Key stages

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

By James Evelegh

Key stages

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

Key stages

Key performance areas

Organisational structure

In a nutshell

Suppliers Spotlight

In this section:

Finding prospects

Building interest

Closing the deal

Contributors to this special feature



“There is increasing understanding that the purpose of acquisition marketing is to generate attractive future lifetime value rather than simply to acquire a customer. Not all newly acquired customers are equal,” says Julian Thorne, chief customer officer, Dennis.

Audience & prospect profiling

According to Michael Mendoza, founder & chief innovation officer, Lineup Systems, “the first step to identifying prospects is to clearly identify your target prospect profile. Depending on the profile, your marketing approach could drastically change.”

This means, says Alan Leech, founder & chief architect, CRM Australia, “looking at your current database and knowing how to analyse that information to understand who you should be targeting and how best to attract them.”

“You need to go through a process of saying, who are the personas based on behaviours, attitudes and demographics,” says Angus Chenevix Trench, managing director,

For Andrew Morris, director of client relations, Pelcro, “the best way to look at customer segments is to understand their needs.”

For acquisition, Jo Adams, marketing director, New Scientist, thinks about three groups of customers and their channels of acquisition:

  • Unknowns: they know us, but we don’t know them; they visit our site but don’t login, they consume free content but haven’t signed up for newsletters or created an account. It is our strategy to take these customers from unknown to known.
  • Lookalikes: we utilise lookalike profiles on channels outside our core, social media for example, creating lookalike audiences to market to digitally.
  • New audiences: these are customers who don’t know about us but should do. Students who should be reading New Scientist because it’s recommended reading by a university for example.

Company-wide endeavour

Long gone are the days when subs teams might have been expected to be self-sufficient. Now, they rely on the cooperation and input of people across the company, including, says Graham McDougall, head of audience management, DC Thomson Media, journalists who have a key role to play in subscriber acquisition: “Our journalists have to plan their content with an understanding of who the audience will be, how they will be reached and how they should feel once they’ve read a given piece.”

“We’re putting our journalists through subject-specific audience bootcamps to really ramp up their understanding of what readers want from their work, what they as journalists can do to make their content more discoverable and how they can work smarter and plan better so that we have time and space to make the most of every big content opportunity in partnership.”

“We have a process that joins up insight, editorial and marketing to convert new audiences.”

“The biggest shift,” says Affino’s Markus Karlsson, “is from a publishing / news perspective to a product approach, where the focus moves to delivering the best overall service to the audience. This is a process of continuous improvement, and typically requires multiple iterations to get right.”

Mike Halstead, managing director, HH&S

Emphasis on first party data

“The impending identity crisis has forced publishers to focus on first party data collection more than ever primarily to defend advertising revenues. But,” says Anthony White, head of UK publisher development, Passendo, “increased first party data provides subs teams with a huge opportunity.”

Mike Halstead, managing director, HH&S, adds: “Collecting permissioned reader data is critical. Just collecting emails is a false economy which will be reflected in response and overall ROI.”

There are, continues Mike, “interesting opportunities presented by data pools which pull together multiple consumer survey and behaviour data sets. Publishers can then use responder modelling to identify “lookalikes” with higher propensity to purchase.”

Rethinking the funnel

Lineup Systems’ Michael Mendoza says that “the simple funnel and campaign marketing approaches are quickly becoming obsolete. They have given way to more comprehensive marketing loops with continuous marketing techniques, which have been perfected by the ecommerce industry over many years. Publishers need to look at the successful aspects of these new marketing approaches and, wherever relevant, apply them to our publishing industry.”

Dennis’ Julian Thorne agrees that “the concept of a customer acquisition funnel has become increasingly ‘untrendy’ but it remains a very useful method for understanding the differing customer engagement levels within the funnel and therefore the most appropriate messaging to deploy to the differing audiences within the funnel. For example, there is little point in delivering a hard sell message to a barely engaged audience whereas the same message might be highly appropriate to an audience fully engaged and on the cusp of purchasing.”

AI to do the heavy lifting

“Website customer acquisition is only just about to make a shift to AI-based personalisation,” says Jonathan Harris, founder & CEO, Sub(x): “One of the main lost opportunities as a source of identifying and attracting prospects are brand websites. A large proportion of companies still run their website customer acquisition using mostly manual processes. Businesses have trouble collecting and transforming data into a format that is usable. Teams are left to hypothesise about what works best. Success or failure is often heavily skewed to simple A/B test metrics for click or conversion and not causality and significance of all decisions, meaning teams don’t understand what the total impact of one change on all other activity was. As a result, businesses continue to be hampered by an accumulated cost of human bias as teams continually face operational data challenges driven by weak, disjointed internal data processes that lead to poorly informed subjective decision making. So, as businesses demand faster time from insight to response, they are not giving their teams the tools to achieve this.”

Romano Sidoli, head of magazine relations, NewsTeam Group

New subs opportunities

According to Romano Sidoli, head of magazine relations, NewsTeam Group, “the pandemic and national lockdowns have created new challenges and opportunities for publishers. In a sector where audiences and habits had been very well understood, and largely consistent in their behaviours, we have seen unprecedented shifts these past two years. Many people have returned to or engaged with new passions, be that gardening, upcycling, crafts or leisure options for the family. Behaviours have also changed: shopping locally, community initiatives, zoom meetings, working from home – all factors that publishers will be considering when appraising opportunities to grow subscription audiences.”

For news publishers, says Dominic Young, CEO & founder, Axate, the picture is mixed: “All I am hearing is that it’s getting harder for news publishers. After an extended period of engagement with news at a historic high, mostly thanks to Covid, lockdowns and – for some of the time and in some markets – Trump, the following slump is now affecting acquisition and retention. So, we’re seeing a lot of publishers offering discounts, for example, as a way of attracting new and existing subscribers.”

Subscribers expecting more

According to Louise McHale, marketing director, ESco: “Consumers are looking for more than a standard subscription now. With so much free content available at their fingertips, publishers need to provide greater value in their subscription offering. Switching to a membership model can attract potential prospects with the promise of a broader offering, including benefits such as community, support / encouragement, advice, togetherness, the feeling of being part of something bigger and partner discounts.”

Some B2C trends

Air Business Subscriptions’ Duncan Taylor notes that, “low intro and cheap acquisition / free issue deals are prevalent across the publishing sector at present, especially in the B2C markets. These are well suited to social media marketing platforms and to tempt cold or cool subscribers to the brand or product.”

“Examples of this are ‘3 months for free’, ‘10 weeks for the price of one’ or maybe even freezing a popular low intro offer rate, eg. £4.95 per month for the first 6 months and then increasing to the normal subscription offering once brand investment has deepened.”

ESco’s Louise McHale sees “a huge amount of opportunity within the “influencer” community to drive traffic and reinforce trust in your brand. But,” she advises, “do your research and ensure you’re selecting relevant, trustworthy influencers who are aligned with your company ethos and message.”

Other options to bear in mind, says Louise, are: recommend a friend, marketing to your lapsed file and utilising Instagram and Facebook.

“Also, focus on multi-channel engagement – don’t just rely on email, use mobile push, social, SMS. We are seeing more customers discovering new brands via readers / consolidators like Apple News or upday. It’s a great way to get your content in front of a new audience and demonstrate the quality of your content,” she says.

Patrick Lidstone, managing director, The Engine Shed

David Coveney, director, interconnect, has noticed “more collaborations between brands. Some of these are working just within their portfolios, which you’d think would be a default position but isn’t nearly as common as it should be. Others are starting to reach out to other publishers which have shared audiences but don’t directly compete.”

And finally…

“Let’s be honest,” says Patrick Lidstone, managing director, The Engine Shed: “we are in danger of “subscription fatigue”. Everywhere you go, there is a subscription to be bought; in media, in food, on Amazon. Why? Because it works. It means the consumer can’t forget you and smoother revenue streams are always better. But it MUST offer genuine value otherwise audiences will turn off and never turn back on.”

How publishers can improve performance

“Real success for increasing performance is related to the quality of prospects in the pipeline, which are qualified in through the collection of historical and current reader and subscription data, followed by rigorous analysis,” says Michael Mendoza.

1. Use more automation

CRM Australia’s Alan Leech says: “Many new technologies are being integrated into subscriber management platforms, and using these to segment your existing dataset is crucial. Machine Learning algorithms are helping to uncover further segmentation in data that wouldn’t otherwise be obvious to the human eye.”

At New Scientist, says Jo Adams, they have long utilised onsite messaging to encourage newsletter sign up, but have now “introduced an automated prospect onboarding communication strategy to take these prospects on a journey from consideration to purchase.”

Sub(x)’s Jonathan Harris believes that publishers should let AI do the heavy lifting: “Focusing on augmenting existing team capabilities should be top of list for publishers serious about scaling their acquisition strategy. More investment should be made into AI based customer acquisition capabilities. Real time optimisation for features like campaign relevance, timing, context, matched with buyer propensity and more is no longer a nice to have option, it is essential to deliver and maintain incremental strategic gain. Recognising also that to offer the right experience to the right person at the right time / place is not a human problem, so whilst there is absolutely no substitute for tactical creative work from internal teams and clear long term strategy, the heavy lift is a machine challenge.”

2. Adopt new ways of working

According to Markus Karlsson, “the big leap for publishers is to move leadership and budget over to the digital teams, who are increasingly being empowered to push forward the product approach, but are undermined by lack of leadership authority and operational budgets.”

Julian Thorne believes that marketing teams needs to foster closer relationships with both editorial and finance: “Publishers are inherently world class creators of highly engaging editorial content but, perversely, appalling content marketers. The reason for this can only be some sort of ideological misconception that to use content to market a content based media product is in some way to debase the sanctity of the editorial product. This is errant nonsense and those publishers that have successfully harnessed the combined power of editorial and marketing know it.”

“Far more emphasis,” he continues, “should be placed on building good relationships between finance and marketing. Too often, marketers think of finance as in some way an ignorant hindrance to what they want to do whereas the finance function is in reality an essential enabler. Marketers should embrace the challenge of working alongside finance as partners and take the onus upon themselves to make the first move and make it happen.”

3. Look at new channels & approaches

Louise McHale urges publishers to broaden their horizons: “don’t stick to the same channels for advertising. It’s really important to diversify and ensure you don’t saturate any one area. If you’ve historically collected data for newsletter lists and targeted via email marketing, look to social media and test results on influencer or paid ads there.”

Pelcro’s Andrew Morris notes a strange reluctance on the part of some publishers to use advertising: “I find it very ironic, because media companies rely on advertising very heavily, but when they're creating subscriptions or memberships, very rarely do we see companies actually taking advantage of advertising. You don't want to forget about the people that might not even know you exist. And the way to do that, in part, is advertising.”

Interconnect’s David Coveney thinks there is great potential for collaboration: “Reach out to fellow publishers and see where you overlap, and find ways to work together – syndication is really easy in the digital space, for instance, and could increase the value of both offerings. There’s also a chance to work together on products that would be otherwise too expensive for one solitary publication to produce, but might be feasible where costs can be shared. Then, when that product hits the market, it potentially has a far bigger market reach.”

For publishers of print subscription products, NewsTeam Group’s Romano Sidoli suggests targeting people who are already known to subscribe to other print titles. Publishers should think about “the core common denominator for success across all sectors, which is the desire to receive, on a regular basis, a printed product that reflects or inspires them to do something. Where are those new subscribers who are already invested in the medium, and have demonstrated a commitment to the reading experience of a physical magazine or newspaper.”

Dominic Young, CEO & founder, Axate

4. Have a strategy for non-subscribers

Axate’s Dominic Young says that “publishers can lower the barriers for consumers to engage by offering a casual payment option. In doing so, they make the process of on-boarding and then upgrading to subscription simpler and lower friction. It also allows churning subscribers to continue as paying customers by returning them to the same casual payment model whenever they decide to discontinue monthly payments. As well as expanding the total number of paying users, smart pricing will make subscription more attractive for engaged users and stepping up will be a much smaller and more casual decision for them. This will also mean a reduction in acquisition and retention costs – important when some publishers are approaching or have passed the point where acquisition cost exceeds lifetime value for some subscribers.”



“Ultimately it has to be content that drives the interest to subscribe. Marketing and a strong price proposition can hype the desire but its content that must deliver the satisfaction and resulting retention,” says HH&S’s Mike Halstead.

The subscription journey

Jo Adams says: “our strategy is to take our customer segments on a journey from consideration to purchase. We use content marketing for consideration and offers to entice purchase.”

“We offer prospects the opportunity to sample premium content based on their interests, promoting relevance and, where possible, personalisation. We also test different offers and incentives to encourage purchase.”

DC Thomson Media’s Graham McDougall adds: “We’ve been focused on setting expectations with the audience we have. New CTAs and messaging have been introduced to familiarise them with the concept of a metered paywall and premium content, explaining how much content they can enjoy for free before having to register or subscribe.”

“The CTAs take users through a journey with each article they view: welcoming users to the site, introducing them to the fact that this is a subscription site, and starting to set their expectations. It warns them that the registration wall and, later, the paywall will come, meaning when it does, the user is prepared for this. For us, this education process has been vital in getting more traffic to the subscribe page and ultimately more of them checking out.”

During this journey, says Andrew Morris, publishers can build a fuller profile of the prospect by “creating an incentive for them to give additional information; sometimes that can be in the form of a datawall or just accepting their email in exchange for a few more articles. Bit by bit, they give you their email, you enter them into some kind of email drip campaign where you’re showing them the value and trying new strategies over time.”

Using newsletters & podcasts to drive engagement

Julian Thorne says: “For many publishers, email newsletter sign-ups remain the most cost effective and powerful tool to building habit and engagement and consequently ‘desire’. Podcasts are starting to show considerable potential to achieve a similar outcome. Both mediums use content to build interest and both mediums play to the strengths of publisher paid products in that they are 121 mediums that require some level of commitment from the audience in order for the audience to reap the rewards.”

Passendo’s Anthony White says that newsletters are the best driver for paid subscriptions: “Many publishers are doubling-down on their efforts to grow the number of newsletters for many reasons but high amongst them is because newsletters perform like gangbusters for subscription teams.”

“Subscriptions are a considered purchase and prospects need to be warmed up with effective strategies at all stages of the sales cycle.”

“Newsletters play a crucial role in moving prospects from being a site visitor – someone who has found your content and quite likes it – to someone who is a lot more engaged by providing them with a low barrier to sampling more content. Most importantly they also give the publisher data (in the form of an email address) which can be used for marketing subscriptions (and other revenue lines).”

“Habitual consumption is a good propensity indicator for a future subscription.”


For Tracy Larner, head of subscriptions, William Reed Business Media, their strategy is to “engage potential subscribers through content marketing and online free trials in return for personal and company information. We utilise consumption statistics and undertake automated and personalised onboarding and engagement techniques to encourage consumption of content and sign-up to newsletters etc, in coordination with gating techniques to enhance the stop rate and the resulting conversion rate.”

Michael Mendoza says: “Interest is generated by analysing the consumer’s behaviour, history, demographics, and other data. Then using this data in real-time to customise the marketing journey and associated content and offers presented.”

“As part of a continuous marketing campaign, we have found that creating “nurture journeys” are the best way to grow interest and push readers to convert into registered users and paying customers. One important fact is that most readers do not convert in the paywall journey. They are converted with marketing / sales messages outside the paywall journey.”

“Using an effective email marketing campaign, constantly evaluating their behaviour and triggering offers at the right time in their buying process is the most effective way to lead readers into a monetisation journey. The marketing messages need to be relevant in both their offers and in the promotional content that is contained in their marketing messages. General marketing material, content, and offers are not as effective as these customised approaches.”

“It is not enough to present simple offers to consumers anymore. The systems need to support customised products / offers that are tailored to the reader’s activities and location in their journey. In addition, allowing the reader to adapt their package to suit their needs is an effective way to progress them through the pipeline.”

Andrew Morris, director of client relations, Pelcro

For Andrew Morris, the personalisation is not just about the messaging, but also the composition of the subscription or membership offering: “The reality is, not all of us buy, let’s say, our phones for the same reason. This is why there’s different phone brands with different features and different value propositions; the same thing applies when it comes to subscriptions and memberships, and it’s up to us to figure out what are those features, those benefits that speak to each customer segment, and how can we build the structure of a membership or subscription that’s going to make sense to them.”

Jonathan Harris says that AI offers the potential to more tightly personalise the message and offer: “Segmenting possible customers using a much wider variety of data is increasingly seen as the core strategy for most businesses; using complex data to determine exactly what features generate the best outcomes for building interest and creating desire. Predicting the next best action or offer for each customer and warming up prospects is the ideal use case for an augmented data strategy. Not just focusing on whether one offer or channel “converts” better than another but looking for relevance, reliability, and correlation so businesses can be confident in data-driven decisions. Focusing on first-party data to serve relevant experiences and form more transparent relationships also reduces the reliance on third-party data.”

Engagement through compelling content

For Duncan Taylor, joint managing director, Air Business Subscriptions, “the value of the offering is the premier asset to convert and gain the trust and commitment of a potential customer to become a paying subscriber.”

Duncan Taylor, joint managing director, Air Business Subscriptions

Dan Heffernan, vice president, sales, marketing & product planning, AdvantageCS, encourages publishers to: “send compelling content to their readers’ in-box often enough to let them see variety and quality. Keep teasing them, drawing them in to spend time. Create a habit, if possible. This will lower the hurdle to the prospect actually subscribing. They will see the need in their life and the value proposition will excite them.”

The Engine Shed’s Patrick Lidstone urges publishers to “draw the audience in through the use of multiple media channels and use teaser content more effectively, in the form of full content samples – not partial content samples (eg. showing the first two paragraphs of a pay walled article).”

Speed is of the essence says’s Angus Chenevix Trench as “there's nothing like time to cool a prospect off. So, engaging with relevant content, as soon as possible, is the most important thing.”

Louise McHale encourages publishers to, “drum up interest via special editions and back issues, ensuring all the content continually subtly highlights the “member benefits”, to instil a sense of FOMO!”

For Romano Sidoli, the sampling of products intelligently within and beyond existing audiences is a key driver of new subscriptions: “If you know a prospect already reads a certain title regularly, what does that tell you about them? Their age, their geographic location, the sport or hobby they follow, their political leaning. Targeting those people with an alternative or complementary brand is one way to ensure you are communicating with an audience that is more likely to value and convert to your brand.”

Paywall positioning & porosity

“The big focus right now is,” says Markus Karlsson, “making sure that publishers have the engagement wall / paywall at the right points. That often means leveraging news for the inbound funnel, and then using that to effectively transition the audience to value added events, subscriptions and memberships.”

David Coveney adds, “It’s interesting to see some publishers make socially shared content from the official channels free to access, as a teaser for other content, but then as soon as you start clicking around, you find yourself hitting paywalls. You could program your paywall to allow them a little browsing, before then presenting the full offering. It surprises me how many sites present visitors with a hard block. That’s like a newsagent shouting “no browsing!” as you check out their offerings.”

How publishers can improve performance

1. Invest in data & insight

For William Reed Business Media’s Tracy Larner, it’s important to “have a dedicated resource to feed insight and stats to the subscriptions sales and marketing team.”

Otherwise, says David Coveney, you won’t “understand what your readers actually want and if your offering is fuzzy, confused, or unclear, they’ll think that everything you do is fuzzy, confused and unclear!”

Jo Adams builds insights by focusing on the “relevance and value exchange. Sharing premium content in exchange for data enables us to turn our unknown customers in to known and communicate with them; offering more content as well as telling them about all the exclusive features and benefits they get from subscribing. We test many things including content, offers, incentives, terms and payment methods to understand how cohorts convert allowing continuous learning and optimisation of our prospect pool.”

When analysing the data, says Jonathan Harris, automation is the way forward: “focus on tools that transform raw data from user behaviour and marketing interactions into an algorithm-friendly format, reducing the cost and time of preparing data. Find patterns faster and augment team capabilities by automating expert data scientist and data engineering functions, removing the need to manually interpret results, tell stories and continuously optimise outcomes. Instantly operationalise findings with applications that look for significance and causality of all marketing decisions then automatically orchestrates responses to subtle otherwise hidden signals instead of only what feature or channel “converts” better than another.”

2. Deploy real-time personalised messaging

Michael Mendoza: “Simply put, increased performance in nurturing early prospects into engaged readers and eventually paying subscribers needs real-time continuous marketing with relevant messages and offers throughout the consumer’s journey. Mass marketing with generic messages, content, and offers will not typically maximise the conversion of prospects.”

3. Invest in newsletter capabilities

Anthony White says that publishers should “focus investment and resources on growing their newsletter business. Publishers leading in this area are building teams and tools focused exclusively on newsletters given the value they bring to subscriptions and other areas of the business.”

When sending out newsletters, cautions AdvantageCS’s Dan Heffernan, “if the prospect never clicks on the content, slowly back off on the frequency of sending it. It just might not be the right moment. But don’t stop teasing them completely. Something might catch their attention eventually. Sometimes a prospect is just too busy to add anything to their life. But then three months later, they have an appetite for something new.”

4. Improve marketing cost attribution

Julian Thorne says that performance can be improved “by building methodologies that generate confidence within marketing teams that the costs of top of the funnel activities designed to build interest and create desire are justified in relation to creating customer lifetime value. This means tackling the tricky issue of marketing cost attribution across the entire customer journey. Not easy to do but unavoidable as a challenge in the long run.”

5. Work with third parties

Romano Sidoli: “Think about other data points you can consider when identifying new audiences. What kind of advertising clients does your brand regularly work with? Can you work with your advertisers on amplifying your message? For example, many UK citizens will have taken a different holiday option this summer, mostly looking at domestic tourism. How did they travel (transport clients), where did they stay (hotels, cottage rentals, camping), did they eat out (hospitality) or did they buy in (supermarket, local stores, online delivery).”

“A whole host of new events and experiences have been launched within our national borders; how could working with those open dialogue with new subscribers. Open air cinemas for film, food markets for gardeners, listening parties for music fans.”

6. Consider casual payment options to exploit revenue opportunities from non-subscribers

Dominic Young: “Replace metered paywalls with a casual payment approach. Making the process of starting to pay, and sample the product, as simple and smooth as possible allows simple sampling and allows your product to speak for itself. Joining a casual payment network can reduce the barriers even more by completely eliminating sign-up formalities for users already in the network, and this effect increases as the network grows, to the benefit of users as well as publishers. They could also re-think their journeys to focus on access instead of “walls” which hold your product away from your users – it can be a liberating new perspective for many publishers. Retain a focus, of course, on converting as many as possible to subscription. But allow the middle majority who will never subscribe to enjoy – and pay for – your publication as well.”



“Publisher payment funnels are on the whole embarrassingly poor. It pains me to think of the number of subscribers we lose simply because our payment funnels are designed to suit our underlying database structures and not to make it easy for customers to give us their money,” says Julian Thorne.

Keeping it simple

Alan Leech: “The essential aspect for publishers to consider is making the process as simple as possible for subscribers. And that will come down to both the messaging and the system to capture subscriber information and payment details.”

Louise McHale agrees: “Make it as easy as possible! Gone are the days when you simply ask for a credit card. Make sure you include the most popular payment methods, especially PayPal and ApplePay.”

Process optimisation

A culture of continuous testing and process improvement is seen as central to subscriptions success.

“Having a product mindset is key here,” with a focus on continuous iteration, says Markus Karlsson.

Jo Adams, marketing director, New Scientist

Jo Adams says: “We focus a lot on customer journey and conversion rate optimisation. And we test test test.”

“We map our customer journeys by region, device, and channel and segment our prospect data by region, interest (where we have that insight), activity (active / inactive) and tenure.”

“We test landing pages, and we test using onsite and offsite marketing tools where available, exit overlays and remarketing for example.”

“We test offers and incentives across these segments and channels to enable continuous learning and optimisation.”

And it’s important to keep an open mind about what works best. Publishers need to measure what works and keep their channel options open, says Patrick Lidstone: “It is likely for some titles, that the older generation may appreciate the option of signing up for a subscription via call centre (ie. talking to a real person), or even by means of returning a paper form, despite how old school this is.”

Angus Chenevix Trench: “Improving performance comes down to data and measuring, so attribution modelling is absolutely critical when you get to the point of making a sale. Different attribution models include ‘first touch’ and ‘last touch’, and a whole variety in between. It’s a science in itself but from a basic perspective, understanding what is successful, and then feeding that back into doing more of the same is what’s going to improve performance, constantly.”

Dan Heffernan, vice president, sales, marketing & product planning, AdvantageCS

Exposing your paywall

“An intelligent registration wall / paywall approach certainly should be explored if it hasn’t been already,” says Dan Heffernan; “The more compelling the content, the higher the chance this will succeed. I’ve subscribed to a number of publications simply because I kept hitting the paywall and really wanted to read the full article.”

Graham McDougall says: “We are seeing a significant increase in subscription starts since the beginning of summer. The greatest difference is that we have increased the exposure of our non-subscribers to the paywall and subscribe page. In doing so, we not only increase our opportunities for users to convert, but also educate / remind them that they are on a subscription site. To do so, we have guidelines for the amount of premium content each day and have altered how users can interact with the paywall.”

“As users come through our meter, we try to educate them about our offering so that when they do hit the subscribe page, they are more prepared for it and more likely to convert. We have launched a new CTA flow which creates points of friction, asks users to take steps on their journey with us, and prepares them for when the paywall comes. When building this, we asked users about each step of the process, including the language we use, which has meant we speak to them as one of our community.”

Making the right offer

Andrew Morris encourages publishers to “try to be creative with the types of offerings, and test new things for different customer segments.”

Personalisation is key and having flexible systems in place will facilitate that. Michael Mendoza says: “Legacy subscription systems and even modern generic subscription management systems are often too rigid in their offer / package capabilities. Newer platforms allow for dynamic product catalogues, real-time customisation of offers, and matching of relevant products / features to the behaviour and demographics of the consumer.”

“The subscription team needs to consider that each subscriber needs a relevant offer for their specific needs and according to where they are in the engagement with the publisher. Understanding the consumer’s propensity to subscribe will be a key indicator on which packages to offer the consumer.”

For Anthony White, “variety is the spice of life and there seems to be no end to the variety of offers publishers are making to lure readers onto a subscriptions hook: introductory offers (there are numerous flavours of this alone), subscription bundles, free gifts, free trials, tiered access for different costs (smartphone only, smartphone + web), gift subscriptions.”

Pricing is obviously important but needs to be handled carefully. Mike Halstead suggests “a price proposition that is attractive without devaluing the title; don’t just end up buying subscriptions. The greater the subs discount or gift incentive, particularly on introductory offers, the greater the risk of not retaining the subscriber when the price is normalised. It’s also important to have a plan of how to deal with existing subscribers wanting the latest offer and new subscribers cancelling at the end of the introductory offer period.”

Patrick Lidstone agrees that “premium brands should take care not to devalue their offering by over discounting”.

Maximising total reader revenue

Michael Mendoza: “If maximum reader revenue is the objective (not only subscription), it’s not always the best outcome to push for a subscription for the reader. Those readers with high advertising value may be better monetised with a low cost package (free) that encourages more pageviews to increase their total customer value. The total subscription AND advertising value (total reader revenue) is the true measure of success.”

Jonathan Harris says: “It’s no longer just about subscriptions. Media businesses are accelerating investment in data growth, new customer acquisition strategies, retention and LTV enhancement, product and partner marketing and new ecommerce and affiliate revenue streams. It’s the whole ecosystem now that matters. The orchestration and coordination of this activity, how sequences compound to deliver long term value, the implications of one set of tactics on outcomes elsewhere and the building of value to the business across the whole customer acquisition journey presents a unique challenge of scale and accountability.”

“There’s a limit on how many readers will subscribe to a publication,” adds Dominic Young; “Readers can’t be expected to subscribe to every publication they want to read semi-regularly or as a one-off, and we see this frustration aired on social media often, paired with calls for more options like pay per article. People will pay, and they’re happy to support good journalism, but they want more flexible ways to do so, that actually reflect their reading habits.”

And finally…

  • “Don’t forget to get an abandon basket campaign up and running – we're all a bit easily distracted online these days and it’s a great way of scooping up some potentially lost sales.” Louise McHale
  • “Make sure it’s easy to unsubscribe.” Patrick Lidstone

How publishers can improve performance

“Viewing customer acquisition as a complex set of sequences that when orchestrated correctly will deliver more into the top of funnel, better conversion and importantly better retention rates and LTV across a range of product sets is fundamental. If businesses don’t embrace this then often the challenge is over simplified, and the outcomes reflect this,” says Jonathan Harris.

1. Map the journey

Jo Adams: “Map the journey and work out how best to make it simple, easy and enticing! I appreciate some legacy systems make this difficult however this should not be used as an excuse. If you regularly analyse your funnel, you will see both opportunity and risk. Some small tweaks to the funnel can deliver significant gains.”

An important part of this mapping process, says Graham McDougall, is working out how “you get more traffic to the subscribe page. Every time they hit the subscribe page, it’s a chance they will convert.”

“Our journalists are the experts in understanding the communities they serve and in delivering great storytelling. We focus our role on providing conditions under which their content can be monetised.”

2. Test the offer

Dan Heffernan wants to see publishers “do more price testing. Some publishers are leaving money on the table because their gut feel tells them not to increase the price too much. Step-up-pricing after closing the deal is a great way to get the reader hooked and then when the content is more valuable to them (after they’ve read it for 3-12 months, let’s say) they are more than happy to pay more to continue.”

3. Tailor the offer

Anthony White: “Ensure that subscription offers are tailored to the individual and their interests and avoid generic offers that at best are sub-optimal but at worst can confuse prospects or alienate existing subscribers.”

4. Constantly monitor process

Tracy Larner: “Monitor, monitor, monitor. And don’t be worried to test different offers until you find something that works or to change on a regular basis.”

Michael Mendoza adds: “Continuous marketing using nurture journeys to constantly evaluate the behaviour of a reader is the key to increasing performance.”

5. Simplify the process

Julian Thorne: “Reduce the number of payment types and term length choices and simplify the payment funnels.”

6. Minimise distractions

For David Coveney, “voucher code boxes on sign-up forms have a small but important psychological problem. If you have them, it encourages people to leave the site to go looking for a voucher. Same with discounts in any way, shape or form. So we’re working with some clients where there are zero discounts, zero vouchers – the price is the best price, always.”

7. Learn from others

Romano Sidoli: “There are so many other markets for which subscription services have become a key part of their strategy, during and post pandemic. Think about fresh, local ingredients and the delivery services now available on subscription. Fashion, beauty and cosmetic specialists are working d2c to provide a personalised service to their customers on a subscription basis. What tactics do they use, how do they build value to ensure long term commitment?”

8. Develop an offering for non-subscribers

David Coveney wonders “if for some sites, the option to buy a limited access pass that allows you to see all content, but only read say ten articles a month, at a very low cost, might be a good way of encouraging light users in. Yes, a £2 a month subscriber might not feel very valuable, but it’s a lot more valuable than someone not subscribing at all. You could slice it a number of ways, but casual readers are, in my view, very poorly serviced.”

Dominic Young agrees: “Expanding the addressable market to include never-subscribers and former subscribers will hugely increase the opportunity. But the appeal of monthly recurring revenue is near-hypnotic for many publishers.”

9. Improve your IT

Alan Leech: “A flexible IT system is vital. It needs to be able to support the activities of the marketing manager without requiring a complete rebuild or presenting technical difficulties. The IT side should never guide the creative marketing strategies of acquisition. Still, it should efficiently facilitate a broad range of activities, so the subscriber never runs into any roadblocks on their sign-up journey.”


You can find more details of the contributing suppliers in the Suppliers Spotlight section.

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