How to Market a Successful Online Subscription Product (Part 2)
In my previous article, we talked about the keys to creating a successful paid subscription model online. To recap:
- You must be committed to making paid subscriptions successful.
- You must have great content that people are actually willing to pay for.
- You must lock down subscriber content (people won’t buy what you give away for free).
- You must address the content management, fulfillment provider, and email / CRM / marketing automation systems issues that are holding you back.
Once you’ve addressed these foundational issues, now it’s time to start marketing your paid subscription. Successful publishers realize that marketing is much more than just getting people to pay. They look at the entire audience development conversion funnel:
All parts of the funnel must be working properly and working together to sustain and grow a successful paid subscription online.
You need to be continually attracting new people to your brand, continually engaging those people into becoming email subscribers, continually converting email subscribers into paid subscribers, and continually working to retain existing subscribers.
They can’t exist in silos within an organization. Marketing, audience development, editorial and even ad sales must work together and be in agreement that the primary role of each stage is to move people into the next stage.
And the best way to do this is to start from the bottom and work our way back up.
Delight and Retain Your Paid Subscribers
It does no good to acquire new subscribers if you’re losing them just as fast out the back door. The old adage that it costs 5x more to acquire a new customer than to retain one is absolutely true for publishers as well.
As I mentioned in my previous article, you must have content that is unique and truly hits the core needs or passions of your target audience. If not, your subscribers will not stay for long.
The subscriber online experience must be amazing. Digital flipbooks simply won’t cut it. Your website itself must be a great subscriber experience. It must be secure, fast and a great mobile experience. It must clearly show subscribers the unique content only they have access to and the login process must be clear and simple.
Native iOS and Android apps are another way to get your brand … and value proposition … in front of your paid subscribers in a way that they’ll love. It’s not that hard to do especially if you use WordPress as your CMS.
Consider removing ads for logged in visitors. Yes, I can hear the collective gasp from publishers across the country even as I write this. But remember from my previous article that a paid subscriber is worth much more than the ads they would otherwise see.
Finally, continually communicate with your subscriber. It’s not enough to send them an email once a month with a link to their digital flipbook. Tell them weekly or even daily about new content that only they have access to. Guide them to previous subscriber-only content that is valuable. Make them feel special for being a subscriber!
Make It Easy for People to Convert to Paid Subscribers
One of the biggest problems I see with many publishers is that their subscription process is terrible. I talked about this at length in an article I wrote last year, but here’s a quick recap.
Your subscription pages must be fast, secure, and mobile-responsive. You must demand this from whoever is managing your fulfillment … whether your own website or a 3rd party fulfillment provider. If you don’t, you will lose subscribers.
Subscription pages must sell a potential subscriber. Most publisher subscription pages are just order forms with lousy conversion rates. Instead, show people the benefits of subscribing. Use a video sales letter (VSL), subscriber testimonials, time-limited pricing … all the features of a good sales landing page.
The entire process must be contained on a single page. Don’t use a multi-step process as every step loses people and lowers your overall conversion rate. People don’t mind scrolling down a page, but they hate multi-step processes. Also, limit the info you collect about a subscriber to only what you absolutely need for the transaction.
Finally, as soon as someone subscribes, they must be able to immediately access the subscriber-only content on your website or app. You must ensure that your fulfillment system and CMS are properly integrated to allow this.
Start with Your Engaged Audiences
The best audience to convert into paid subscribers are the people who are already on your email list. They like your brand enough that they were willing subscribe to your newsletter, now you need to help them take the next step.
Have a compelling subscription offer at the bottom of every email newsletter that you send out. Once a month, send a dedicated email to non-paid subscribers encouraging them to subscribe.
As I wrote in my previous article, you hopefully have your fulfillment system integrated so that your email / CRM / marketing automation system knows who is and isn’t a subscriber. This way you can conditionalize your subscription offers at the bottom of your emails. No need to promote subscriptions to people who are already subscribers.
Consider running a special, week-long sale twice per year to help get borderline subscribers off the fence. I’ve worked with three different publishers on campaigns like this over the past year. Each generated 10s of thousands of dollars in subscription revenue.
Again, if your fulfillment system is properly integrated with your email / CRM / marketing automation system, you can target these week-long campaigns only to people who are not yet subscribers.
BTW, I consider website visitors and social media followers to be “semi-engaged” audiences. You may convert some of them directly into paid subscribers, but conversion rates are much lower. It’s far better to convert web traffic and social media followers into email subscribers first using lead magnets and other techniques, and then covert them to paid subscribers.
Make Your Website Sell Subscriptions for You
Other than your email list, your website is the biggest sales tool that you have. The #1 job of your site should still be to convert visitors into email subscribers, but you still want the site to make it very clear that you have a paid subscription level.
Every paid subscription website needs three layers of content. 1) Free content to attract the right audience, build your remarketing audiences, and give people a feel for your brand. 2) Registered content … usually lead magnets strong enough that people are willing to give you their email address. 3) Paid, subscriber-only content … your absolute best content.
Make sure your website shows subscriber-only content everywhere. Intermix paid content with your free content. Promote both free and subscriber-only content in your email newsletters and social media properties. You want people to see what they’re missing! And it’s a good reminder to your paid subscribers of the unique content and access that they have.
Use Programmatic Advertising Wisely
I am a big fan of programmatic advertising for audience development and typically recommend a three-tier program:
- Ads to attract new people to your website and build your remarketing lists.
- Ads to convert website visitors and social media followers into email subscribers.
- Ads to convert email subscribers into paid subscribers.
You’ll notice that I usually don’t recommend ads to drive a “new” audience directly into a paid subscription. It’s incredibly difficult to ask someone new to your brand to fork out money on a subscription. They need to get familiar with your brand and content value first.
Similarly, we’ve found that remarketing ads to website visitor and social media followers is better spent driving email subscriptions than paid subscriptions. The goal is to move people down the conversion funnel. When you try to skip steps it usually does not work well.
Track Everything That You Do
Launching a paid subscription program online without tracking your efforts is like driving down a freeway at night with your lights off. You must track all of your efforts and learn what really works and what doesn’t at every step of the conversion funnel.
First, make sure that you properly tag not only your website, but your subscription pages as well. Use Google Tag Manager and include the following tags on all pages of your site:
- Google Analytics — This will be your primary dashboard to see how your marketing efforts are doing, what’s driving email capture, and what’s driving paid subscriptions.
- CRM Site Tracking — Special code from your email / CRM / marketing automation system so that you can see what pages specific people visit, when, and how often.
- Google Ads Remarketing Tag — Used to build out your website programmatic remarketing audience for the Google Ads network and to track ad conversion rates.
- Facebook Pixel — Used to build out your website programmatic remarketing audience for the Facebook ad network and to track ad conversion rates.
- Other Remarketing Tags — After you have Google and Facebook ads working well, consider other networks like Bing, LinkedIn, AdRoll, Simpli.fi, Taboola, etc.
Be sure to setup goals within Google Analytics to track email acquisition and paid subscriptions. For paid subscriptions, I typically recommend goals over ecommerce tracking for most publishers. However, if you have a lot of products and an ecommerce storefront, you might want to use ecommerce tracking instead.
Next, use Google Analytics UTM variables (source, medium, campaign, content) to track which emails, on-site promotions (popups, top bar ads, etc.), house backfill ads, and paid programmatic advertising drive the most email signups and paid subscriptions.
Finally, look at this data regularly. Learn from it and adjust your tactics. I know many publishers that have a ton of data, but never take the time to actually look at and analyze it. This is the only way you can know if your efforts are on track and take steps to improve your subscription marketing.
It Goes Back to Commitment
As I said at the beginning of this series, successful paid subscriptions online are all about commitment. Are you and your organization committed to doing what it takes to make a paid subscription model successful? And are you willing to take the time to get it right?
Very few publishers get it right out of the gate. It may take significant effort to get your content in shape for paid subscriptions. It takes time, effort and disruption to get your technical infrastructure correct. And it takes time and constant testing / adjustment to get your subscription marketing working efficiently.
It also takes time and effort to get your organization aligned behind paid online subscriptions. It must come from the top … the CEO … or it will not happen.
But if you do make the commitment and stick with it through the long-term, it can completely transform your business and open up new opportunities to serve the market and people you are passionate about.
Eric Shanfelt is the founding partner of Nearview Media, a consulting firm that helps publishers with their digital revenue, audience and platform development. Eric is a 25-year digital media veteran and has been the Chief Digital Officer for several large publishing companies. You can reach Eric at firstname.lastname@example.org.