This special feature on subscriber acquisition has four sections:
Present & future
In this section:
In this section, we look at how acquisition teams operate currently and what the scene might look like in ten years’ time.
“Acquisition teams are now far more than just marketers and ideas people. Understanding the ever changing channels through which customers come to our brands is critical. This understanding is now more than just a gut feel too – all our decisions should be driven by information – and the world has a plethora of that!”, says Jamie Wren, commercial & marketing director, InterMedia.
Data analysis skills
“Acquisition teams require a huge level of data analytical ability – or perhaps better put – data interpretation,” says Jamie Wren: “The good news is that we have more tools to use than ever before.”
Lorna Fenimore, senior VP, audience, ePublishing, adds: “A data analyst can help the publisher see the lifetime value of a subscriber and the profile of the highest LTV subscriber. Knowing this information will help the publisher go after new subscribers that meet this profile to continue to grow the LTV of your subscriber base.”
Seema Bilimoria, head of acquisitions marketing, Immediate Media, says: “Subscriber acquisition teams need to be able to analyse and interpret data, using this to build out new acquisition tests plans and optimise campaigns. They need to be across all KPIs such as CPAs, LTVs, CTR, conversion rates, churn rates, engagement metrics, email bounce and unsubscribe rates, YoY growth, ROI and lead conversions over time.”
“The new and emerging tools are more technical in nature,” observes John Sheehy, chief solutions architect, AdvantageCS, “so teams will need to be comfortable with those new platforms and have data scientists to help sort through volumes of data from tests.”
Other skills & capabilities
- Critical thinking: Using both logic and reasoning to assess the strengths and weaknesses of a campaign and find alternative solutions. (Mike Halstead, HH&S)
- Creative thinking: Coming up with new ideas but also developing ideas which have been tried before. (Mike Halstead, HH&S)
- Agility: The teams also need to be more agile in their approaches to allow quick implementation and analyses of the acquisition campaigns. This often means a much more integrated team approach blending traditional marketing skill sets with data analytics teams. (John Sheehy, AdvantageCS)
- Channel expertise: Having channel level experts in areas such as paid search, paid social, email and e-commerce is essential to finding and targeting new audiences. (Seema Bilimoria, Immediate Media)
- A mix: In terms of skill sets, you need a mix of editorial, product development, marketing, IT and data analysis in any prospective subscriber acquisition team. (Sam Shedden, National World Publishing)
Bringing it all together
“Ensuring your channel level experts all work closely together to understand the impact each channel has on other channels will allow them to build out cohesive and complementary acquisition strategies,” says Immediate Media’s Seema Bilimoria: “For example, in order for PPC activity to be successful, there needs to be enough traffic being driven and this will come from prospects searching for content after seeing a social ad or an email.”
“Often,” adds Lucy Davis, growth partner, Atlas, “a broad strategic marketing lead can bring together specialists from across the business to deliver best outcomes for a title. Communication and collaboration skills are very important in these lead roles.
“Subscription acquisition is not the same as e-commerce sales; ensuring everyone in the team understands subscription metrics and lifetime value is essential. A high quality customer might cost more to acquire but will drive more revenue – and profit – over a longer period of time.”
Successful subscription strategies often rely on a company-wide approach, says Sam Shedden, head of customer loyalty, National World Publishing: “Subscriber acquisition is often not the task of one team but of many. Ideally, you want several business functions with subscriber acquisition KPIs so everyone is pulling in the same direction.”
“You need to be working closely with the tech and product teams,” advises Robert Jay, board member, Realfin: “The martech stack is ever evolving and your needs / complexities will depend on the size of the business.”
“There are a lot of tools on the market with niche appeal and at various price points,” adds AdvantageCS’s John Sheehy: “The key here is to pick a complementary set of systems that match your market, your staff resources, and your organisation. Don’t get caught up in the hype of platforms and their new “AI” capabilities; really look for platforms that provide the core functionalities you need with an eye on growth opportunities.”
As important as the core functionality of each piece of software a publisher uses, is the way that each piece integrates with the other. As InterMedia’s Jamie Wren says, “all the platforms are required to be synchronised and openly engaging with each other”.
Customer relationship management
According to National World’s Sam Shedden, “first and foremost, you need a customer relationship management (CRM) which allows tracking and management of subscriber interactions,” which needs to be, adds Graham Elliott, managing director, Gordon & Gotch Publishing, “integrated with your website”.
“Under the hood,” says Jamie Wren, “we need to ensure that the data is captured and stored swiftly, that the communication method has been registered and analytics are set from the start – along with the despatch process of any immediate content, be that print, digital (in the form of access) or the gift from a warehouse.”
And, the CRM needs to integrate with “strong accounting software, designed to manage a subscription business,” says ePublishing’s Lorna Fenimore.
Content management system
Lorna Fenimore says: “The publisher needs a strong CMS and paywall platform that provides the ability to tag content, controls access to the content, tracks the content consumed, manages the data captured for each subscriber, and allows the publisher to monetise their content – newsletters, directories, podcasts, events, etc.
“They also need software that will provide the ability to present ‘the right message at the right time to the right individual’. This means the data needs to be fed by an audience database, so that messages are delivered to suggest complementary content, offer additional products, or information about when it’s time to renew.”
Marketing software & automation
“Marketing software is also an important part of the toolkit that allows promotional offers to be planned, scheduled, tested and implemented,” says Lorna Fenimore: “Promotion management solutions should include the ability to enter the various costs associated with the promotion, settings of the promotions to make it easy to manage cancelation / refund policies, premiums to be fulfilled, etc and then, provide the profitability of the promotion. The analysis should enable you to see which segments are the most profitable.”
And “marketing automation tools, like Hubspot, allow for the automation of email campaigns, and other marketing tasks,” adds Sam Shedden.
According to Mike Halstead, managing director, HH&S, “access to data and reports is important to help you develop your strategy but tracking real time data is critical so you can make quick decisions and changes to improve performance if needed.”
Sam Shedden adds: “analytics and tracking tools are essential if you want to get in-depth analysis of user behaviour, conversion rates and other key metrics linked to subscriber acquisition.”
Seema Bilimoria says, “acquisition teams need to have access to different analysis tools such as Google Analytics and inhouse reporting tools such a Tableau to report effectively and be able to track and measure performance, customer touchpoints and attribution.”
According to Madeleine White, head of international, Poool, “there are three aspects of a paywall and subscription solution that are most valued by the publishers – a tool that can be driven by those at the forefront of the reader revenue strategy, a dynamic model that adapts to the reader and the ability to have a culture of experimentation.
- Marketing autonomy: the ability for marketers to make changes to their user journeys, paywall designs and messaging, run tests and analyse performance without the need for tech support.
- Audience segmentation: the ability to build dynamic conversion journeys that are adapted to a reader’s profile or context is an essential.
- A/B testing: experimentation is essential for success in the revenue model where the reader comes first. Without continuous testing, it’s impossible to know whether your current messaging could be outperformed by an alternative.”
Commonly used metrics that apply to subscriber acquisition strategies include: • Volume • Revenue • Cost per Acquisition (CPA) • Click-through Rate • Conversion Rate • Time to Conversion • Churn Rate • Subscriber page / paywall hits • Meter Stop Rate • Return on Investment (ROI) • Average Revenue per User (ARPU) • Annual Recurring Revenue (ARR) • Lifetime Value (LTV)
“The tendency to primarily look at year-on-year performance is problematic for publishers especially in the context of Covid’s impact and subsequent falling away of demand in 2022,” says Atlas’s Lucy Davis: “In many cases, including 2019 performance metrics for context can be useful.
“We recommend unifying the management team (not just the subs team) behind the key metric of lifetime value – it brings together acquisition metrics, pricing decisions, fulfilment costs and retention to give a true estimate of ROI and can be used both to understand past performance and predict future profitability – and will really demonstrate the value of long term customers to the brand. Subscriptions is a long game, and measuring success on in-year metrics will rarely, if ever, deliver long term growth.”
Poool’s Madeleine White agrees: “Engagement has become a buzzword in the publishing industry, and it is, of course, essential for a successful digital model. However, it only becomes valuable in a reader revenue strategy if it can be connected to commercial outcomes.
“The most important KPI for management is therefore customer lifetime value: Lifetime value = subscriber value x average customer lifespan
“The result will give you the revenue that you can reasonably expect an average subscriber to generate for your company throughout their relationship with you.
“You can then analyse these high-value readers to discover what ‘type’ of engagement correlates with high retention rates. If you can link engagement to retention, then you’ll gain a deeper understanding of how you can increase engagement to secure high conversion and retention rates.”
“It starts with working collaboratively and having shared goals,” says Sam Shedden: “This involves sharing insights about customer behaviour so strategies are aligned and a consistent experience is created for the customer. They should also coordinate efforts to personalise content and offers, monitor potential churn signals, and maintain messaging throughout the subscriber’s journey.”
“When a new acquisition strategy or campaign is being developed,” adds HH&S’s Mike Halstead, “the team should be working with the retention team to develop the renewal series tailored to the campaign prior to launch.”
This alignment is especially important when it comes to pricing, adds Seema Bilimoria, “so that the volume of stolen renewals is minimised and consumers won’t shop around to find the best price. By sharing insights and working together, acquisition and retention teams can build out a joint end-to-end strategy from driving prospects to converting them to subscribers, retaining them and winning them back if needed.”
“If the acquisition team is pricing subscriptions incredibly low just to increase acquisitions,” adds John Sheehy, “that may negatively impact retention teams where the initial pricing is untenable long term. You end up destroying retention by boosting acquisition.”
“Therefore, the messaging publishers offer needs to be consistent in tone across acquisitions and retention,” continues John Sheehy: “You can tell when the different areas are not in sync as the messaging is jarringly different.”
According to Lucy Davis, “teams should be aligned with shared KPIs and objectives to avoid competition. If an acquisition team is targeted only on volume and the retention team only to reduce churn, this will create friction and unhelpful working relationships. Uniting behind LTV will facilitate excellent collaborative work.
“It’s important to remember that retention starts at the point of acquisition. All subscribers are not created equal and seeking to recruit new customers who share characteristics with loyal customers will add value to an acquisition approach. Retention teams know more about those loyal segments and can add value to acquisition marketing targeting decisions.”
Madeleine White says: “Once acquisition teams understand the profile of a high LTV subscriber, they can put strategies into place to increase engagement in the most valuable way possible before a reader even subscribes, rather than trying to get impulsive / free trial subscribers who will cancel quickly.
“However, being able to move a reader to a subscriber, while important, has much less leverage and value than growing the long-term value of that subscriber. Concentrating on retention means improving engagement, increasing the loyalty of your subscribers, personalising experiences, avoiding churn and building lasting relationships.”
“Understanding your churn is important and both teams should continually feedback their findings rather than work in silos ignoring the other,” says Andrew Parkinson, head of client relations, NewsTeam Group: “Whilst I champion the killer offer to sign up new customers, you don’t want the customer journey to become a cycle of sign up, take introductory offer, cancel subscription at end of offer, repeat. I’m impressed by publishers that only allow a customer one introductory offer period. This allows the acquisition team to focus on expanding to new markets and subscribers, whilst the retention team can focus on the best way to retain the customers at the end of any introductory period. It may be that the retention team’s feedback then influences the acquisition team’s offer to reduce the fall-off.”
Jamie Wren adds: “Why customers have historically churned – particularly at the first renewal stage – can be a huge and important indicator as to what needs to change at the point of acquiring them. Have they indicated that they feel that the step-up price was not communicated clearly enough? Have they indicated that they only wanted to trial the subscription and had no intention of renewing? Is it a problem with the content versus what they had expected?
“Regardless of the reasons, if a tranche of customers is choosing to leave and early in their relationship then it is key we listen to them and adapt accordingly.
“Messaging at the point of acquisition is the first stage of retention and whilst it sits firmly within the acquisition teams remit to execute this communication – now more than ever before, the communication needs to be aligned.”
“New subscriber acquisition will likely be driven by hyper-personalisation and further technological innovation,” says Sam Shedden: “AI and machine learning will enable precise targeting.”
Seema Bilimoria anticipates “being able to offer flexible and tiered membership packages that are fully personalised to user experience and engagement.”
Lucy Davis believes “we’ll likely transition to a more tailored, personalised subscription offering with increased bundling options.”
NewsTeam Group’s Andrew Parkinson expects that “AI will clearly help in identifying new leads from existing datasets as well as trends in cancellations so strategies can be proactively implemented to aid retention strategies.”
“Given the economic climate and increasing competition between subscription brands to claim their share of consumers’ monthly spend,” adds Madeleine White: “the future of new subscriber acquisition will involve a lot more diverse strategies that aim to increase the ARPU (average revenue per user) of each reader, whether that be through subscription, advertising, events, ecommerce, etc.
“Because of this, our opinion is that registration is going to gain a lot of traction over the coming years as a way for publishers to build this sustainable model, diversifying monetisation streams and supporting both subscription and advertising revenue simultaneously.”
More dynamic customer experience
“Artificial intelligence will have a huge part to play in how consumers digest their information and the customer-centric delivery of this content will need to continue to sit at the heart of acquisitions,” says Jamie Wren.
Lucy Davis envisages that “digital content experiences will evolve, due to the advancement of AI and likely VR experiences and simulations enabling publishers to bring content to life for consumers in new ways.”
More regulated & responsible
“Data privacy will become ever more paramount, requiring transparent and ethical practices. A blend of automation with a human touch, adaptation to emerging technologies, and alignment with sustainability and social responsibility will be key,” says Sam Shedden.
Lorna Fenimore expects there to be “more regulations surrounding AI and recurring billing subscriptions. But that being said, they will both be even more prominent than they are today. AI will be used almost exclusively to generate marketing content, and most orders sold will include recurring billing. Social media will continue to play a big role in engaging subscribers.”
Improved subscription software functionality
In order to deliver the greater personalisation, Lucy Davis says, “our subscription management and self-serve platform capability will need to evolve exponentially.”
This will include, says Seema Bilimoria, “having a single customer view database that will use data from across the business to map out individualised customer journeys for existing prospects and find lookalike audiences across all channels to create automated and highly effective comms.”
Greater market fragmentation
John Sheehy thinks “the markets will continue to diversify and get harder to penetrate while consumer habits will be become more dynamic with the number of micro-options available. Accordingly, I think this makes new subscriber acquisition more challenging, but there will be new tools available to marketers. Fundamentally, the game will be the same, but more challenging with a new set of tools available.”
Reduced profile for print
“Acquisition channels through the newstrade and through retail stores will be a very different proposition in ten years’ time,” says Jamie Wren: “Online marketing will therefore become far more prominent for digital marketers to grapple with.”
Mike Halstead adds: “Soon, print titles will need to consider a subscription-only distribution route if the title is to continue. Newsstand, casual copy distribution is too expensive and inefficient a means of getting a title into the hands of the reader.
“The new ‘cover price’ is the cost of a subscription and the traditional full price is there purely as a price point to show the subscription saving.”
According to Lucy Davis, “it’s likely print will continue to decline to a smaller committed audience who understand that its cost is linked to its luxury status.”
“Digital subscriptions will continue to evolve and grow at pace”, says Andrew Parkinson: “Perhaps I am sentimental, but I believe there will always be a desire for a printed product on a coffee table.”
More community focused
“In a decade,” says Jamie Wren, “I firmly believe that subscriptions will be focused far more on membership packages and that content delivery will therefore need to be far more agile.”
“We will have subscriber communities who have come together and “joined up” under the banner of the title which will provide content for the community to consume,” adds Mike Halstead: “New subscribers will be buying into a content driven community.”
Lucy Davis hopes that “progress from transactional one-directional relationships to genuine value-driven relationships with open two-way communication with our audiences will be at the heart of the publishing industry.”
What else might change…
- Training and education will be a large part of the publisher offering. (David Coveney, Standfirst)
- Will cash and currency as we know it still exist or will we be trading in a different way? Will this mean that subscriptions as we know them will no longer exist and we will pay for our membership to communities in a different way? It may sound a bit wild, but who would have thought we’d be paying using our phones and watches ten years ago? (Steve Russell, Circdata)
- Paid subscriptions will be dead in favour of micropayments, with content completely personalised and delivered through Netflix-style aggregators who can afford to support the AI hardware required to generate on-demand streaming video media. Impartial insightful analysis will be stratospherically expensive, being gate-kept by those who can afford both data scientists and vertical market specialists. (Patrick Lidstone, The Engine Shed)
What won’t change…
Jamie Wren believes that “the core values of good acquisition marketing won’t change.
“Customers will have a plethora of choices on what to spend their hard earned money on and it will still be vital that publishers are offering them a reason to purchase and a value proposition that matches their needs.
“Creating a need and desire for the purchase will continue to require a detailed understanding of the target audience and more than ever, this will likely need to be dynamically delivered to ensure the customer is getting the right message at the right time with the right offer and through the right channel for them.”
This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list to receive the magazine, please register here.