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Key performance areas

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

By James Evelegh

Key performance areas

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

Key stages

Key performance areas

Organisational structure

In a nutshell

Suppliers spotlight

In this section:

The 'welcome' stage

Monitoring subscriber engagement

Messaging during subs period

Account management

Metrics & KPIs

Managing likely non-renewers

Renewal pricing

Renewal cycle

Renewal payment process

Optimising cost-per-renewal

Dealing with lapses


“We’ve all heard the statistic that it costs seven times more to acquire a customer than retain an existing subscriber, so first impressions are pivotal – they set the tone for the wider relationship,” says Edwin Bailey, chief operating officer, Publish Interactive.

Start of retention campaign

“The retention journey does not – as is often misunderstood – commence as the contract reaches the expiry stage,” says Jamie Wren, commercial & marketing director, InterMedia: “Treating customers in a positive way as they approach the end of their subscriptions is all very well and good – but at this point, customers have built up a feeling and a view of the brand. The welcome stage is the start of a renewal / retention strategy. Smooth onboarding gives confidence in your ability to deliver against their expectations from day one.”

As the welcome stage is such a vital component of the retention process, publishers should, says Angus Chenevix Trench, managing director,, “throw everything at it!”

First impressions count

“First impressions are everything,” says Mike Halstead, managing director, HH&S: “The welcome stage is the perfect time to set the bar for a good relationship.”

Will Woodrow, head of marketing, Mark Allen Group, adds, “This first experience will set the mood for the relationship and certainly impacts renewal down the line. Any opportunity for surprise and delight should be considered / tested to see how this impacts renewal.”

Speed is of the essence, especially when the subscription involves a digital component: “People expect access to digital content immediately when a payment has been made, or a new issue has been released, so how you provide your content to subscribers is crucial,” says Alan Leech, founder & chief architect, crmSubscribe.

And, don’t forget, a welcome stage is not just for new subscribers. It’s important, says John Diston, head of B2C client services, Air Business Subscriptions, to engage “as soon as possible after renewal to demonstrate how valued continued engagement is and, critically, to make the subscriber feel like they are an important part of the brand.”

Reassure & reinforce

Lorna Fenimore, senior VP, audience, ePublishing

“Be sure to acknowledge receipt and thank the subscriber for their order. Ensure the response email is clear, easy to find / search if they need to, and lets the reader know you value them,” says Lorna Fenimore, senior VP, audience, ePublishing: “Make them feel that they’ve joined a community with a wealth of information and resources and that you are eager to help them maximise their investment in you.”

“The welcome stage is key to reassuring that an order has been received and is being processed,” adds Doug Purdom, head of retention, Future.

Mark Judd, managing director, CDS Global, advises publishers to “talk to subscribers in a relevant and timely way. Reinforce the benefits of subscribing and fill the white space if the first print issue takes time to arrive.”

Manage expectations

“A welcome stage should manage expectations,” says Doug Purdom: “Where immediate access is not available, attempts should be made to maintain interest and grow excitement. This could be delivered as part of a welcome pack or a carefully constructed welcome email series which drip-feeds information over a series of days.”

Edwin Bailey adds: “Publishers must take the time to get to know their subscribers’ content preferences, the regularity they want to meet with account managers, and their expectations for the year ahead.”

Explain & inform

It’s important “for the subscriber to understand the details of the package they have signed up for,” says Mike Halstead: “Commonly, a subscription package may include bundling with digital access or loyalty rewards, so ensure the new subscriber understands how to access these elements.”

Will Woodrow adds: “Ensuring customers can easily access all parts of their subscription seems obvious but can sometimes be tricky. Digital subscriptions (if included within a package) are integral for monitoring engagement and often not the primary focus for a customer. Make it as easy as possible for them to get online and ensure they understand the value in doing so. Ensure they have all the relevant information they may require, including for getting in touch with customers service should they need to.”

Lorna Fenimore agrees: “Make sure subscribers know where to go for the various resources – access content, subscriber management portal, change information, log preferences, etc.”

The welcome stage needs to be carefully targeted, adds Doug Purdom, who advises: “Tailor your welcome programme to different cohorts to surface targeted, key, information. A gift donor wants to be reassured of their purchase whereas a direct subscriber needs anticipation to grow.”

Opportunities for further sales

“You’ve managed to make the sale; use the honeymoon period to encourage engagement and additional sales,” says Angus Chenevix Trench.

For Doug Purdom, “the welcome stage is ripe for cross-selling rather than up-selling to a different package (a choice they’ve recently deliberated over as a new subscriber).”

A series of communications, not a one-off

Zamir Walimohamed, head of digital, marketing & subscriptions, Motor Sport

“This is not just one communication,” advises Zamir Walimohamed, head of digital, marketing & subscriptions, Motor Sport. Welcome communications will include “a confirmation at the point of acquisition / renewal thanking the customer, then another communication just focused on the web, then another on the app and so forth.”

Rob Sherwood, managing director, Adept Data Services, suggests creating “an onboarding welcome stage over six weeks to encourage engagement and satisfaction.”

Drive engagement

“I think this is the most important stage,” says Dan Heffernan, vice president & chief product manager, AdvantageCS: “If you get the reading habit formed now, retention will be much easier in the future. Send text messages or emails with headlines of content a subscriber expressed interest in a couple of times per week. Make it irresistible to click on the link to the content! Tease with a video, or a list, or an exclusive interview. If you can get the subscriber engaged regularly, they will find that they can’t live without your content.”

Lorna Fenimore says, “When the individual makes the purchase decision, that is when their interest level is at its highest. Do whatever you can to engage the individual and capture as much information as soon after they order as possible.”

Louise McHale, deputy managing director, ESco, recommends “communicating with your customers from day one and then monitoring their activity: Who is actively engaging with your brand? In what areas? Monitor the open rates on your onboarding emails.”

And, if they are not engaging, says Rob Sherwood, “consider emails or phone calls to your new readers to check they are happy with their subscription and guide them through the product / values / benefits.” Because, he says, “readers who don’t engage in the first 4-6 weeks are more likely to cancel / lapse.”


“Having taken a customer through the onboarding journey, you now have a connection and relationship with them that can deliver so much more than just revenue – albeit this is a key metric to track,” says Jamie Wren.

Survey your readers

“With so many variables in play impacting overall product satisfaction,” says Will Woodrow, “surveying is vital for understanding which areas of the business, be it editorial, user experience or comms, to focus on optimising.”

“Surveys are a useful tool to give an indication of customer satisfaction,” agrees Mark Judd, but, “be careful to make the questions relevant and be ready to act – do not just ask for information and do nothing with it.”

“Non-digital products can’t provide reader behaviour KPIs such as number of issues read and average issue reading time,” adds Doug Purdom: “Has engagement returned to pre-pandemic levels or now higher or lower? Ask these questions through surveys at key lifecycle stages or via an annual survey.”

Mike Halstead suggests publishers “consider establishing a subscriber “satisfaction” panel, inviting subscribers to contribute for a set period.”

For high value B2B subscriptions, this will involve “regular check-ins with subscribers from account managers and checking general account engagement with the use of analytics tools. Onboard subscriber feedback and implement any feasible suggestions into your content delivery system – particularly those suggested by multiple accounts – and commission future content based on subscriber usage. If subscribers feel they are being listened to and the content is highly relevant, they will be more likely to renew,” says Edwin Bailey.

Track your subscribers

“Let the customer tell you what they’re doing,” advises Michael Mendoza, founder & chief innovation officer, Lineup: “track how often they are engaging and what content they are consuming.”

Lorna Fenimore agrees: “Track and measure every touch point with a subscriber.”

“There are many datapoints and metrics that can help a publisher spot early signs of a customer’s likelihood to churn,” adds Ana Lobb, VP, new business development, publishing, Europe, Aptitude Software (formerly MPP Global).

The customer care team

“It’s important to have a good understanding of what the customer care team are hearing from customers. Often, customer care are the first to hear about any issues and it will also be the customer care team who are most likely to be communicating with your subscribers during their subscriber journey,” says Mike Halstead.

What to measure

“At minimum,” says Will Woodrow, “work to understand the frequency with which logged in subscribers return to your site and use that metric to prioritise how you raise engagement with digital.”

“One of the best and easiest ways to get great comparable feedback,” says Andrew Morris, director of client relations, Pelcro, “is through the Net Promoter Score (NPS) where users rate how likely they are to recommend the offering to a friend with the ability to provide additional feedback.”

Doug Purdom suggests using content sentiment benchmarks (content quality, content variety, value for money) and also NPS (though this can be quite limited in isolation and misinterpreted by survey respondents).

“Satisfaction will be influenced by customer service interactions,” he continues: “A survey to measure CSAT, commonly sent via SMS or email, can add real depth to response speed and first-time resolution KPIs. It may expose wider shortcomings especially if more credence is placed on a quicker response rather than a quality one.”

“In addition,” says John Diston, “responding to Trustpilot and Feefo reviews shows that a publisher takes feedback seriously, and acts upon both positive and negative comments.”

For Helen Ward, subscriptions director, Immediate Media, “CTR on service type emails (eg. “your issue’s on its way”) as well as usage of any digital elements of their subscription overlayed with their retention rate to understand corelation is really insightful.”

“CLTV and ARPU relate to a customer’s value, not necessarily their loyalty and happiness levels,” says Ana Lobb. “Contextual and behavioural analytics are often more valuable when trying to understand customer engagement levels.”

According to Edwin Bailey, “some useful metrics to track include zero result searches (highlights gaps in your content portfolio), numbers of shares, saves and clips of specific sections of content (all indicators of high engagement), and the time spent reading reports (high dwell time could indicate that readers can’t find the information they need quickly).”

Lorna Fenimore advises publishers to “ensure your emails and content are all tagged with the type of content so that when a subscriber engages, it will be easy to tally. This should include emails that are opened, search terms entered, content consumed, and articles downloaded. You’ll want to aggregate this data to “score” the user, knowing the recency and frequency of engagements of various content subjects and types.”

The tech dimension

“Systems, tools and databases now enable us to track individuals (with their permission) across multiple platforms both online and offline,” explains Jamie Wren.

Key to this is the use of “first party data”, says Motor Sport’s Zamir Walimohamed: “it allows us to run re-engagement programmes to make sure customer are receiving the right communications from us but at the same time allows us to gather feedback from users.”

Rob Sherwood, managing director, Adept Data Services

Rob Sherwood says publishers need to “use a modern audience management system which identifies engagement online against renewals and lapsed readers, leveraging API integration between the subscription management platform and your front-end website CMS system.”

“Obviously,” adds Angus Chenevix Trench, “you’ve got a leg up in measuring engagement if the subscription package includes online gated content. Ideally, this engagement data should be fed back to your primary subs CRM system. Offline, your bureau should be monitoring all inbound and outbound contacts in a contact management system – voice, email and chat.”

Email communication allows publishers to closely monitor engagement, says Jamie Wren: “you can see their open rates, their engagement rates through click throughs or a heat map of what has drawn their attention in the creative on screen. You can see how this varies by geographical location and how this can be affected by content changes and editorial approaches through AB testing of templates.”

Taking action

Monitoring is only worth doing if you act on the information you get back.

“If consistent engagement seems to be decreasing,” says Dan Heffernan, “tease them with other content outside of their interest areas to see if they’ll engage. Ask them what they’d like to change about how often they receive emails / texts and if they’d like to change the content mix. If possible, reach out with a personal text / email. When I get personal emails from a CEO, I am compelled to read them.”

Louise McHale advises publishers to “set up automated comms for any subscribers that aren’t logging in, accessing content they’ve paid for or engaging with benefits they’re entitled to. Measure and respond. If automated comms don’t prompt the subscriber, consider targeted customer engagement using a high-quality customer care team to call – this is not a sales call. I can’t emphasise enough that it’s vitally important you only let the right people talk to your subscribers. You need to build a relationship that supports your brand and identity and underlines the value and quality you deliver. Every instance of communication is a PR exercise.”

Engagement analysis can also be used as part of your wider subs marketing efforts. It allows you, says Doug Purdom, to “establish who your most satisfied customers are and leverage this to drive advocacy whether through direct member-get-member schemes or indirect testimonials to serve as social proofing.”

Edwin Bailey adds: “Enhanced customer information doesn’t just make it easier to know which piece of content to author next however; it can also provide compelling information on how, when, and what to sell to new and existing customers. Analytics enable a subscription model to exist, but more importantly, it adds incredible value to that subscription or produces the information to turn things around when renewals look like falling off.”


“If you have a Netflix account or a Disney+ account,” says Jamie Wren, “you will notice that through the subscription period you are not only reminded of the next payment date or the next end date of the contract. You will be advised of the latest series that has been uploaded “Something just for you”… or be informed of a programme that may be perfect for you based on the one you just watched. These are targeted communications designed to show you that your chosen platform knows exactly what you want to watch and that this is based on the fact they care about who you are as an individual.”

Frequency – a balancing act

How often should you communicate with your subscribers?

“Not enough and the subscriber feels unloved and forgotten about. Too much and it becomes annoying and has the opposite effect,” says Mark Judd: “You may also want to consider that not all customers are the same and different communication strategies will be needed to get the best results.”

Michael Mendoza, founder & chief innovation officer, Lineup

Michael Mendoza adds: “There’s a balance that needs to be maintained between keeping the reader engaged without bombarding them with offers. Seeking single touch ‘yes’ or ‘no’ feedback can be a good source of data on how this is working for your company.”

Will Woodrow says: “There is always a danger of talking to customers too much but in my experience, semi-regular comms can help keep / raise engagement as well as grow a better understanding of your business and other products and services.”

“Communication is always a good thing, as long as it is valuable and relevant,” advises Ana Lobb: “We still see some publishers sending promotional emails to customers relating to the package they are already paying for. Again, think of your own email inbox; you’re bombarded with emails – so are your customers, so you need to give them a reason to open your email, and not just automatically send emails to hit internal KPIs.”

For higher value subscriptions that need proactive account management, says Publish Interactive’s Edwin Bailey, “regular check-ins are crucial (ask each account how often they’d like to meet – once a month works for some, but bi-annual meets might be more appropriate for others). Keep subscribers in the loop with company updates and new product releases with a dedicated customer marketing programme – customer marketing is just as important as prospect marketing!”

Auto-renewers: to communicate or not to communicate

“The long-held view in the subs industry,” says John Diston, “was that silent continuous subscribers should be left alone – in today’s landscape of over communicating, we need to reverse that. Publishers need to ensure this is not taken to extremes, but they should be sure to tell subscribers when a new edition is available to download, or a top new journalist joins the editorial team. They should let people know when a new part of the website is available to subscribers or there’s an exciting feature launch on the subs app. All these things build the value of the product in the mind of the subscribers – a silent relationship is not likely to be a fruitful one in terms of LTV.”

“In the age of subscription fatigue,” advises Doug Purdom, “reinforce value to auto-renewing subscribers at opportune moments to stave off the threat of cancellation. If modelling shows a vulnerable point in the subscriber lifecycle, pre-empt with a gesture or gift that surprises and delights. Proactive investment driven by data can reduce churn and show that you care at a moment of truth in your relationship with your subscriber.”

A word of caution, however, from Angus Chenevix Trench: “Like it or not, if the majority of your subscribers are paying by continuous payment methods, communication with them needs to be handled sensitively. Test it first or you risk what you thought to be a useful engagement communication turning into a cancellation tsunami – particularly when times are tough!”

Timing & targeting

“Many products have a tipping point where a habit has been formed and retention is really high, typically after a few years,” says Doug Purdom: “Investing in the early phase of a lifecycle can help increase the average tenure of subscribers.”

Jamie Wren says that “publishers should seek to ensure that their customer base are receiving regular reminders of how much they are valued and how much you want to keep them informed – linked to their own personality, wants, historical purchases and any other demographics that you may hold.”

To a large extent, the timing and frequency of messaging will be determined by usage data and automation.

“Using technology,” says Will Woodrow, “you can segment users based on engagement and then send different levels of comms based on the data. Super engaged users probably don’t need that much. Low engagement, stay in touch more regularly.”

That is why, says John Lawson, managing director, knk Software UK, “we recommend a strong CRM system to learn as much as you can about every single customer and inform them by marketing automation if there is something that he or she might be interested in.”

“Key to this,” adds Jamie Wren, “is capturing as much information as you can. Not all of which can be done on sign-up – it will be far too intrusive in some cases to ask them such questions. A steady and well planned communication process after onboarding can however capture the details that you can use to unlock additional revenue, increased LTV and a more loyal customer base over time.”

Remind & reinforce

“Ensure you understand and promote all value that subscribers may otherwise take for granted such as covermounts and bumper issues at no extra cost. Bumper, premium, issues should be previewed and promoted directly with subscribers to capture attention and ensure those issues don’t go unread,” says Doug Purdom.

“You want them,” adds Helen Ward, “to be seeing the value in their subscription / membership so comms that try to get them to engage with the product are perfect.”

And it works both ways. “Remind your readers how much you value them,” says Adept Data Services’ Rob Sherwood: “send them seasonal offers as a thank you for their custom, inform them of future features to keep them hooked. Tell your readers the number / type of people who are reading the magazine so they also want to stay part of this community. Create FOMO. Continue to inform the reader of the benefits of being a subscriber – exclusive invites to podcasts, Zooms, webinars with leading figures etc.”

Risk of overselling

“The pursuit of cross-selling to drive ARPU can be to the detriment of greater ARPU through longer subscriber lifecycles,” warns Doug Purdom: “Don’t over-contact subscribers with cross-selling offers and have levers in place to control communication, otherwise key retention marketing may go unread.”

“Beware of being ‘salesy’,” agrees Will Woodrow: “but B2B businesses in particular with multiple products and services can benefit from letting customers who have already paid you for something recognise other value across the brand.”

“There needs to be a valid reason for the communication,” says Helen Ward: “it should be about maximising the value and benefit of their current subscription, not just trying to cross and upsell to them.”

At Motor Sport, says Zamir Walimohamed, “to help customers control what they receive, we make it clear in a preference centre, so they have full control.”


A different approach

John Lawson, managing director, knk Software UK

“In the B2B publishing community,” notes John Lawson, “there is a trend among large companies and groups to manage subscriptions through centralised purchasing; this is where the head subscription owner can grant entitlements underneath that subscription to other individuals. This is also a common model in the education sector for remote learning, or when a teacher needs an engine for delivering bulk materials to students in digital format or in print.”

“Publishers who are seeking to sell corporate subscriptions need to understand the differences between the buying behaviour for these purchases versus a consumer purchase, involving as it does, one point of contact for multiple subscriptions,” says Jamie Wren.

Clearly, adds Mark Judd, “a publisher should have a different approach for a £100 per annum customer compared to a £3k pa customer with multiple recipients.”

Typically, says Michael Mendoza, these will be “professional people who are less receptive to “sales-y” techniques, so therefore communication should be limited and of high value.”

The personal touch

“Corporate subscriptions by and large are sold offline using sales teams,” says Angus Chenevix Trench: “Retention strategy should be managed in the same, personalised way.”

This means, says Mark Judd, ensuring “you are accessible and have the appropriate staff to handle and do not restrict the interaction to a few minutes transactional call.”

These teams should, says Andrew Morris, “have the flexibility to test a variety of different methods in terms of deal structure and offerings.”

“Often the relationship you have with key contacts is the most important factor with corporate subscriptions,” adds Will Woodrow: “Prioritise bigger accounts and stay in touch to ensure they understand the full value of the product and potentially also the engagement of their users.”

Demonstrate value to secure renewal

Communications with corporate subscribers “should be consultative conversations so publishers can understand what’s going right / wrong with their customers’ subscriptions, not simply a set checklist of questions that account managers rattle through on each call – personalisation and real human connection between publisher and client increases the chances that the relationship will be renewed. The use of quantitative data is also vital here to support your discussions. Be clear about the dollar value your published content or data has to the organisation, rather than the individuals who work there,” says Edwin Bailey.

Efficient self-service portal needed

“If you are selling group subscriptions or site licenses, make it easy for the purchaser to manage their group. And at every opportunity, gather demographic data regarding their areas of interest for consumer publishers, and job title and areas of responsibility for B2B publishers,” says Lorna Fenimore.

Because, says Alan Leech, “what you don’t want is to tie up a subscription department staff member with dealing with adding / changing 100 corporate subscriptions on a day to day basis. This is painful for all parties. Good tech with simple offers and self-managing portals is the key to being able to easily and profitably support corporate subs.”


“Publishers should have clear KPIs aligned with their overall business strategy. Dependent on that strategy, different metrics will be of greater value. In terms of renewal, it’s important to understand not just the overall renewal rate but also by term, package and payment type amongst others,” says Mark Allen Group’s Will Woodrow.

What to measure

Doug Purdom, head of retention, Future

“Retention rate by tenure can be very revealing,” advises Future’s Doug Purdom: “Year 1 retention will be lowest and can be unduly influenced by acquisition tactics. Assigning an LTV metric to acquisition offers can ensure channel and offers are selected that will have a higher likelihood of renewal.

“A value for money metric can help determine the scale of a price rise. A modest VFM may require caution and restricted price rises in terms of volumes qualifying and the level of their price. Excellent VFM scores are not always an invitation to step up prices more aggressively as, alone, don’t indicate that a subscriber can absorb and therefore accept a sizeable increase. However, an excellent VFM should be explored as a clear opportunity for growing ARPU.

“Retention rates by cohorts such as territory, edition type (eg. digital, print), product / publication, payment type and payment length can guide focus areas for optimisation. Optimisation should be scalable so do focus on sizeable cohort groups where improvement is more impactful.

“Cancel save rates across every channel where cancellation is facilitated can guide offers and scripts to ensure higher saves.

“A shorter payment length such as a monthly payment or non-recurring payment type such as a credit card can drive significant churn so consider ways to upsell to longer payment terms and an auto-renewing recurring payment. As customers have likely ignored these propositions at acquisition, you’ll need to be even more persuasive with upsell incentives and language.

“Track customers who make more than one purchase or have more than one subscription, as an upgrade to the more expensive packages (eg. a bundle subscription) or an upsell to better payment terms is worth considering.”

Helen Ward advises “tracking retention by cohort where you see clear differentiations. Also, understanding restarts and returning subscriber behaviour can help in trying to understand why they didn’t stay in the first place and how you can try and win them back quicker.”

Andrew Morris, director of client relations, Pelcro

According to Pelcro’s Andrew Morris, publishers should “start by drawing a clear funnel of the user’s subscription process and understand the conversion of each phase. Then measure how many of the users reach what you designate as the activation point (this could be when a user’s free trial ends, when they read their first article as a subscriber, when they visit their dashboard for the first time, etc).”

It’s important, adds ePublishing’s Lorna Fenimore, to “also examine renewal rates by the original source of the order as this may change how you price new subscriptions for certain demographics. It’s all about the life-time value of a subscriber, and it may be worth it to give a discount on the new order in hopes of obtaining individuals that will be lifelong subscribers.”

Setting targets

What does success look like? This, says InterMedia’s Jamie Wren, “is a question that needs to be answered before any KPIs are set. Setting targets is critical to establish the performance and highlight lessons to be learned for the future.”

HH&S’s Mike Halstead agrees: “Know what ‘good’ looks like for your publication. This will change over time and may even be seasonal but having a benchmark to measure your renewal campaigns against allows you to know when to change things.”

“In our experience,” adds Edwin Bailey, “aiming for around a 90% retention rate is both a realistic target and a positive aim in terms of future business growth. Achieving this aim suggests that the vast majority of subscribers are happy and there is no need for a huge, time-consuming sales push to achieve year on year growth.”

And, cautions Lorna Fenimore, “KPIs are not set-it-once-and-forget-it. As you dive into your data, you will find sub-segments of readers that you didn’t know existed. Make sure to frequently build cross-tabs or pivot tables of your data to look for various relationships across all your data elements. For example, you may not have realised that certain types of subscribers (by title or demographic) more frequently respond to offers from a certain source or with a premium included. Searching for these relationships can change how you market to different segments of your audience.”

Must be actionable

“There are innumerable measures for retention,” says’s Angus Chenevix Trench: “One general point that is sometimes forgotten in the search for better BI is that to be really valuable, you need it to be actionable intelligence.”

CDS Global’s Mark Judd advises publishers to, “set your metrics early on, but do not get carried away and track too many things start off with. It will become too onerous and demoralising. Choose the areas that matter most and have the biggest impact to your business and review them regularly. Act on the information quickly!”

The action publishers take can, of course, take many forms. For example, says Doug Purdom, “retention rates for long-term subscribers should be high and a key KPI for product health. If longer-term subscribers aren’t renewing as well as previously, it’s important to understand why quickly and to collaborate with all teams to correct.”

Another example from Will Woodrow: “you might see first time renewal rates dropping, and prioritise where to invest time and perhaps budget testing a new strategy. A good understanding of your metrics should feed into your pricing, communication and editorial strategy. For example, if your DD retention rate is going up, consider ways to incentivise existing subscribers switching to DD or new customers choosing DD. If first time renewal rate is under pressure, consider your pricing at renewal. You may need a longer step series up to full price or you might not be communicating with first time subscribers enough. Before enacting wholesale change, test segments and prove success first.”


“This is very important!” says Mark Judd: “If you have spent all that time and money acquiring subscribers, do not let them go easily.”

“It is hugely important,” agrees Jamie Wren, “to recognise who are the potential lapsers as early as possible to ensure that future communications can be tailored to offer them incentives that they have either missed or have not been offered up to this point.”

How to identify them

“The best way to identify non-renewers or lapsers,” says knk Software UK’s John Lawson, “is to analyse customer usage patterns. For digital subscriptions, a connected CRM enables targeting based on usage data, login frequency, and much more.”

Put simply, “subscribers that are not engaged with your content are more likely to not renew their subscriptions at expiration,” says Lorna Fenimore.

Edwin Bailey says publishes should “track accounts where usage has dropped by a benchmark percentage in the last quarter. Look at accounts whose content consumption value is significantly lower than the value of their actual subscription and find out what is causing the low usage.”

Immediate Media’s Helen Ward suggests “looking at engagement stats like email CTR and digital product engagement to understand the link between that and retention.”

Monitoring negative inbound contacts, particularly relating to print issue delivery, is another way of spotting them, says Angus Chenevix Trench.

According to Andrew Morris, “one of the best ways to determine non-renewers at scale is by using machine learning to predict churn likelihood as a percentage.”

“Predictive churn algorithms,” adds Aptitude Software’s Ana Lobb, “can be utilised to understand which customers are likely to churn at the next renewal attempt.”

Which groups are most likely not to renew

“Trials or heavily discounted subs are much less likely to renew because they haven’t yet displayed any commitment to your brand, so focus on these early on,” advises Louise McHale.

Doug Purdom agrees: “At risk expiry groups may be known trial offers (eg. 6 issues for £1) acquired through a low retaining channel such as telemarketing or sizeable fixed term subscription terms such as seasonal gift donor campaigns.”

According to Angus Chenevix Trench, “tenure (driven primarily by payment method) is the most significant indicator of renewal / cancellation propensity – beyond that, trials are the biggest at risk group.”

Some examples of successful corrective action

  • “Tracking future cancellations so you can try and save / win them back before they’ve even finished their sub.” Helen Ward
  • “Having used machine learning to identify likely non-renewers, you can reach out and find different ways of offering value and keep them subscribed. This can come in the form of extending or pausing their subscription for a certain period of time, offering a temporary discount, and other incentives that delay their decision and entice them to stick around for longer.” Andrew Morris
  • “Label accounts where usage has dropped as ‘target accounts’ for your commercial team so they can concentrate account management and sales efforts on these accounts in the run up to the renewal.” Edwin Bailey
  • “With trials, there is less time to persuade them. Ensure specific targeted messaging for these subscribers and amplified efforts for engagement throughout their journey.” Louise McHale
  • “Remind the less engaged why they subscribed in the first place and offer to change their content / payment plan. Show them the value of spending less, but not zero!” Dan Heffernan
  • “If you think they are unlikely to renew, then give them a stronger offer or change the communication timings or strategy.” Mike Halstead
  • “Once likely non-renewers have been identified, publishers should understand what promotions and tactics work for customers with different churn prediction ratings. Maybe some customers will churn regardless, and marketing budget can be saved by not targeting these customers. Perhaps try a personalised email from the publisher / CEO - it adds that human touch that could support customer retention.” Ana Lobb
  • “Identify these non-engaged subscribers and if they haven’t responded to your early renewal efforts, consider offering shorter-term subscriptions for a less expensive subscription fee, or breaking the sales amount down into instalments.” Lorna Fenimore
  • “Don’t just wait until the point of renewal to try and keep them on board. Look at different ways to communicate with these subscribers throughout their subscription to make them feel more special.” Mike Halstead
  • “Ultimately, don’t channel too much effort on subscribers with a low likelihood of renewal at the expense of a smaller group where intervention and investment can be more impactful.” Doug Purdom


Price level / offer considerations

“If discounts have been offered at the acquisition stage,” says Lorna Fenimore, “you may want to gradually increase pricing year-after-year until they reach your standard or base rate.”

The existence of attractive new subscriber offers in the market presents challenges for retention teams.

“Products with high engagement can be resilient in the face of visible acquisition promotions which are an annoyance rather than a deterrent for retention,” says Doug Purdom, “so you may be able to justify higher retention price points. This won’t work for all products and enforcing a commitment to preserve rates for existing subscribers or ensuring lower rates may provide a “value for money” stamp that can improve ARPU by virtue of extending subscriber lifecycles.

“There will always be new subscriber promotions to maintain acquisition volumes and promotions are required to attract new subscribers and help drive subscription growth. Ensure acquisition promotions are not overly generous and with LTV prospects rather than short-term gains and a race to the bottom.”

Mark Judd advises publishers to “have a uniform and uncomplicated pricing strategy. Do not penalise your loyal reader to bulk up new subs – it just puts people off and makes them feel devalued.”

John Diston, head of B2C client services, Air Business Subscriptions

John Diston suggests publishers “consider acquisition parity offers for renewing subscribers unhappy with their renewal rate. Sky have implemented this, and it has improved both their retention rates and also, critically, their customer satisfaction / advocation levels. If this isn’t implemented, two things will happen. Firstly, renewers will not feel valued or invested in the brand and disengage. Secondly, they will simply cancel their existing subscription and take out an acquisition offer at the rate they have. This creates more admin and associated processing costs.”

Of course, likely non-renewers can require a different pricing strategy.

“This could be where,” says AdvantageCS’s Dan Heffernan, “you introduce another short-term trial at a low cost. Draw them back into the fold with your compelling content and a mix of topics. Treating them like brand new subscribers again is a good guideline. Then begin the teasing and engaging exercise again.”

Where price becomes a sticking point, the solution can, says Alan Leech, be as “simple as a 6-month versus a 12-month subscription. In the mind of the subscriber, they’re paying half as much. As the publisher, you’re still earning the same amount.”

Will Woodrow recommends publishers be “consistent throughout a renewal series and avoid offering a lower price at any point. Notable exceptions might be a more heavily discounted multi-year offer or an incentive to switch to DD (should the data tell you they’re more likely to continue as a subscriber).”

Tailor the offer

“With metrics and KPIs giving you signals as to what is working, it is critical to ensure that the pricing and offer is adapted to the customer base. Be that based on their age of subscription, their location in the world or their initial pricing point on acquisition, it is clear that some customers will respond differently to an offer or price point compared to others,” says Jamie Wren.

Edwin Bailey says that the price “should consider usage by the account in question. Smart subscription / publishing technology allows you to offer trials and exclusive offers of new content sets for example – use these to tempt people into renewing out of interest and so they feel they are getting a good deal by renewing with you.”

For Michael Mendoza, the offer “should be dependent on what they have consumed – offer more of what they like!”

“Personalised pricing can help ensure that a higher price point is palatable in order to grow ARPU,” adds Doug Purdom.

Test all changes

“Testing as much as possible is key,” says Helen Ward: “It might not be important to match or better acquisition pricing; it might be about ease and convenience of renewing.”

Doug Purdom adds: “In some respects, increasing retention pricing in the current climate is unexceptional and to that degree, more digestible to swallow. Indeed, it’s necessary to maintain tightening margins. However, price rises carry risk and should be approached in a controlled manner. Identify low-risk cohorts such as long-serving subscribers on competitive rates and who are more likely to accept a price rise. Evidently, the macro climate ahead is uniquely choppy and low-risk testing or suspending price rise plans may be the appropriate course.”

Promote auto-renew options

Angus Chenevix Trench, managing director,

Angus Chenevix Trench says that the “most important feature of a renewal offer is to encourage the subscriber onto a continuous payment method.”

ESco’s Louise McHale agrees: “The renewal pricing offer needs to push the subscriber towards a continuous payment method, and shorter subscription terms are much more appealing; consider monthly or quarterly collections. The longer subscription term on continuous payment should still be the best offer – you need to reward that commitment whilst not undervaluing your offering.”

Jamie Wren suggests “rewarding the customer base for their decision to pay by direct debit or continuous monthly card payments with a price point that makes it worth their while – or a gift that delivers that extra value at point of purchase.”

Provide upsell / upgrade options

Louise McHale encourages publishers to “always provide an upsell option. If a subscriber is engaged, they are ripe for upgrades – but don’t just wait until the end of their subscription term; upgrades should be encouraged throughout the sub lifespan with an easy click button in the ‘My Account’ area.

Jamie Wren suggests using “a wider membership programme to attract longer term subscribers already on the highest potential yield to increase their spend in return for something only the most loyal readers can get – VIP experiences, an audience with event or free tickets to conferences that are directly linked with the content they are already heavily engaged with.”


“Fixed term subscriptions provide a churn risk and require a multi-channel renewal series with personalised pricing, segmentation and compelling, emotive reasons to renew which aren’t lifted from a mission statement or acquisition advert,” says Doug Purdom.

“A publisher’s system,” adds John Lawson, “needs to be able to send a series of pre-planned marketing communications inviting subscribers to renew. The system needs to support multiple renewal series per publication where each renewal series contains multiple renewal promotion efforts.”

A mixed approach

John Diston says: “Mixed email, letter and carrier sheet renewal strategies work well. Some publishers work in variance to this model and include early bird offers or mystery gifts on certain renewal efforts.

“Cost plays a key role in the volume of efforts and this can be heavily controlled with earlier efforts delivered electronically. Email, in-app notifications, text messaging can all form part of the process in the early stages. If successful, then expensively curated letter efforts in the post can be avoided. However, the impact of electronic marketing is constantly under review with open rates and engagement consistently below that of a hard copy direct marketing offer. Don’t underestimate the impact of a letter hitting a doormat and it’s particularly worth considering a branded envelope with a well crafted and aesthetically pleasing marketing piece enclosed.”

Louise McHale, deputy managing director, ESco

Louise McHale agrees: “We all know the basics when it comes to the best renewals campaigns – emails are cheapest, so start there, but they aren’t the proven most effective method so ensure you deliver a variety of renewals messaging via various methods. Printed comms and telesales are proven effective renewals methods. Telesales is the most effective, but also the most expensive, so save this as your last attempt and hope to sweep up most renewals via the most cost-effective methods.”

“Direct mail remains important as a means of reaching the 40%+ who don’t open your emails,” says Doug Purdom: “A multi-channel approach will amplify your message. Build automated behavioural triggers that monitor if a subscriber opens or clicks through and trigger an automated resend using different subject lines and variable content to layer in more urgency. Consider retargeting across social channels to amplify your reminder.”

For print subscribers, the carrier sheet is worth utilising, says crmSubscribe’s Alan Leech: “It must have ‘You have x issues to go’. Perhaps use a different carrier on the last issue, a different colour perhaps – something to grab the attention. Also, consider using a QR code on the carrier linking back to a web order page pre-filled with the offer.”

Will Woodrow says publishers should also “consider any ways you can use more modern marketing technology to help you. For example, can you use tech to offer a different experience (renewal messaging) on websites to subscribers within a certain number of weeks from expiry? “Your access expires in x days – renew now for uninterrupted access.” There is no one method that fits every strategy so the key is to ensure you understand how each effort performs. An email or call shortly after a letter can often drive great numbers for example.”

And, adds Mike Halstead, “a strategy of giving people the best discount if they renew early will help minimise the number of efforts needed to get them to renew.”

Renewal-at-birth: the jury’s out

Dan Heffernan advises, “don’t start too early! There is nothing more annoying than feeling like you just signed up and you’re being promoted for renewal already.”

On the other hand, says Angus Chenevix Trench, “renewal-at-birth can often get a 6-10% response, immediately removing a chunk of subscribers from lapsing or cancellation at conversion.”

Keep under constant review

“Do not think,” says Mark Judd, “that once the strategy is finalised, you can then leave it to run. Consumer behaviour changes and renewals must be carefully monitored and adjusted following testing to maintain their effectiveness.”

“There is no definitive blueprint for the correct number of stages in a renewal journey; each product and cohort behaves differently,” adds Doug Purdom: “Ensure you have adequate reporting in place to ensure touchpoints are providing a strong ROI.”

“Study previous renewal rates,” advises Lorna Fenimore, “to analyse how and when people renew. Determine the response rates, and thus the cost-effectiveness, of each renewal effort to determine if each effort is worth sending. You may discover that it makes sense to consolidate efforts 3 & 4, and to go ahead and send a renewal notice 3 months post-expire.

“Study the source of a subscriber’s original order and their renewal order – you may find that subscribers that order online will always renew online, so there’s no need to send them a print renewal notice (unless it is post-expiration and they still haven’t responded to any emails.)”

At Immediate Media, for instance, Helen Ward says, “we’ve found that we can add in a lot more renewal emails than we initial thought and they are all delivering additional orders.”

Mark Allen Group’s Will Woodrow suggests “refreshing your renewal series every 18 months to two years.”


“In an ideal scenario,” says Andrew Morris, “all subscriptions would be on auto-renew by default. This is easier for the publishers and the subscribers.”

Yet, says Helen Ward, “with everything going on at the moment, we’re seeing some preference for non-recurring payments, so we should accept that it’s just how some people want to pay now, even if we, as publishers, don’t like it.”

In short, attention still needs to be paid to the renewal payment and checkout process.

Keep it simple

“Make the renewal process as easy as possible for the subscriber,” advises Lorna Fenimore: “In the renewal emails (or even mailed renewal notices), include a link that will pre-populate a web form with the subscriber’s data, product, rate, etc. This will make it quick and easy for the subscriber to enter their payment information and complete the renewal process.”

“The goal,” says Mark Judd, “is to make sure it is an efficient and easy purchase journey and remove any friction points.”

“This has got to be smooth. Don’t make it difficult for them by introducing too many clicks,” says Dan Heffernan.

According to Alan Leech, it’s all about having “streamlined systems that take advantage of automation and make it easy for subscribers to renew and receive their content. Fewer clicks, targeted messaging and intuitive account management tools put the subscriber in control and remove any excuses to not renew then and there.”

Payment options

“Offer different payment methods relevant to your industry / country – if you are an international title, you may want a more recognised and trusted payment method,” says Rob Sherwood.

It’s also important to offer modern payment methods, says Louise McHale: “Make it really easy to pay with options such as PayPal and Apple Pay.”

Air Business Subscriptions’ John Diston agrees: “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 payment details to hand.”

Subscribers must be given the choice to pay how they want to pay, says Will Woodrow: “Some people prefer a telephone call, some an online experience or even posting a cheque! Offer as many ways to pay as you can to cover all bases.”

And, crucially, adds Mark Judd, “make a recurring payment method unmissable so you can lock-in the subscriber.”

Test continuously

Publishers should be continually testing their UI to optimise conversion rates, says Doug Purdom.

This might involve “engaging a UI/UX expert to advise on this,” says Rob Sherwood: they can be “worth their weight in gold”.

According to John Diston, “optimising the information provided in the renewal pipeline to prevent drop off is a worthy investment in A/B testing of landing pages. Caution should be exercised to not blow budgets on unnecessary testing, but getting the renewal journey right for a target audience of a title will reduce paid marketing costs.”

Contingency for failed payments

“No customers should churn due to failed payments,” says Ana Lobb: “This “involuntary churn” can be eradicated with the right subscription and payment partners. Card updaters, intelligent retry logic, payment routing, suppression windows and other tactics can “close the backdoor” for accidental churn.”


“Continuous renewal is obviously the most cost-effective way to renew subs,” says John Diston.

Shy of that, “single email with single touch confirmation” is the most cost effective route says Lineup’s Michael Mendoza.

There are a number of factors that will help you optimise your cost-per-renewal, for instance, says Mike Halstead, “by incentivising people to renew with the first effort; you will be lowering your cost per renewal by decreasing the number of efforts required.”

Angus Chenevix Trench recommends utilising “any inbound customer interaction, online or offline, during the term of the subscription, as an opportunity to get the renewal.”

Jamie Wren adds: “Bringing the cost per renewal to an optimum level firstly relies on understanding what cost is acceptable. This can be linked closely to the value of the renewal itself. A high priced product will carry a very different optimum renewal cost than a lower priced subscription.”

Maximise number of auto-renewers

“By making renewals automatic, you could cut a huge overhead from renewals immediately,” says Ana Lobb.

“It is expensive to serve subscribers who don’t auto-renew and refuse to transact online,” agrees Doug Purdom: “In some cases, it is not possible to change how subscribers like to transact and you shouldn’t force it. Where possible, you should incentivise auto-renewal offers which might be a more frequent collection at a discount and with a promotional gift to make your offer more compelling.”

Helen Ward adds: “Incentivising recuring payment methods is the best way to keep CPR low as it minimises churn but also the use of email is key in renewals to keeping CPR down.”

Lead with low-cost channels

“Email is typically a much less expensive vehicle for corresponding with subscribers, so when possible, send renewal notices via email,” advises Lorna Fenimore.

“Basic practice for active efforts,” says Angus Chenevix Trench, “is to start with lowest cost channels and work upwards through the series: emails, letters, outbound calls.”

John Diston agrees: “For manual payers, renewal comms strategies play a big part so it’s best to start a renewal series with email and carrier efforts only followed by hard copy letters or telemarketing calls if these prove to be unsuccessful.”

Get them to transact online

“As much as possible,” says John Diston, “renewers should be pushed to go on an optimised and device-responsive web journey which, critically, is as simple and easily navigable as possible.”

Lorna Fenimore suggests including “an easy-to-use link to allow them to renew online. Even though receiving credit card payments online incurs processing fees, this is still much less expensive than hiring labour to manually key the orders when they are received.”

Reducing manual processing costs

“If you do receive extensive amounts of mail,” says Lorna Fenimore, “consider hiring a lockbox and scanning service to open the mail, scan it and create an import file of the remits for you. These can typically be imported into your subscription management system so that the orders never need to be individually keyed.

“And if you decide to use a telemarketing service, allow them to key directly into your subscription management system, or send the data in a file that can be imported. Again, the goal would be to get as much data into the system with as little manual keying as possible.”

Payment orchestration

“Once renewals are automated, costs can be optimised by routing payments to banks with the best acceptance rates and where the negotiated fees are optimised,” says Ana Lobb: “For example, all Visa payments in GBP are routed to Bank A, and all Mastercard payments in USD are routed to Bank B. Payment orchestration is a key consideration for publishers in the years ahead.”

Test & review

“It is hugely important to constantly monitor and analyse your results by effort,” advises Mark Judd: “Remember, making any changes and seeing the results (either positive or negative) can take time, so make changes quickly once the data indicates they are needed.”

Will Woodrow adds: “It’s always so much cheaper to renew customers than to acquire them but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep your process as tight and optimal as possible. Test removing underperforming efforts on segments of your audience before removing for everyone to ensure there is no impact on the rest of the series. Consider / test whether email is as effective as mail and design your series appropriately.”


“Simply put, do everything to stop subs lapsing through regular engagement and demonstration of product value. People will, of course, still lapse but then they become your warmest prospect data,” says John Diston.

Analyse reasons for lapsing

“Find out why?” says Rob Sherwood: “Ask your readers why they have not renewed. Identify patterns with readers who lapse – do they start to tail off early in their subscription journey or later? Do they no longer open emails, no longer engage in page views or newsletters? Encourage feedback at this point and encourage engagement. Find out why they are tailing off.”

Will Woodrow agrees: “If possible, always try to record reason for non-renewal. You have to take responses with a pinch of salt but if there is a clear trend, you could consider re-acquisition campaigns that address the reason.”

“Getting information from people coming on board is great but the most insightful and honest feedback will often be from people who are moving on,” says Jamie Wren: “This will also allow you to shape any further win back communications that you may wish to send the customers in the future.”

Also, continues Jamie Wren, “once they have chosen to leave, it is important that their final view of you is as positive as possible. Ensure that you communicate with them to inform them of how sorry you are to see them go, that you hope to see them again in the future and potentially even encourage them to give you a greater understanding of their reasons for going.”

Devise a comms programme

“As well as having a renewal strategy in place, it’s important to have a reactivation process in place as well,” says Mike Halstead.

Publishers should have, says Mark Judd, “a multi-channel campaign set up and ready to deploy for subscribers who do not renew. Like renewals, dealing with lapses should not be a one size fits all approach. Ensure your campaigns are optimised for the subscribers you are trying to rescue.”

Doug Purdom adds: “Lapse data can fall into wider acquisition campaigns, however conversion is highest with a segmented, personalised approach based on a prior order. Utilising order history enables you to personalise comms on what a customer likes to order, at a price they are receptive to and promoting in their preferred payment type. Removing noise and tailoring to an individual will boost conversion.

“Lapses may need a break (moving house) or may simply forget to renew, in spite of many reminders to do so. Stay in touch with lapses long after their subscription expiry and make lapse marketing sufficiently different to prior attempts that went unanswered. Personalise and incentivise.”

Tailor the approach

Alan Leech, founder & chief architect, crmSubscribe

Alan Leech says publishers should have “a strategy for touching base with lapsed subscribers, say once every three months; remind them you’re around, you miss them, you love them, but don’t give away the farm in a win back offer. This reinforces bad behaviour on the subscriber’s part – the longer they wait to renew, the better the deal. That is counterproductive for the publisher.”

Will Woodrow agrees: “Overall, be careful not to de-value your product in a desperate attempt to get that renewal. If you have a ‘cancel-save’ price, be consistent and don’t be tempted to offer super discounts just to get that conversion. You’re just kicking the can down the road. Design re-acquisition campaigns to remind people what they’re missing and continue to communicate content and value to lapsed subscribers.”

“Cutting price is the easy option and what the subscriber may be looking for,” adds Mike Halstead, “but also consider what other promotional, non-price-cutting offers could be made.”

“It doesn’t have to be about price,” agrees Jamie Wren: “perhaps an offer of more content, a digital pass for a period to trial a new way of consuming the content or simply a confirmation that the product has changed in line with their thoughts can all be used as perfect reasons to give you another go.”

Doug Purdom adds: “Some cohorts retain better than others and this should guide marketing spend. Don’t send costly direct mail packs to subscribers that weren’t engaged such as trialists or one-off gift purchasers. A subscriber that has actively cancelled their direct debit will need a very compelling incentive to reverse their decision and resubscribe. Ensure your price point is competitive to individuals and highlight what they’re missing. Seasonal offers can work well. A final email resend of a win back email promotion should drive significant extra response if urgency and a countdown are included. Test the optimal volume of sends per campaign which don’t drive unsubscribes to email marketing and understand the optimal day and time to send to your prospects.”

This last point is important, says Alan Leech: “Don’t bombard them with offers; continual emailing can turn into harassment not gentle reminding. Harassment leads to unsubscribing from email lists, and then where have you got to?”

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.