Mobile navigation


How to build your app subscriptions

Despite all the hype, sales of digital magazines are still dwarfed by sales of print. But, critically, the digital channel is a growing one and, writes Jess Burney, publishers like Immediate Media are working hard to develop it further.

By Jess Burney

Since the iPad launched in April 2010, the jury has been out on whether or not the tablet heralds a new dawn for publishers. Sales are still a relatively low percentage of circulation, just 1.2% of all circulation reported in the latest ABCs. However, sales are undoubtedly growing, with wide variations across publishers. While publishers are still feeling their way to find the best model for individual businesses, tablets and smartphones offer a number of advantages as a new route to market; they help maintain or grow circulations and open up international markets for British consumer publishers in a way hitherto unseen. The market is subscription driven, albeit via a subscription model where the publisher and subscriber do not have a direct transactional relationship in many cases.

At Immediate Media, we publish 73 brands including 36 websites and 56 magazines. As a special interest content and platform company, we create quality content that connects enthusiasts and experts, attracting an engaged and loyal audience. It is the perfect base to build highly profitable subscription files both in print and digital formats.

As the largest UK publisher from a subscriptions perspective, subscriptions marketing is something we understand in great depth and we have well over a million subscribers across print and digital. Digital growth is an important part of our story moving forward.

With the scale of the opportunity as yet unknown, getting the right marketing activity to drive digital subscriptions to magazine content is fast evolving. Developing new thinking, tactics and strategies for successfully taking apps to market is high on the agenda. There are a number of component parts in which we have invested: our technology platform, analytics, data capture, product development and new marketing channels.

Our platform

We built our own platform after using a number of other providers out in the market. We believe that having our own platform delivers a number of unique advantages. In particular, it allows us to have control over the development roadmap and to build the system around our bespoke needs.

This allows for innovation from within our content teams and better integration with our editorial and marketing processes. Particular benefits are the ease of adding in interactivity within existing editorial workflows; the ability to embed analytics, marketing cross-promotion and data capture initiatives. For example, we have featured unique interactive editorial around the Battle of Flodden for BBC History and the Chelsea Flower show for Gardens Illustrated. This content has helped us get greater promotion from platform partners and upward spikes in terms of time spent reading.

Getting the platform up and running required a mix of traditional and digital skills and competencies. By assembling a matrix team made up of key members from marketing, technology, product, editorial and design teams we have evolved the product at pace. By taking a test and learn iterative approach, we continue to evolve the product at pace.


Mobile delivers a new set of challenges in terms of campaign tracking compared to traditional web marketing. This is fundamentally down to using a third party platform (Apple, Amazon Kindle, Google Play etc) where we don’t have access to any visitor statistics or in-depth insight into user behaviour. We do have some subscribers coming to us direct, but the majority of subscribers are acquired via third party platforms – in particular Apple Newsstand. In the longer term, we aim to increase the number of directly acquired subscribers.

To give us insight into what our customers are doing, we have embedded ecommerce tracking into our app platform. We use a custom URL scheme so we can continue to use our established direct referral tracking methods via Google Analytics.

Interesting things we have learned are around dwell time, repeat visits and time spent viewing interactive content. Getting the feedback loop right to accelerate sharing learning across brands is very much work in progress. Reliable analytics are a key component in understanding campaign performance and optimising marketing investment.


From a platform perspective, one of the challenges is how best to build a direct relationship with customers.

Most publishers offering magazine apps will have experienced the scenario whereby a large number of shell downloads convert in much smaller numbers to paying customers. At the PPA Customer Direct conference last November, Frontline shared some data they had derived from looking at customer behaviour in the app space across a large number of publishers. Out of downloads reaching seven digit numbers, paid sales and subscriptions were in the tens of thousands. For publishers who are not capturing data in-app, these anonymous shell downloaders are lost for the purposes of re-marketing and promotion.

We have addressed this by introducing a data capture element to our apps. In a matter of months, we have built an email opt-in list of over 100,000 which is now growing at pace. This is highly responsive data. Around a quarter of users who have downloaded a shell are happy to share their data with us. This is in advance of entering a transactional relationship / or experiencing our content. Going forward, we expect to improve on this number.

We have built an online cloud database to allow real time updates of records from the customer data capture screen. This is a scalable solution and allows for additional data fields to be added at a later date. This data feeds from our cloud database into our company customer database which then feeds customer records automatically into our email service provider (excluding customers that we already know are subscribers).

Reach and promotion

It’s an obvious point, but there is a clear correlation between sales and the number of platforms and stores in different territories that a publisher gets into. Getting subscription offers on all platforms and increasing discoverability is an obvious quick win for any publisher. Many consumer publishers have found that they can drive at least 50% of their sales in international territories. Three quarters of digital sales are currently via subscription (based on the latest ABC data) and publishers are acquiring new audiences who are purchasing regularly from the beginning.

Creating a strong relationship between platform providers and publishers leads to additional promotion and sales. Spikes of up to 300% in sales have been seen through promoting editorial stories / interactive innovations. Building relationships with category specialists at Apple can also help increase cross-promotion and allow greater targeting of more specialist audiences.

Marketing channels

We use a number of new marketing channels to drive sales: push notifications, social, triggered emails, data-driven campaigns and in-app marketing.

Using push notes is one of our core methods of engaging our users and encouraging them to make purchases. Messages include, new issue notifications, editorial content, seasonal subscriptions promotions and single / back issue promotions.

We have set up triggered email campaigns which typically deliver ten times the response rate of other well targeted campaigns. A recurring triggered email is sent out with dynamic personalised content reflecting the relevant brand’s subscription promotions, with a mobile optimised responsive HTML layout – so that the creative is displayed appropriately depending on the screen size of the device you view it on – iPad, iPhone or desktop.

We have a custom linking mechanism in the native app that opens the app directly on the device by clicking a link in the email and then lands the customer directly on the subscriptions area of the app. With mobile web analytics (Google) integrated into the app, we can recognise referrals from direct app links which allows us to report sales driven direct from the individual campaign.

With 50% click through and 1.7% conversion to subscription, we are delighted with the results of these campaigns.

We have put in place a shop front which allows us to promote subscriptions more than single issue sales, and to cross sell other magazines / back issues etc. This is a great place to observe customer behaviours and test new mechanics to drive sales.

We have tested three different designs via user testing with customers, always making sure we have clear test objectives and a non-biased test environment. We found that users like clear signposting and were very interested in finding out more about other content they might like. One of the challenges in digital shopping is creating personalised experiences so that customers can browse and discover more content to read that they will enjoy, replicating the original print newsstand environment.

App pricing strategies

There are a number of restrictions within platforms that restrict pricing decisions. We have looked closely at the trade off in terms of upfront volume versus greater churn for monthly micro payments versus six or twelve month payment terms. To date, six monthly or annual terms have been more successful when looked at over a lifetime value model. Interestingly, this is consistent with our experience for specialist magazine subscriptions in the print world.

Offering a free issue trial and conversion to paid subscription is also a successful model for us.

We have experienced success offering time limited price promotions on back issues and single copy sales. We have run a number of these promotions, adding in more promotion and building on the learning from previous activity – each time doubling response versus the previous campaign – and creating new audiences to feed into ongoing marketing campaigns.

In conclusion

While it is an ongoing challenge to keep up with the pace of technology innovation and consumer behaviour shifts, the immediacy of digital data and results offers very granular insights into customer behaviours. There has been a lot of learning over the last year and I am very encouraged by results we have seen to date. Going back to the question of how important this route to market is for publishers, I believe we may well be surprised by how big this market becomes.