This subs special consists of four separate sections:
Onboarding & delivering subscriber satisfaction
“Onboarding and engagement are key metrics that drive better retention and are thus the gateway to improving lifetime value. Historically it has been even more overlooked than renewals – now that the value of repeat transactions is understood and a firm part of most publishers’ strategies, it is time for engagement to come to the fore in order to complete the picture of 360 degree customer management,” says Kevin Hickman, head of marketing at emap.
“The days of selling a subscription and then speaking to the customer twelve months later are thankfully long gone,” says Ben Wood, managing director of Risk.net, part of Infopro Digital, confirming that publisher thinking in relation to subscriber engagement has shifted radically in the last few years.
“In a modern world of e-commerce,” adds Jamie Wren, InterMedia’s commercial & marketing director, “we are up against the Amazon affect. Order now, deliver this evening. Expectations have changed.”
These expectations, confirms Zephr CEO James Henderson, “are being set by the brilliant execution across the web and app ecosystems.”
But it’s not just negative comparisons with the digital behemoths that have prompted a rethink – it’s also the realisation that the quality of a subscriber’s ongoing relationship with a title has huge financial implications.
Seema Kumari, Hearst UK’s digital marketing & CRM director: “Don’t underestimate the power of an onboarding programme. A solid thought-out programme could save you a considerable amount and also have a positive impact on first time churn rates.”
Put simply, happy engaged subscribers are more likely to renew, so it’s vital that publishers have an engagement plan.
“What this means,” says Zephr’s James Henderson, “is that publishers, media companies and subscription providers should not see onboarding as a cost, or a potential tripwire, but as a driver of value that sets the tone for a long and mutually beneficial value exchange.”
And… for those few publishers left who think that the moment of subscriber acquisition is the end of the journey, InterMedia’s Jamie Wren has a wake-up call: “The hard work is done? This is just the start……! Onboarding a client has often been seen as part of the acquisition strategy – in my view this is absolutely the start of a retention strategy.”
Renewed focus on the first contact
First impressions are everything, not least in subscriber management.
“The ultimate objective is to gain the newly acquired subscriber’s trust and become a part of their active interests from minute one,” says Stuart Lacey, managing director of Air Business Subscriptions.
One area that B2C publishers have traditionally struggled with is first issue delivery.
“The onboarding experience for most magazine subscription buyers is pretty abysmal,” laments Angus Chenevix Trench, managing director at dsb.net. “Having to wait up to five weeks for delivery of your first monthly magazine is appalling, when you consider what is the standard experience of most companies selling online. At the very least, a digital version should be made available and / or the opportunity to pay additionally for the current issue to be mailed individually.”
Part of the challenge is managing expectations, says Jamie Wren: “Print publishing does not lend itself to delivering against these expectations easily, however open dialogue, honest information and quick communication can help to manage expectations – even turning them into a positive if phrased correctly.”
Many publishers are well aware of the first-issue factor, and “shortening the wait for copies”, is a priority for Jess Burney, Immediate Media’s managing director, direct marketing and business development.
Delivery of the first print issue aside, most publishers are alive to the need to get the first contact right: “Subscriber onboarding is key to the experience – from the get-go, ensure that every new user, now more than ever, is seeing value quickly,” urges James Henderson.
An orchestrated experience
Publishers are increasingly adopting onboarding and engagement programmes that last the entire duration of the subscription.
“This isn’t just a welcome letter and confirmation of subscription anymore. A welcome series is essential,” says Alistair Wood, ESco’s operations & development director, and the aim is to “delight, retain and monetise”.
“There are lots of different ways to onboard,” says Infopro’s Ben Wood, “and it depends largely on the price of your product, and the resources at your disposal.”
Typically, an effective onboarding approach will incorporate the following:
- Automation: Common automated elements will include welcome emails to confirm the details of the subscription and important account set-up information, details of newsletter sign-up and other associated benefits, push notifications and prompts to encourage usage.
- Phased messaging: More attention is now being paid to providing timely and relevant information in bite-size chunks. Where, once, there might have been a tendency to give the new subscriber all the information they could possibly ever need all in one go, the thinking now is that this is overwhelming and counterproductive.
- Adding a personal touch: Much of the onboarding experience is automated, but higher value subscriptions often warrant human contact.
- Building trust: Publishers are increasingly going the extra mile. This includes, says Air Business Subscriptions’ Stuart Lacey, “sending out gifts at the beginning of an offer rather than waiting until payment clears – this builds trust between publisher and subscribers and shows that the subscriber will get what they expect from a brand in a trustworthy and expedient fashion.”
Ben Wood: “We don’t overload customers with lots of information in one go, we drip feed tips through to them over a course of a few days with frequent reminders about password resetting embedded in the messaging – we know this is often a barrier to successful onboarding.”
“The onboarding should be as quick as possible and personalised. For high-value sales, this often requires a personal call to welcome them and understand their content needs,” says Edwin Bailey, Publish Interactive’s director of marketing & product strategy.
Ben Wood agrees: “At scale, these automated sequences work, particularly for individual subscribers, however if you’re selling enterprise subscriptions, then a dedicated client engagement team is invaluable.”
Giving subscribers the benefit of the doubt so as to build long term relationships, beyond the simply transactional is worth doing; “Do not cut off your nose to spite your face,” encourages Patrick Lidstone, managing director at The Engine Shed; “the cost of sending a duplicate magazine in the case of non-delivery is far less than the equivalent goodwill.”
Fit-for-purpose customer services
“A customer service team is the representation of the brand and often the only human contact a subscriber has, so the manner and timing of a customer response will determine how a subscriber views your brand,” says Mike Halstead, managing director at HH&S.
So, proper briefing and training of customer service teams as well as giving them the tools to do the job is essential. According to The Engine Shed’s Patrick Lidstone, key elements of this are: “achieving consistency by providing scripts for the customer service agent to follow for all common eventualities; logging all communications with clients and ensuring workflow are in place to ensure required actions do not fall between the cracks.”
But it’s not just in-person customer service that’s getting attention, he says: publishers need to offer “comprehensive self-service capabilities, including making it easy to cancel a subscription, change charging details and / or delivery addresses or report missing deliveries.”
Mark Judd, managing director at CDS Global, agrees: “Online self-serve experience is receiving lots of attention and being enhanced where necessary. Customer satisfaction and experience is now much more of a priority.”
Alan Leech, CRM Australia’s founder & chief architect, says that subscribers “should have access to their account where they can clearly see how many issues they have left on their subscription, how they can change their details or update their mailing address easily.”
Some publishers are taking a more proactive approach to customer service, trying to spot and address problems early. Stuart Lacey: “Customer surveys allows publishers and service providers to nip any service issues in the bud. If a subscriber feels satisfied with the subs proposition and that their opinion is sought out and valued throughout the onboarding process, the likelihood of a successful ongoing relationship is exponentially higher.”
A more proactive approach is also de rigueur in the world of high value B2B subscriptions. “A dedicated client engagement team can,” says Ben Wood, “hand hold the main buyer, ensure that all of the seats are filled, and that all users are set-up and onboard, ensuring that they know how to use the service. The engagement team also have an important part to play throughout the lifecycle of a subscription.”
Having the right tech
Tech underpins everything: the operation of self-service, the single customer view that supports it and the automation of subscriber comms. Most publishers realise that you can’t optimise your onboarding experience without getting the tech right.
For Jaicom CEO Jorma Ainassaari, “a customer centric 360-degree view” sits at the heart of a successful onboarding process. Ana Lobb, MPP Global’s VP, business development, EMEA, says it must be a “streamlined omni-channel experience which can only be achieved by centralising the management of subscribers across digital and physical assets.”
The system needs to “support single sign-on across all products – one username and password for access to all the estate,” adds Patrick Lidstone.
dsb.net’s Angus Chenevix Trench recommends that publishers “invest in technology to take advantage of the wealth of customer behavioural insights that are available and better personalise loyalty offerings to customers. Make every customer touchpoint an opportunity to “value” your subscriber.”
“Have you considered the membership model?”, asks Dan Heffernan, AdvantageCS’s vice president & chief product manager; “Make a customer a member of something with like-minded people. Especially now, people want contact with other humans, even if it’s virtual. Everyone is in the same boat, which is somewhat comforting; in other words, we all have plenty in common, which helps us begin new relationships. People have a need to “belong”. They need to be part of a community - especially now! Membership can provide this if the members can communicate amongst themselves.”
WHAT OPTIMAL PERFORMANCE LOOKS LIKE
“Onboarding begins when the relationship with the subscriber begins – it is in effect renewal at birth without the transaction, but done properly, it massively increases the propensity for a customer to prolong their relationship with a brand,” says emap’s Kevin Hickman.
Having a plan!
Publishers need to have a comprehensive onboarding and engagement programme in place to cover the whole subscription period. At the very least, says CDS Global’s Mark Judd, it’s “a simple, seamless and co-ordinated journey for the subscriber with the appropriate mechanisms in place to intervene and support them should they require it.”
The plan should:
- Cover the whole subscription period, not just the start and end.
- Facilitate speed: “Move fast to get engagement from the moment they place their order,” advises ESco’s Alistair Wood.
- Include a large degree of automation: “Automate intelligently-crafted nurture journeys to free up the audience team so that they can focus on more important tasks,” advises Lineup Systems CEO Michael Mendoza.
- Be personalised: “It’s got to be fast, it’s got to be clear, it’s got to be personalised to the user’s experience. Essentially, they cannot feel like hamsters in a wheel. Personalisation, personalisation, personalisation – this is key!”, says James Henderson.
- Be measurable: You should have KPIs in place to track every key variable of the onboarding journey and, says Jamie Wren, “goal setting should be used at every stage”. Set your target, track performance and take corrective action when necessary. These should include customer satisfaction metrics.
- Include intervention strategies: Central to the plan should be the resource to intervene when warning signs are triggered. For instance, says Alistair Wood, “if a customer stops using your website or other benefits, address it head on and see if they need a hand… don't wait for their subscription to expire to let them know!”
- Include only high value comms – no spam: It’s not comms for comms’ sake. Whilst “nobody wants the only communication they receive to be a price increase or a request for payment”, says Alistair Wood, “equally, don’t bombard them. Every communication should be top quality content – just as they should expect from every aspect of your brand.”
Alistair Wood adds: “Any contact a customer has with your brand needs to make them feel important, almost as though it’s a personal message to them – make them feel that they are truly valued.”
Less inbound, more outbound
Whilst effective onboarding is all about increasing engagement, there is one type of communication we should all try to minimise: “reduced customer contacts via phone and email” is one of Immediate’s Jess Burney’s goals.
Stuart Lacey agrees: Optimal performance involves “customers not needing to contact the relevant customer services team to deal with any problems (missed issues / late issues / payment problems to name a few).”
Another way of looking at it, says Jamie Wren, is that “optimum performance looks like a quiet inbox and a serene looking customer service team.”
Engaged and satisfied subscribers
CRM Australia’s Alan Leech says: “subscriptions should be seen as a long-game, and the ultimate goal is renewal month after month or year after year. The best way to work toward this is to create a great experience and balance good content with subscriber satisfaction.”
For Angus Chenevix Trench, optimising customer satisfaction is the key to successful long-term subscriber relationships.
“Once onboarded,” adds Publish Interactive’s Edwin Bailey, “the customer should feel they are part of a club of privileged executives who can read the most insightful content and have personal contact with expert analysts that are instantly available for consultation.”
Engagement takes many forms:
- Sense of community: For AdvantageCS’s Dan Heffernan, seeing “conversations among the members and engagement with authors,” is a strong indicator of engagement.
- Cross sales: “Subscribers buying further products within the portfolio based upon their experience of the initial subs purchase; for example, joint subscription, event tickets, memberships etc,” shows engagement and boosts LTV, says Stuart Lacey.
- Becoming a habit: “Churn is often due to not creating a reading habit. The initial offer may have been enticing, but the customer forgot about it and never engaged with the content. The early days after the enticing offer are critical for building that habit,” says Dan Heffernan.
“We live in an instant world where nobody wants to have to wait for anything anymore,” says Alistair Wood and publishers delivering on their promise is at the core of delivering customer satisfaction. This involves, he continues, disciplined adherence to publishing schedules, “releasing updates at the same time each day / week / month so that your readers can come to expect and depend upon it.”
“There are many people involved in fulfilling a subscription,” HH&S’s Mike Halstead reminds us; “editorial, marketing, circulation, the subscription bureau, printers, digital providers, the list goes on! Everyone needs to work together to give customers the best experience they can. Quite often a supplier can be viewed as an unimportant part of the chain but it’s important to work closely with your suppliers ensuring everyone is informed and working towards the same objective.”
Ultimately, the best indicator that you are getting things right is a high renewal rate.
COMMON REASONS FOR UNDERPERFORMANCE
They hit ‘subscribe’. Champagne corks are popped and you’re all set for a long and profitable relationship, yet it doesn’t always work out like that. And there is a myriad of reasons why:
Thinking the job is done
“Don’t make the mistake of thinking that once you’ve got a subscriber that the hard work is done – this isn’t a one-time wonder,” advises Alistair Wood.
Mike Halstead agrees: “One common mistake many publishers make is to forget about a customer as soon as they have been recruited.”
Many football fans think their team is most vulnerable to conceding a goal in the minutes after they themselves have scored a goal, because the players momentarily drop their guard.
In a similar vein, says Jamie Wren, “The most critical point in the journey of a subscriber is the point just after they have pressed the ‘buy’ button…” You might have just scored a goal, but now is the time for maximum vigilance.
Confusing customer journeys
For Jess Burney, “poor understanding of UX” is a common cause for underperformance.
Stuart Lacey agrees: “Confusing and misleading customer journeys” lead to rapid disengagement because “over-complicated processes can put customers off, particularly around initial digital access and authentication.”
Mark Judd advises publishers to address “the ‘white space’ between ordering a subscription and the time it takes to receive the first print issue. This is a difficult challenge when the bar has been set and consumers expect delivery of everything within 24-48hrs.”
“Customer satisfaction from the very start is so crucial but is often something which isn’t considered as much as it should be,” adds Mike Halstead.
And early disappointments can have lasting negative impacts, because, says Jamie Wren, “decisions by a customer about their satisfaction are shaped and formed in these early stages.”
Not nurturing the relationship
Subscribers need constant attention, otherwise they will drift off.
“You want a long and healthy relationship and all relationships take work. You need to make sure they feel loved and that they are seeing the benefits in their subscription,” says Alistair Wood.
“Seeing the customer as a ‘sales number’ rather than a person who has subscribed to fulfil a need,” is often the cause of poor relationship management, says Edwin Bailey.
For James Henderson, it’s all about remembering that the “value exchange is key, ensuring you have and continue to give the value that a user signs up for.”
Poor customer service
For Stuart Lacey, another cause of underperformance is “not engaging with subscribers and not listening to and acting upon their issues or concerns. For example, delivery problems occur frequently and not finding resolutions to the supplier / routing issues will result in cancellations and the loss of potentially high LTV brand engagers.”
For some publishers, poor customer service is the result of inefficient processes, for instance, says Patrick Lidstone, tying up “staff to perform repetitive manual work ineffectively (eg handling returns – if the subscriber label contains a barcode, returns can simply be scanned in bulk and the rest – pausing the subscription, notifying the subscriber etc is all automagic.” Manual processing of direct debit fails is another example of a task that should be automated.
The more time staff spend on these tasks, the less time they can spend on higher value interactions with subscribers.
Insufficient data / poor tech
The “lack of metrics to demonstrate improvements” will stymie good performance, says Jess Burney.
MPP Global’s Ana Lobb also cites “lack of data and / or the ability to action the data,” as problem areas.
This might be down to poor subs systems, says Jaicom’s Jorma Ainassaari: “The data may be missing or limited in your current subscription solution… No matter how modern the analytics tool is, if the data is old or incorrect, the results will be poor.”
Sometimes, it is due to deep-rooted legacy infrastructure issues: “They invest in pretty landing pages and personalisation. But behind the scenes, it takes three, four, sometimes more systems to make it all work, which means audience teams are battling data silos every day. Frankly, this becomes a huge distraction,” says Lineup Systems’ Michael Mendoza.
Too much / too little communication
“Having enticed a customer to commit to a recurring payment method and then not communicating with them outside of a price increase or the magazine arriving,” is a common problem and represents “a real missed opportunity to nurture the relationship,” says Mark Judd.
It’s debatable which is worse, too much or too little. James Henderson encourages publishers not to “waste people’s time! Create customer journeys that work for them, not ones that show them everything you have to offer. People’s lives are blighted by spam they don’t want, offers they don’t need, messages they don’t relate to, content they don’t engage with – minimise these if you can, collect the first-part data, then know people better in order to serve them better.”
One group that probably warrants more communication than they are getting at present are the highly prized auto-renewers.
“Your direct debit and continuous card subscribers matter too,” Alistair Wood reminds publishers; “Don’t be afraid to communicate with them. Remind them, the whole way through their subscription, of the value they are receiving from you and what a great community they are part of.”
For Ben Wood, the main trap that they sometimes fall into themselves is “working almost exclusively in the two months at the start of a subscription and the two months at the end. It stands to reason and is perfectly understandable… However, in an ideal world, you’d spread the schedule out and be disciplined enough to work through the middle eight months of a subscription.”
Ultimately, it’s all about ensuring that “each communication has a purpose and a measurable outcome that is designed to add value and reward the customer with each successive usage of the product,” says Kevin Hickman.
Measuring the wrong things or not spotting the signals
With some publishers, Stuart Lacey spots an “over reliance on customer satisfaction surveys that tend to either be 1 or 5 rated (on a 5-star scale for an example). This type of metric is quite limited to gauge the mood music of an actual subscriber pool as feedback is, on the whole, only being given from either annoyed or delighted customers. All those that did not need to reach out to be given the option for the survey (taking a CSAT message on a phone line as an example) are excluded from the feedback pool.”
In many cases, the reasons for churn are obvious long before the point of renewal. The key is having the systems in place to spot those most at risk of churn, and having the resources and processes in place to do something about it.
“Two examples of that,” says Ben Wood, “are reports that flag gone-away and bounce back data, both what you’d consider an ‘early warning system’. This ensures that the finite time available to the engagement team is used wisely and targeted to the areas where they can make the most impact.”
Leaving things as they are
For Jess Burney, a “belief in the theory, ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it,’” is the cause of much of the underperformance publishers face in this area.
A recurring theme in this subs special is the need to keep everything under constant review, to have robust KPIs, and to aim for continual improvement across all areas.
WHAT PUBLISHERS CAN DO TO IMPROVE PERFORMANCE
“Most media companies know what they need to do to improve performance: stay reader-focused, create quality content, provide personalised experiences and intelligent customer journeys,” says Michael Mendoza.
Nail that first communication
“Historically, the main reason for a publisher feeling unable to maximise the performance for onboarding has been the delay in the delivery of the product,” says Jamie Wren.
Get that first communication consistently spot on, and you are a big step forward in achieving a long-lasting subscriber relationship.
Track subscriber satisfaction – and act on it
“Proactively attempt to get a genuine and unjaundiced view of what subscribers need and want out of their subscription. If this valuable feedback is properly digested and acted upon, subscriber satisfaction and retention will be fundamentally improved. Vehicles such as surveys, call listening and analysing live chat scripts (amongst other activities) are great ways for publishers and marketeers to gain a valuable insight into how their subs base really feel about their products and service,” says Stuart Lacey.
Michael Mendoza adds: “Understand more about your customer, continually ask and learn, use feedback tools and make them a foundation of your ongoing content creation and product development.”
For Dan Heffernan, direct contact is also important: “Talk with subscribers. Set up appointments and actually have calls with them. Don’t just do surveys. Have conversations! And listen actively to what they tell you.”
This needs to be a continuous process, says James Henderson, because “users’ needs and desires change over time, and publishers need to be responsive to that.”
Although, says Hearst’s Seema Kumari, publishers need to particularly “understand the main reasons for customer contact / feedback in the first three months of sign-up and then address those questions throughout their OB programme.”
Also, she adds, if you are genuinely customer-focused and intent on continually improving your UX then: “Don’t be afraid to receive feedback which is publicly available on the web. Being transparent is key and having a few blemishes makes the brand appear genuinely authentic.”
Communicate more (and better)
With a few notable exceptions, “publishers should increase communication with their subscribers adding value where possible,” says Mark Judd.
And that also means communicating with that group that publishers are traditionally most wary of – continuous payers…
“Consider ways,” says Stuart Lacey, “to engage continuous payment subscribers rather than sending nothing to prevent that subscriber remembering they have an ongoing payment for a product they may not be engaging with. Focusing on the engagement rather than retaining a payment from a forgotten purchase would strengthen both the product and the subscriber base.”
For monthly print subscriptions, says Jamie Wren, it’s particularly important to ensure that “between delivery of the print product, there are touchpoints to maintain that habit – this is critical to ensuring the onboarding process is a success.”
And, not forgetting, adds Michael Mendoza, you need to always “ensure your nurture messaging matches the user profile and stages of purchase.”
Furthermore, he adds, publishers should “nurture existing readers like you nurture new ones, don’t ease off the great comms just because you have them, continue to drive engagement and use throughout lifetime.”
Empower the subscriber
Your subscriber should feel in control of their subscription. To deliver this, says Mark Judd, you should “explore current capabilities available for online customer services platforms and add additional functionality to ensure it has all the relevant information regarding the subscriber, their account, and their subscription transactions available. Ensure it is kept up to date; it is an on-going process.”
Having key information at their fingertips is part of the story but a subscriber also needs to feel in control if they need to contact you.
To that end, says Angus Chenevix Trench, you should “give customer service agents more authority, and incentives, to resolve complaints.”
“Customer service is vitally important,” adds Alistair Wood; “You want your subscribers to never need to contact you, but if they do, you want to be ready, waiting and reaffirming your branding and that they are important to you.”
Drive engagement and add value
Alistair Wood says: “Make it easy for your readers to access the content they have just purchased. This is especially important if it’s online content. Make it available immediately without having to jump through loads of hoops to receive it.”
“Provide unique access to events or digital content that fits the customer’s interests,” says Angus Chenevix Trench; “The Gardeners’ World online Secret Garden is a good example of this, where subscribers get free access to unique content, advice from the experts and special offers. Subscriber engagement with the Secret Garden can be measured and tracked against subscriber retention.”
And, as always, says Ana Lobb, “personalise the customer’s experience to help them find newsletters or other related content options.”
Patrick Lidstone agrees: “Use your knowledge of the subscriber to your advantage… use it for highly targeted marketing of, for instance, events (whether online or in the flesh), product highlights etc.”
“In the B2B world,” says Edwin Bailey, “subscribers are buying in content to help with their work. The buy reason is practical rather than emotional. The trick is to understand what value publishers’ content (and data) brings to the customer.”
Relevance is always central to all communications, says Kevin Hickman: “A real understanding of their product’s value proposition, and an understanding of how their product solves customer needs is key, otherwise attempts at onboarding will not elevate above the hundreds of other distracting messages customers are bombarded with each day.”
Make them feel special
“Customers want to feel special. They have placed their money with your brand – likely deciding to choose you over another alternative. We need to repay that faith and ensure they feel suitably rewarded. The language we use can help this process; when describing a consumer as a brand ambassador it is important to remember they are just that – if we ask them to be and treat them as such,” say Jamie Wren.
And, says Angus Chenevix Trench, be imaginative: “Surprise and delight customers with benefits that go beyond traditional rewards. Provide personalised experiences. Build brand affinity through shared values. Visceral connections generated by shared values allow publishers to build customer connections and drive customer engagement in ways that traditional rewards cannot. Make them feel part of the experience.”
Getting the tone right goes a long way, says Ana Lobb: “Think about the psychology and wording used to make customers feel like a valued member of a community. The Guardian does this well.”
But don’t forget, “an OB programme doesn’t need to be completely functional – add a bit of fun through engagement,” advises Seema Kumari.
Constantly review performance
“Keep a close eye on best practice and learn from others”, encourages Jess Burney.
Mark Judd suggests you “complete a review of all existing customer journeys supporting acquisition, retention, and customer services. There are various tools available, including GA, which can be used to monitor performance and the success rate of any changes.”
And… get everyone involved. Mike Halstead says: “Try to encourage better working practices with the wider editorial teams and suppliers. Involve them as much as possible. Ask opinions, share best practice and communicate your strategy. If everyone is clear about the end goal, you can all work better together.”
A planned and rolling programme of review and improve is essential. Otherwise, performance will ebb and flow, as will customer satisfaction.
This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.