Why Publishers Struggle with Subscriptions
As publishers, we spend a lot of time thinking (lamenting?) about the current publishing environment and if our strategies are correct. When it comes to subscriptions, however, more than the market or strategy, it’s our inability to execute on a basic level that is our biggest problem.
It doesn’t matter if our publications are paid or controlled, whether we serve a regional, B2B or enthusiast market, or whether we have print, digital, web, email, app or other deliverables. We will continue to struggle with subscriptions until we fix some of the fundamentals.
What do I mean? Take out your smart phone right now, go to your website, and try to subscribe. Pretend you know absolutely nothing about your brand or where things are on your site. Then ask yourself the following questions:
Can I access our premium content without having to subscribe?
I see publishers who put their entire digital edition online completely free and open. Some put content on their website that they charge people for otherwise. Some can’t figure out the technology, so they don’t even put their premium content on their site.
You will continue to struggle with subscriptions until you put your premium content online and lock it down to subscribers only. Don’t be afraid that you’ll lose Google search traffic or ad impressions by locking it down. This can be overcome, the impact isn’t as much as you think, and the positive business values far outweigh the negatives.
Is it obvious that we have premium content available only to subscribers?
On many publisher websites, it’s hard to even tell that there is subscriber-only content. The publisher is either too afraid to interfere with the user experience, assumes that visitors love their content so much that they’ll look for how to subscribe, or just isn’t thinking about it.
Whether paid or controlled, if you want to succeed with subscriptions, you must make it clear on every page of your site that you have premium content available. You must also have a clear incentive and call-to-action for people to subscribe everywhere.
The same is true for email newsletters and social media properties. You can still deliver free content, but you should highlight your premium content. Make people see what they are missing and give them an opportunity right there to subscribe.
Does our subscription page actually sell potential subscribers?
Most publisher subscription pages are nothing more than order forms. We have an expectation that visitors are ready to fill out a lengthy qual form or plunk down their credit card right away. The reality is that most people who visit our subscription page are only considering subscribing. They’re not sold yet.
It’s critical that you convert your subscription order form into a sales page. Visitors should clearly see the benefits of subscribing, what they get (deliverables), and feel a sense of urgency and FOMO (fear of missing out). They should be able to order right then and there without having to click anywhere else.
Is it easy to subscribe?
At times it feels as if publishers don’t actually want people to subscribe. They make it hard to find the subscription link, make potential subscribers navigate through a complex series of decisions and clicks, and make the subscription form and process overly complex.
There should be a very obvious menu item and widget on every page of your website that links directly to the subscription page … one-click access. Don’t link to a page where people must choose whether to subscribe, renew or change their address. Link directly to the subscription page.
The subscription page should be a single page, not a multi-step process. You can do this for both controlled and paid publications. Every step loses additional people and lowers your conversion rate. Finally, remove all unnecessary fields from the form and only ask for what you absolutely need. This will also improve your conversion rate.
If done right, people should be able to access your subscription page from your website, email newsletters or social media promotion with one click, and then subscribe from that page with only one click. Subscribers should then be able to immediately log into your site and access to your premium content without having to wait.
Is your subscription page a good user experience?
Just as with your website, your subscription page must be up-to-speed technically. If it doesn’t load in 2-3 seconds, you could lose up to 50% of potential subscribers. Your subscription page must look great and function well on mobile … even in B2B markets. And your subscription page must be secure and use the https protocol.
I realize that many of us work with third-party fulfillment providers that aren’t always the most technically adept. However, many of them are rapidly adapting. We as publishers must work with our providers to address these issues and not settle for sub-optimal technical performance of our subscription pages.
Are you tracking your subscription pages properly?
Your subscription and confirmation pages must have your Google Analytics account on them setup with e-commerce conversion tracking and cross-domain tracking from your website. This gives you the ability to see how people get to your subscription pages, how well people convert from different sources, and the ability to test and adjust your tactics.
In addition, you want Facebook, Google, Bing and other tracking pixels installed on both your subscription and confirmation pages so that you can more effectively use programmatic advertising networks to grow your circulation. You also want the tracking pixel from your customer data platform / email system on these pages.
Is your circulation database integrated with your email / marketing automation system and website?
Your email / marketing automation system needs to know who is or isn’t a subscriber and when their expiration date is. This information should be automatically updated from your circulation system real-time or, at the very minimum, manually once per month.
With this in place, you can put conditional content blocks in your emails to upsell non-subscribers or automatically remind subscribers to renew (rather than relying solely on your circulation provider to do this for you). You can also include conditional upsells in your audience development lead magnet funnels.
If you use the right kind of email / marketing automation system, you can even target messages on your website to remind people to renew, and automatically sync your subscriber lists to programmatic ad networks so that you don’t waste ad dollars on existing subscribers.
You also need to ensure that your website is synchronized with your circulation system, or that your people can log into your site by authenticating against your circulation system. This is critical to giving subscribers access to your premium content.
Prioritize and be deliberate about subscriptions
Some of the subscription challenges mentioned here can be fixed simply by making subscription development a priority and being more deliberate about execution. Some will require you to develop or hire additional skillsets.
You may also need to make changes to your systems or providers. Many fulfillment providers are behind in their thinking and system capabilities. You must insist that they meet your subscription development needs or consider making a change. In addition, low-end email systems don’t have the capabilities that most publishers need, and you may have to upgrade.
Whatever business model, market or systems you work with, you have a much better chance of being successful if you improve the subscription experience. But these changes won’t happen on their own … you must drive them.
Eric Shanfelt is a 25-year digital media veteran and has been the Chief Digital Officer for several large publishing companies. He now consults with B2B, enthusiast and regional media companies on their digital platform, audience, and revenue strategies. You can reach Eric at firstname.lastname@example.org.