevent drop off is a worthy investment in A/B testing of landing pages.”

And, says William Reed Business Media’s Tracy Larner, publishers should be “personalising the customer experience as much as possible through automation”.

Michael Mendoza, founder & chief innovation officer, Lineup Systems

Not necessarily linear

Michael Mendoza, founder & chief innovation officer, Lineup Systems: “The journey is no longer viewed as a linear process for subscriber conversion and retention. This has now evolved to nurturing journeys with marketing / engagement loops, which are relevant to the behaviour, demographic, and location in the journey of the reader.”

Sub(x)’s Jonathan Harris adds: “Each customer journey is a spectrum so there is no one size for all anymore. Dynamic clustering of behaviours like recency, frequency, and value combined with other predictive features must be employed to build start to end customised acquisition experiences based on behaviours that continually change. For example, click and conversion rates are dramatically different across behaviours and can be influenced by changes in offer sequences and product story development over the short and long term of a customer engagement with a brand.”

Focus on customer needs

NewsTeam Group’s Romano Sidoli says: “If we take the end to end process now, from identifying new subscribers to conversion, what is that journey you are providing? Focus group it and create rapid learnings to edit or constantly optimise. When it works, do it twice as much next time. The pursuit of new strategies means making mistakes, and opening your mind to learnings.”

“Technology / platform software can be very helpful in crafting a customer journey but,” advises HH&S’s Mike Halstead, “try not to compromise what should be a simple process – it’s the customer that’s always right not your IT Director.”

And, says AdvantageCS’s Dan Heffernan, don’t forget the human touch: “Reach out to customers and ask if they are happy with the frequency of updates in their inbox and pleased with the content. Have conversations with customers – in person, on the phone. These win loyalty like nothing else.”

Integrate selling into content

Angus Chenevix Trench suggests publishers should move “the sales environments away from a soulless impersonal web shop and, instead, service the offers within the content sites themselves. So, if a prospect is on website and enjoying the content, then that’s the place where you should be selling your merchandise or your magazine subscriptions, rather than going off to a shop that sells a load of other magazines as well, which is not probably designed in the same way, and has a completely different look and feel to the content site. Moving the commerce into where the content is, is a far more friendly and personal way of getting people to buy products rather than via click off to a shop somewhere.”


“Give customers a reason to give you their data (value exchange); communicate with them appropriately (personalisation and relevance); think about all the channels at your disposal (not just email!). If you do not have a data strategy for acquisition, then you should develop one. Known data is something like four times more likely to subscribe…,” says Jo Adams.

Increased focus on best practice

“Never forget that the way you use customer data is a key determinate of how successful you will be in building trust with your audiences. If you play fast and loose with customer data, you will fail to build trust and ultimately fail to build the long term relationships that generate the lifetime value you seek,” cautions Julian Thorne.

The Engine Shed’s Patrick Lidstone urges publishers to be “transparent. As you would expect them to be if you bought something from them.”

“We’ve all been trained,” adds Louise McHale, “into believing businesses are trying to trick us into handing over our data – avoid small print, be open, be upfront.”

GDPR is a key consideration. Tracy Larner says that “publishers should make sure they collect only the information they need and ensure they comply with GDPR.”

And, warns Affino’s Markus Karlsson, “the UK government’s recent rumblings about watering down GDPR are a complete red herring. If anyone is looking to sell and deliver services beyond our limited local market, then being GDPR compliant is fundamental for current and future growth.”

Dominic Young, CEO & founder, Axate, sees a “danger that too much focus on data collection can make it intrusive to the point of hostility to consumers. So, collect and use data respectfully.”

What data to collect, when to collect it

Duncan Taylor says: “To help with potential drop off during the customer journey, it’s a proven tactic to get an email address early in the journey for online acquisitions.”

Andrew Morris advises publishers to try to limit upfront data collection and to, instead, do “progressive profiling” and to only ask for what is needed: “if it's just digital access for example and you don't need my address. Don't ask for it!”

Angus Chenevix Trench, managing director,

Similarly, Angus Chenevix Trench says that data collection at the point of purchase should be minimised: “A lot of publishers are keen to collect data but anything that distracts the customer from the job of buying a subscription or purchasing merchandise should be avoided – collect the data after you have collected the money!”

Julian Thorne says that publishers should “design customer interactions throughout the customer journey that generate valuable usage data to enable publishers to understand better and deepen customer engagement levels.”

According to Passendo’s Anthony White, “the impending identity crisis is forcing publishers’ hands to do more with their first party data and to gather more of it. This is creating a virtuous circle – forcing publishers to gather data and to understand their audiences better leads to providing consumers and advertisers with better experiences through more relevant and engaging offerings.”

“Some of the most valuable data to be collected,” says Mike Halstead, “is via which communication channel the subscriber was recruited, the creative treatment / offer and the payment method used, all key responder data. From recruitment response data, a responder model can be built for secondary lookalike marketing.”

How to use it

“Analysing registered users’ behaviour over time is vital to understanding when and how to present a personalised sales message,” says Julian Thorne.

Lineup Systems’ Michael Mendoza encourages publishers to use the data generated from their existing DMP and analytics engine to populate the subscription system to create customised offers with relevant content at the right time in the subscriber acquisition journey. By using this data effectively, we have seen an increase in subscriber acquisition as well as retention.”

And, tight targeting goes without saying, says Jo Adams, though “there is still too many batch and blast emails for my liking”.

Structure & expertise

Alan Leech says: “Organised data collection is essential. Publishers can collect a lot of data that doesn’t mean anything when taken out of context. So, an IT system that allows you to collect, collate and use data to make informed decisions about your current audience and potential areas for growth will help you understand where opportunity lies.”

Louise McHale adds, “the age old ‘single customer view’ is more important today than it’s ever been and it still amazes us to find publishers who have their data scattered all over the place, from spreadsheet to CRM to fag packet… Publishers need to store data legally, accurately and clearly and ensure all data is held in one place.”

“There are so many great CRM systems out there (some better than others!); make sure you invest in software that specifically suits your needs and helps facilitate all of your marketing requirements.”

Jonathan Harris is seeing “increasing investment in data capabilities because of an explosion of data and the need to optimise decisions and actions. Augmented analytics is the next wave of disruption in the data and analytics space. The positive is that the cost of AI as a service applications is falling and the value to the business increasing.”

And, finally, advises Dan Heffernan, “hire a good data analyst. The raw data can be overwhelming.”


“Segmentation and personalisation are critical for the success of a modern media company. Generic marketing campaigns, offers, and journeys are not as effective as customised journeys / offers based on the correct segmentation of the reader. Segmentation includes their behaviour, propensity to subscribe and churn, and their demographics and location,” says Michael Mendoza.

Learning curve

“We are at the early stages of creating personalised experiences for our audiences,” says DC Thomson Media’s Graham McDougall; “Having tested this via newsletters, this is now being built into how users will engage with our products; therefore ensuring that our audiences get relevant messages about their subscription status, get content recommendations, and we can push them to take the steps that will help them engage with our products, get more from their subscription, and ultimately remain a subscriber.”

At New Scientist, says Jo Adams, “we are still developing our data strategy but where we can segment by interest or include personalisation, we do. Our testing shows that small, segmented data sets yield much better volume and conversion then large-scale batch and blast activity.”

At William Reed Business Media, they are segmenting and personalising “according to source, demographics and activity,” says Tracy Larner.

Tailoring communications

“If you’re not personalising, you’re not communicating!” says Louise McHale; “It’s so important to deliver timely, personalised content / communication to readers – so that when customers receive any communication from your brand, they are drawn to consume it, knowing it will be rich and specific to their interests.”

Romano Sidoli says that segmenting your audience is critical as it enables publisher to move away from the “homogenous mass” approach to communications.

Anthony White advises publishers to “avoid generic subscription offers in newsletters, since newsletters are read by both subscribers and non-subscribers, recently lapsed, trialists, etc and all have different consumption habits and interests. Use the data you have available to tailor the subs offers you make. The last thing you want to do is remind a loyal subscriber of the sometimes better offers you are making to prospects.”

Angus Chenevix Trench says that “relevance is the key thing; in order to personalise, you've got to understand the customer. What we have been doing with one of our clients is looking to actually target the creative of the subscription offers based on the content of the pages they are looking at.”

The future is AI

As Mike Halstead says, with segmentation, you are “effectively wholesaling a personalised message to a group”.

For true personalisation, says Andrew Morris, machine learning and automation will be needed.

Julian Thorne agrees: “As publishers collect more customer data, the theoretical ability to further segment and personalise customer experience increases seemingly exponentially. The challenge then becomes a practical one of creating multiple customer segments and associated journeys. This cannot realistically be done at scale manually meaning that the future solution lies in machine learning and possibly AI. Publishers need to be on the lookout for these solutions and supportive of suppliers looking to provide solutions.”

Alan Leech says: “We're in the initial stages of developing machine learning algorithms that take segmentation and personalisation to new heights. The analytical capacity of these algorithms can identify segments that humans would otherwise miss. Publishers will get both the areas that are thriving and untapped segments that have growth potential.”

Jonathan Harris encourages publishers to “focus on augmented analytics and how it can reduce time-consuming exploration and the identification of false or less relevant insights related to building interest and creating desire. Applying a range of algorithms and ensemble learning to data in parallel reduces the risk of missing important insights in the data in comparison to manual exploration. It also optimises resulting decisions and actions.”

In terms of content provision, there can be a risk of over-personalisation. Dan Heffernan says: “Don’t ask me, your reader, too much about what I want to read. Give me some broad choices but let me be introduced to things that are outside my interests. I might discover some new interests. Just watch what I click on as your guide.”


Patrick Lidstone says: “The key to successful marketing communications, whether B2C or B2B, lies in the combination of content and frequency. Content needs to be highly relevant and personalised to the individual’s area of interest.”

Sadly, says Julian Thorne: “Much of publishers’ marketing communications are prosaic and lacking in creativity. Those that do it best often use campaign based marketing communications to bring marketing to life rather than a series of ever more desperate calls to ‘buy now’.”

Tailored communications

Jonathan Harris recommends publishers look at “marketing as a one to one relationship and not a one to many combined with removing the subjective decision about what will work best for whom and when. What low engaged traffic from Facebook experiences vs organic newsletter traffic should be different but the tactics should be deployed at scale where marketing communication sequences can form to build optimised journeys to acquisition rather than create, deploy, test, learn, repeat which is slow, time consuming and often a lagging indicator of buyer behaviour.”

Jo Adams says: “We focus on relevance and ease. We try to avoid large scale batch and blast communications and work hard to ensure what we do communicate is relevant and on brand.”

Continual monitoring and adjustment are key. Tracy Larner says publishers should be continually thinking about “how best to communicate with potential and existing customers in the changing landscape and should monitor response rates per channel continually and adjust to changing responses and feedback.”

Markus Karlsson agrees that “the better targeted the marketing the more effective. Being able to accurately segment and craft the messaging to the different segments of the audience is key for continued engagement.”

Michael Mendoza adds: “All marketing communications must be customised to the reader including content and relevant offers. This includes new subscribers as well as upsells for existing subscribers. Newsletters should have focused content and additional products to always drive engagement and monetisation of the reader.”

Driving desired outcomes

Duncan Taylor says that “allowing maximum automation and single click throughs for taking up the subscription / purchase offer is paramount. It’s frustrating to review open and click through rates that don’t translate to conversions, so make it easy and make it simple. This is relevant for the content of the offer and clarity over what the subscriber can expect. A lot of the time, a single great offer will outperform a series of good ones.”

Angus Chenevix Trench suggests publishers use a “recommendation engine”, so that every customer can have a ‘next best action’ associated with it. So, from the time they become a customer, they have a profile created, and that profile has attributes associated with it that drive a specific ‘next best action’.”

“The attributes could be: the price they paid, geographic region, tenure, how they paid, how many times have they paused their subscription.”

The amount of data held on a customer or prospect will determine the effectiveness of this approach, so it’s obviously used more in the renewals arena, but the ‘next best action’ principle still has a role to play in new subscriber acquisition, especially when publishers have logged in prospects.

Use multi-channel

For Mike Halstead, “using a multi-channel approach will serve to reinforce a message more effectively than frequency via a single channel.”

Duncan Taylor says, “there are certainly considerations for other mediums of marketing communications in addition to email. Cost can reduce the attractiveness of some of these (telephone acquisitions and hard copy offers). SMS messages are still a viable alternative where a telephone number is available and they have less chance of hitting a spam or junk mail folder, though I would argue that the email opportunity is the stronger option due to greater diversity and options for visual marketing.”


Anthony White says: “Newsletters are a vital tool for subscriptions and are developing rapidly both for publishers and more broadly.”

“Newsletters can play a dual role for subscription teams. First as a tool to engage, nurture and convert prospects to a subscription but second, increasingly, as a standalone subscription product in its own right. Subscriptions and newsletters have grown hand in hand during the pandemic.”

Anthony White, head of UK publisher development, Passendo

Key part of acquisition strategy

In terms of new subscriber acquisition, says Mike Halstead, “the newsletter is effectively a sampling exercise for the main title, the sizzle but not the sausage. Newsletter content needs to be sufficient to engage but its function is laying the way for an up-sell to a paid subscription.”

Michael Mendoza says publishers should “consider a newsletter as the initial form of reader registration (email address). Articles in the newsletter should be free to read and engage the reader with the content / products of the publishers. Each newsletter should have a balance of content and sales information to drive the reader to give further information about themselves and ultimately subscribe to view more relevant content.”

“Newsletters are an important part of the New Scientist strategy of taking customers on the journey from consideration to purchase,” says Jo Adams; “This is a vehicle we use extensively – we have daily, weekly and topic focused newsletters that drive traffic to our site. We include both free and premium content. With premium content articles, they land on a subscription barrier page which drives good conversion to subscription.”

Publishers should focus on creating “segmented, personalised content so that the customer can concentrate on the information they need,” adds Tracy Larner.

At DC Thomson, they are also putting a lot of work into their newsletters, says Graham McDougall: “We’re working on what our email products look like and the purpose they serve but it’s a very important channel for us in terms of driving traffic. We’ve seen some success with niche, short-run newsletters focused on specific sports teams and events and are looking at where to go next.”

For Duncan Taylor, newsletters provide “an opportunity for that perfect surprise and delight weekly or monthly communication to strengthen brand loyalty and showcase what the ‘not yet got round to it’ subscriber can expect if they make the commitment.”

Duncan advises publishers to “stay away from the hard sales pitch (a good offer doesn’t hurt from time to time or even a cross-sell if appropriate) and keep that for your social media paid ads or separate marketing communications for those who have opted in for such offers. Instead, use this as your window into the editorial or content, showcasing the value of making the commitment to subscribe.”

Axate’s Dominic Young observes, “there is much less of a natural ritual around digital news compared to physical newspapers. No walk to the newsagent on the way to the station, no pre-breakfast delivery to enjoy with your boiled eggs and coffee. A reminder to read is needed and newsletters do that well.”

“But,” urges Dan Heffernan: “make them compelling. Good writing can captivate a new reader.” And, of course, drab, boring writing will do the opposite…

Analytics & data collection

Publishers need to make sure they are measuring the right things.

Julian Thorne says, “publishers should create KPIs that look at the performance of engagement building tools such as email newsletters in much the same way as they analyse paid subscription KPIs. Being able to understand the cost of an email newsletter sign-up acquisition, the drivers of subsequent engagement with that newsletter and the causes of email newsletter ‘churn’ are far more important when understanding the capability to create engagement than simply looking at open rates and unsubscribe rates.”

Anthony White suggests publishers should analyse consumption data to get “an improved understanding of what content groups and individuals are most interested in so subs offers can focus on those key triggers or, best case, be personalised to individual users.”

Good usage analysis also helps publishers build up fuller profiles of their prospect pool, says Angus Chenevix Trench: “Newsletters are a very good way of building engagement and if you are recording usage and click throughs from your newsletters and building up profiles of customers, as they engage with different areas of your website, that’s going to be very useful, not only for looking at additional sales, but also looking at new product development as well.”

Other forms of engagement

Duncan Taylor says: “There are more creative mediums to consider should budget or suitability allow. Think podcasts, YouTube channels, Instagram videos, private Facebook groups, member forums and other community engagement platforms. These may require dedicated management and moderation of comments, threads and members who are involved, and this must be accounted for as an ongoing running cost.”

Whilst you “can’t beat a solid summary newsletter,” says David Coveney, “another possibility is offering up a summary through a very short audio broadcast aimed at Alexa devices. But whatever you do, it has to be useful and engaging, or people will tune out fast.”

Patrick Lidstone adds: “Podcasts are particularly applicable to the B2B market as it provides a way for content to be easily consumed while commuting. Generating podcasts automatically from existing written content is now absolutely within reach. This can provide the optimum balance between editorial resources and the cost of content generation.”


“There's a tonne of different paywall variations, and a lot of the fear and the stigma around paywalls has gone,” says Andrew Morris.

Deciding what ‘wall’ is right for you

Graham McDougall says: “Firstly, a decision is required on the access model that is best suited to your business and objectives (meter / freemium / hard paywall etc).”

“From there, an experimentation plan will lead you to the optimal conditions, be that in the length of any meter, or amount of premium content.”

Louise McHale adds: “It really all depends on your business model, branding and pricing structure, but my preference on a consumer title would be a datawall over a paywall. Sadly, there is so much free content available online that I will have had to see something pretty radical to get me past a paywall – but for a brand which has already got my interest, I’m much happier to provide some data. Then, once you’ve collected the data, you’ve got your foot in the door. With regards to B2B and where standard price-points are higher, a paywall is a much more realistic option. It’s all about your target audience and where they are likely to be consuming your information – whatever you do, you don’t want to lose a load of people at that first barrier.”

New Scientist operates a hard paywall and, says Jo Adams, “it works very well for us. We are somewhat niche, very well respected and we offer content you cannot get elsewhere.”

“To introduce either of these (data / paywalls) you must be sure consumers cannot go elsewhere to get what you are offering. Understanding your traffic is vital.”

Jonathan Harris says: “Launching a datawall or paywall is not just about access or no access. This strategy faces the same challenge as other acquisition techniques. For example, is it better to acquire one type of customer as an email lead first before presenting them with a registration to paywall journey and another with a dynamically priced paywall upfront where the offer mechanics match the customer’s recency, frequency and value behaviours? To optimise for every journey and really build scale requires dynamic and sequence based decisioning at a new level.”

Wall positioning

“To introduce a barrier to a site that has lots of fly by traffic will yield disappointing results; they will just continue to bounce.”

“Setting a barrier at frequency of visits being, say, two or more a month when you have low returning traffic will be equally disappointing.”

“First you must know your site traffic to inform where best to introduce a barrier and test accordingly,” says Jo Adams.

Markus Karlsson adds, “keep experimenting with the datawalls (engagement walls) and paywalls. Make sure that they are in the right place; some if not all the news should be in front of any paywall (but can be behind an engagement wall). You will know they’re in the right place when you’re seeing steady or growing traffic and subscription revenues.”

Andrew Morris says, “once you know your value proposition and you're building out different customer journeys, you want to have different paths and flows for each of them. You want to be able to decide who gets a paywall or whether your product fits a paywall or not.”

“The easiest metric to look at is your average number of pageviews for users. So, for example, if you have 500,000 users and 100,000 see two or three pages and the remaining 400,000 see one page, then the reality is, if you put a paywall that has five free pageviews, then no-one’s actually going to hit that paywall.”

The offer

Duncan Taylor says: “There’s been a trend to either put everything behind a paywall in the digital age or to offer it as a bundled package. Some publishers have taken the opportunity to offer bespoke tiered content or VIP added value paywall services for subscription of the core product.”

“There’s no right or wrong way to operate but providing archive access to past content that is no longer generating revenue is a good method to add a feel-good vibe to subscribers or make a package look more appealing without significant cost or impact to the brand.”

“There is an opportunity to reach out to a wider or new audience and to offer services that a print-only offering cannot. This is going to vary publisher to publisher, but I do not think that digital or paywall necessarily means an electronic replication of the print offering. With myriad ways to present digital versions, there is certainly no reason to not pursue this, but there is value in thinking outside the box. An example being a newspaper photo archive which could allow stock sales or access to seminal images.”


“The most important thing,” says Angus Chenevix Trench, “is to make them as seamless as possible because the very nature of a wall is as a barrier, a hurdle.”

David Coveney suggests keeping “datawalls and paywalls engaging, and don’t ask too much at first. Think of it like a relationship in real life – come in too hard, too quickly, and people back away. Be too shy, and they’ll never know what you have to offer. With a paywall, you do have to allow some browsing unless your brand is so strong, so desirable, that people will take a risk.”

Once signed up, cautions Alan Leech, “they expect to receive access to paywall content straight away.”

Instant access is important, and assuming your system can deliver it, that’s “something to shout about in your marketing because it will meet a lot of the expectations of potential subscribers and bring them into your business.”

Cross team collaboration

Julian Thorne says: “The most important thing that publishers can do to make a success of datawall and paywall strategies is to build data insight models that both editorial and marketing fully trust. Once this is done, then the data informs (but doesn’t dictate) the editorial content creation that leads to the commercial outcomes that marketing is tasked with delivering. This in turn results in powerful matrix collaboration between marketing and editorial that is hugely rewarding, creative and even fun.”


“The most important thing is metrics and KPIs,” says Angus Chenevix Trench, “because if you don't have that, then you’re rudderless.”

Mike Halstead agrees: “without metrics, you will be lost. They are a fundamental for any business development.”

General approach

Julian Thorne says: “Keep the core KPIs as simple as possible so that everyone at board level can understand them. Make sure there is a clear distinction between ‘lag’ KPIs (ie. what the result was) and ‘lead’ KPIs (ie. what influences the result). It is the ‘lead’ KPIs that are the drivers of change and should be prioritised but too often, publishers concentrate far too much on the ‘lag’ KPIs.”

“Subscription and membership metrics need to be actionable,” agrees Markus Karlsson, “which means some should be weekly, whilst others quarterly and annual. Focus on metrics which identify positive and negative behaviours (ie. towards increased / decreased retention) so that you can identify both and adjust your service and promotions accordingly.”

What publishers are measuring

Andrew Morris says the choice of KPI will “will depend on the type of business and the type of user you’re looking to attract. You want to understand your customer journey, and you want to track the different paths, and the different conversion rates across the journey.”

Jo Adams agrees: “The key is to make sure you are monitoring and measuring the right metrics, which should be guided by your strategy.”

At DC Thomson Media, says Graham McDougall, “the acquisition metrics we look most closely at are subscribe page hits and subscribe page conversion rate. We then look at the sales and conversion rates through different channels (for example, the meter, from premium content, direct journeys, via newsletters, emails) to understand how we can improve sales via each of these.”

“Longer term, we focus on improving KPIs such as meter stop rate (is the meter performing its role), percentage of sessions with a subscribe page hit (do we get users past the paywall), and subscription starts per session (do we convert users from the point they hit the site). Each of these consider how effectively we are converting our traffic.”

“Editorial teams look at ‘quality reads’ as their primary metrics: the number of article reads that last at least 50% of the estimated reading time based on an article’s word count. Quality reads are more likely to result in conversion.”

Duncan Taylor cautions: “The quantification of sales just through acquisition conversion versus cost of campaign is only part of the picture. Requiring a longer period of analysis, the retention of the initial acquisition is just as important and a sometimes-forgotten consideration by a split marketing team focusing only on acquisitions. Acquiring high volumes of new subscribers who do not stay past the low intro, loss leader, or free period in their acquisition are likely incurring a loss to the publisher. The numbers may look impressive, but do not tell the whole story.”

“A KPI which should always be monitored is the period of new subscriber breaking even of the intro offer to subsequent payments versus cost to acquire and serve the initial period. Once that x number of issues is reached to break even then (generally) anything further can be classed as a positive net income acquisition. The sale is only part of the picture and not indicative of solvency in a publication. That deferred income needs to convert to earned after all.”

“When using newsletters to drive subscriptions,” says Anthony White, “test click and conversion rate – how many of the newsletter recipients engaged with the message / advert (click rate) and out of those, how many actually went ahead and became a paid subscriber (conversion rate).”

For Dominic Young, the key metric is, “monthly active paying users. Divide these into layers – with subscribers at the top layer, one-time users at the bottom and everyone else in between. Focus the business on driving frequency and engagement and moving people towards the subscription layer, but also focus on increasing the value of the middle majority who will never subscribe.”

The future: real time measurement

Jo Adams says, “I think we could learn a lot from news publishers; they know what is happening on their site by the millisecond. I’m not suggesting this is appropriate for weeklies / monthlies, but we do have a habit of looking backwards – if we used real-time data, we would be able to respond to dips in traffic or conversion rate or indeed spikes.”

Jonathan Harris adds, “metrics are often set based on historic data or expected future performance. Actual performance should be assessed in almost real time against control environments that may either compare AI based performance against randomisation of a control sample or against manual strategy.”


“This really is at the heart of what we do,” says Jo Adams; “We use data to guide our decision making and develop tests to improve performance. If you do not analyse and test, then you will continue to do the same thing hoping for a different outcome; this is bad practice. Test and learn should be at the heart of your marketing strategy.”

Michael Mendoza concurs: “This is a basic capability that should exist in all marketing and subscription management systems and should be employed by all media companies for effective product creation and sales.”

This is because, says Dan Heffernan, “gut feel is not good enough. It can be a guide. But testing will prove out the reality of price elasticity, bundling options, freemiums and discounts.”

Markus Karlsson, CEO & founder, Affino

Culture of test & learn

“You should exist in a constant state of experimentation,” says Dominic Young.

Markus Karlsson agrees: “Continuous learning and development is fundamental to improving your subscription and membership offerings. This means being in close contact with key subscribers (individuals and organisations) with powerful feedback mechanisms. Ensure that you continuously look to improve your offering, and then test and refine the delivery against your key metrics to see what sticks with the audience, improving or discarding those elements which don’t after a certain number of iterations.”

For Julian Thorne, “this is all about culture. If you have a culture that sees a poor test result as a failure rather than a source of learning and insight, then you will never succeed in creating a genuine test and learn culture. Money needs to be allocated to testing and ring fenced away from any performance other than the creation of insight and learning.”

Making budgetary provision for testing is important agrees Angus Chenevix Trench, and dates back to the “old days of direct mail where, if you were running a promotion, then at least 20% of that investment needed to be for testing something new. If you're going to do any kind of promotion, you should be testing. Constant testing and learning is absolutely essential.”

“When it comes to subscriber acquisition, it is paramount,” says Alan Leech, “to have a system that’s agile enough for marketers to get creative, try different tactics, change things up without massive amounts of construction, and analyse the learnings they’re getting quickly and efficiently.”

Return on Investment

Decisions have to be made about what precisely to test, because you can’t test everything.

Duncan Taylor says: “It has to be relevant and answer a legitimate question. Historically, we have seen tests that have little value or relevance to a successful conversion and in current trading conditions, each test must have a direct relation with conversion percentage or impact on revenue (and profit) generation.”

“Does the test add to the customer experience or journey? Are there cost savings to be made or will it generate more acquisitions? Of course, these are not an exhaustive list of variables, but they are all valid ones to warrant a given test. The specific test will be unique to the publisher / publication but the juice needs to be worth the squeeze for the justification to allocate the necessary marketing budget to each test.”

Approaches to testing

Graham McDougall says: “Constant experimentation has been central to our improved performance. Having multiple experiments running simultaneously allows improvements to be made and more quickly. Similarly, creating MVP (minimum viable product) versions of new product improvements allows much of the gain to be achieved quickly rather than waiting for the perfect version to come.”

David Coveney asks: “How often do you try taking a stranger and asking them to do a dummy run through a sign-up? It can be quite enlightening to watch them and see their reactions.”

“When testing click and conversion rates on newsletters,” says Anthony White, “publishers should use multiple pieces of content in rotation to build up data on what type of content best engages and converts non-paying subscribers.”

“Conversion data can be passed back from the landing page and used to further optimise the rotation. Also, the publisher should make sure to set up other types of content or adverts for those newsletter recipients that are already paying subscribers, while ‘prospects’ are shown more top-of-funnel messaging.”

Jonathan Harris predicts a “move to high frequency concurrent and real time optimisation and away from A/B or multivariant testing. Rinse and repeat tactics no longer deliver the scale and tackle the complexity of the data sets. Moving to an augmented approach is fundamental over the next three years.”

And final word to Mike Halstead: “Test and you will learn, test more and you will learn more.”


William Reed Business Media uses social media “to engage potential subscribers with general content, onboarding offers and content specific to platform and cohort, supplemented with links back to the website with gating and personalised messaging to enhance conversion,” says Tracy Larner.

Angus Chenevix Trench adds: “If you don't have social as part of your acquisition strategy, you should start right now.”

Tracy Larner, head of subscriptions, William Reed Business Media

A clear purpose

Romano Sidoli advises, “unless you have a strategy here, don’t be wasteful. Don’t just do it for doing its sake. Choose the platforms your target audience uses and ignore the others. At a time when resources are spread thin, don’t waste it chasing unicorns.”

When deciding which platforms to use, says Markus Karlsson, “find out where your audience is on social, and work to build up the presence there; it does not have to be any of the mainstream ones and is just as likely to be TikTok, Discord, Reddit or Guild.”

Mike Halstead adds, “each platform is different and the users of each platform are different. Don’t assume what works on Facebook will also render well with Instagram users as it probably won’t.”

Jo Adams says: “you should be clear on the purpose and then plan accordingly. Your presence should be purposeful and relevant.”

“We have clear objectives for each of the platforms we are active on. We measure engagement, traffic from platform to site and conversion to sign-up, or sale. And of course, we test.”

And strategies need to be thought through carefully so as to avoid conflicting marketing objectives. Graham McDougall says, “with organic social, there’s a difficult line to walk between driving on-platform engagement to maintain reach and our need to drive traffic to our products to work through the funnel.”

That is why it’s important to “make sure that your social media strategic objectives are written by trained marketers and fully integrated with wider marketing strategies and not dictated by specialist technicians comfortable with the operation of each platform,” says Julian Thorne; “Just because your post person knows how to deliver a letter, it does not follow they know what the addressee, content or timing of the letter should be. Having said that, working with specialist agencies usually pays off given the constant speed of change across the platforms.”


Publishers should take care not to fall into the trap of thinking that just because the social media platforms are free to use, that there is no cost involved.

Being successful on social media requires proper resourcing.

Mike Halstead says, “it’s not enough anymore to show up on your platforms and update your audience when you have the time. Or to just use your platforms to serve ads and promotional posts. Consistency is key and the way to stand out on social media is to create posts that use your content to sell your products ensuring that you distribute the right content on the right platform.”

Angus Chenevix Trench adds that whilst he thinks many publishers could do more when it comes to social media, they need to be aware of the “cost of maintaining their social sites. To get them to be well used by your audience, they need to be constantly updated.”


Discounted pricing

Duncan Taylor says: “There is an understandable trend to make the bait of a good acquisition offer appealing for conversion. The same may be said for a loss leader campaign. Both can be effective and warrant use. They need to be marketed with caution alongside higher priced offers to ensure a wait for the best possible offer mentality of potential subscribers is not created.”

“Additionally, such offers must not cause high attrition at point of renewal or step-up price for continuous payment methods.”

“The other danger of overly competitive acquisition offers is subscriber churn instead of retention. Whilst there is no silver bullet solution to prevent this from occurring, offering transitional renewal prices for particularly competitive acquisition offers or providing an incentive to renew can mitigate unwanted ‘renewal’ behaviour.”

Graham McDougall says offers should “be considered in terms of campaign offers (short term) vs always on trial / discounted offers:

  • Short term offers have their place and will help to convert warm prospects and bring back lapsed subscribers. But the impact on sales will only ever be short term. For this reason, we use these periods to push longer term packs, trading revenue for longer commitment.
  • Always on trials are great but need to balance acquisition and churn to achieve longer term growth.

“Also, it should be remembered that warm prospects may not need a trial to become a subscriber or, if offered, would take an annual pack, whereby others need a free or discounted period to get them to convert. Being able to effectively target the right offer to different user segments can balance acquisition, churn and LTV.”

Patrick Lidstone says pricing is “of course very market dependent. Strategies that may be applicable include offering discounted tasters (eg. the Radio Times offers 12 issues for one pound before reverting to normal pricing). Following up on the failure to renew subscriptions is easily automated, and can include suitable enticements. Rather than discounting the value of the title, we would suggest the inclusion of additional free gifts or an extended period (eg. 14 months for the price of 12). This avoids any perception of devaluing the brand.”

And remember to fully account for all costs when calculating LTV…

Mike Halstead thinks publishers should avoid “just buying subscriptions. There is a double cost of the initial offer cost and the cost of trying to retain the new subscribers at the end of the introductory offer.”

Mike recommends giving “higher incentive offers to subscribers to take out recurring payment methods.”

David Coveney, director, interconnect

Discounted pricing comes with risks, as David Coveney explains: “Reduced price offers can be a negative inducement – studies suggest that special offers make people more likely to think the product is of lower quality, yet I see it all the time on website subscriptions – eg. ‘free for three months!’ or ‘£1 a week for the first six months’. That suggests that the cost of production is low, so why pay more? I always suggest to our customers to keep in mind the quality and value of their product and to be very careful about any risk of undermining that.”

As with all aspects of subscription marketing, testing is essential.

Dan Heffernan says publishers should “test pricing often. Gut feel can leave money on the table”.

Campaign timing

Duncan Taylor: “Offers will be seasonal in nature and in the current market, potential customers are savvy to calendar points for potential deals – Black Friday and January sales being obvious ones. Certain key dates that may be relevant to the subscriber demographic such as Mother’s / Father’s Day or national “insert subject” day should be utilised to garner brand awareness and increase sales.”

Multiple price points

Markus Karlsson says: “It is crucial to keep the pricing flexible and have targeted offers to onboard as many organisations and individuals to your paid subscription services as possible. Creating targeted landing pages and offers for specific audience segments, and identifying which audience segments are key for your data and therefore deserving of even better offers is key.”

Much of this can be automated, says Michael Mendoza: “Real-time selection of relevant offers based on the behaviour, demographics, and journey of the consumer is critical to the growth of subscriptions (and total customer value).”

Simplified pricing

When it comes to price points, there is another school of thought, as Julian Thorne explains: “Publishers should learn from Netflix, Prime, Apple and Spotify and keep pricing and offers simple and transparent leaving marketers to focus on creating benefit driven messaging. In the past, large variations in price and offer have been used to identify and segment (and confuse) audiences in the absence of engagement data. Now that engagement data is more readily available to publishers, messaging, channel and timing can be informed by that data leaving pricing and offers to remain simple and transparent.”

David Coveney also thinks pricing should be kept “as simple as possible. There’s nothing wrong in having lots of products and targeting people differently. Toyota doesn’t try to make one car that is perfect for everybody. However, you need ways of segmenting in such a way that any one person on seeing your offers, isn't presented with confusing options that leave them feeling like whatever they choose, they're getting a bad deal.”

Non subscription pricing

For publishers who don’t embrace a subscription-centric view of reader revenue, the role of pricing changes, says Dominic Young: “When people are paying casually, the price needs to be low enough that it’s a casual and spontaneous purchase. It doesn’t have to be “micro”, it just needs to be appropriate for your product. Lots of publishers price between 20p and £1 for a day pass. Customers often actually cease to be aware of the price of items they buy frequently and spontaneously (how much is a pint of milk?). Media consumption is very much in this category and if you can price to match peoples’ habits, the purchase will be a much smoother and more frequent process which needs fewer incentives to be deployed.”


“In its simplest form, making it quick and easy to convert will get the greatest conversion rate. That means reducing the number of steps in the process and the amount of information required, multiple payment options, and even optimising the subscribe page for the journey the user has been on,” says Graham McDougall.

Make it simple

“Just make it easy, convenient and transparent,” says Julian Thorne.

Michael Mendoza adds: “It goes without saying that the faster and easier the payment process is, the more likely a consumer will convert. This is proven in all markets, not only publishing. Payment processing needs to be as seamless as possible and significant effort should be placed on this part of the purchase journey.”

“Moving toward testing onsite checkout experiences that aim to keep visitors on the brand site throughout the checkout journey can work very well,” says Jonathan Harris; “These can be tailored to customer behaviour and adapt to the offers that drive conversion.”

Patrick Lidstone points out that “most publishers should now be operating a broad ecommerce platform and subscriptions are only one of the many products on offer to the subscribers. Streamlining the checkout process therefore needs to take account of the possibility of a basket which contains physical goods, subscriptions to the payee, gift subscriptions, events and more.”

Data collection

Graham McDougall: “Whether to collect data at the point of registration or the point of subscription are all decisions to be made, with experiments to be run to find the optimal conditions for each product.”

Generally speaking, the goal is order completion, so publishers want to put up as few barriers and distractions at the checkout as possible.

As Andrew Morris says, publishers need “to weigh up what’s more important, and usually the focus is on getting those users to create an account, and then getting them to make a payment. So, always make those decisions based on what’s going to give me the highest conversion.”

As Duncan Taylor points out, “many conversion opportunities occur during commuting through mobile devices. Therefore, making use of pre-population of subscriber data through apps or websites is a good idea. Address looks-ups and card validation or pre-authorisation can help to ensure accurately entered order information.”

Modern payment options

Duncan Taylor: “Being able to offer one click checkout and remove a barrier to sale through manual card entry makes it easy for subscribers to subscribe. An integrated payment service is a clean solution to achieve this. Integration with Apple / Google Pay and PayPal are worthwhile additions to traditional card providers and direct debits. These alternative methods also guarantee accuracy of provided card details, having been validated in advance with the respective platform.”

Dan Heffernan agrees: “Personally, I love PayPal because I don’t have to go find my wallet to pull out a credit card and type in lots of numbers.”

David Coveney adds: “If you bounce people out to some WorldPay form that looks like it hasn’t changed since 1998 then it’s going to leave people feeling that there’s not a lot of thought gone into the product at key touchpoints. I always say that more publishers should look at the newest providers like Stripe or Chargebee – they keep the cost of implementation down to a minimum, handle the subscription elements for you, and generally make life simple for the end user. It feels like you’ve never left the website, but the card details are never processed or stored by the website. It’s so elegant.”

Andrew Morris says using “mobile wallets differentiates a two second purchase from me having to go get my credit card. As you can imagine, already there are huge drop off rates associated with that. So, make sure you’re using mobile wallets and social logins.”

Promote continuous payment options

Tracy Larner encourages “continuous payments to enhance renewal rates and save costs, saving time and effort for both publisher and customer.”

“Continuous credit cards have built-in retention,” says Angus Chenevix Trench; “it does surprise me that subscriptions are still sold on a cash basis, apart from gift subscriptions.”

Fraud prevention

Duncan Taylor: “Upcoming changes to the PSD2 legislation being required for online sales allows for peace of mind for subscribers and should help with reduction of fraudulent orders for publishers. Other anti-fraud plug-ins are available on the market which are worth consideration to implement in the payment frames used for sales. Whilst these may add to the running costs of the online sales solution, the perceived subscriber confidence and reduction in lost revenue from bad sales can mitigate the outlay in services.”

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