2020 Mega-Conference

Spurn the churn: Data-driven reader retention solutions


As advertising revenue continued its downward trend and newspapers turned to readers for a bigger revenue share, they quickly realized that retaining subscribers is their most important task.

But until now, there was no systematic way to know how to distinguish between loyal readers who will willingly pay relatively high subscription rates and drive-by readers who will, probably sooner than later, drop their subscriptions.

The Medill Local News Initiative at Northwestern University took on the task of finding factors in retention, studying data from 19 news organizations, seven of them in big cities and 12 in smaller markets in the Midwest.

Some of the results were counter-intuitive, Edward C. Malthouse reported at the Key Executives Mega-Conference in Fort Worth Feb. 19. Malthouse is a professor and research fellow at the Media Management Center, a partnership between the Medill and Kellogg schools at Northwestern University. He is also the research director of the Medill IMC Spiegel Research Center.  

One of those surprises: The more pages that people read, the more likely they are to churn.

“Which couldn’t be right, right?” Malthouse said. “One thing that could explain this is advertising, especially on sites where advertising covers up the page and delivers a poor reader experience. So the more pages I read, the more annoyed I get with advertising.”

Medill researchers looked for the key factors in “hard churn,” in which readers cancel subscription payments.

Researchers looked at regularity, the number of days per month with any reading; intensity, the number of page views per day of reading; depth of reading, the time spent per article; and breadth of reading, the variety of subjects.

Of all four, regularity of reading was the key indicator of a reader staying subscribed, Malthouse said.

“If I’m reading you one day a month, there’s a good chance I’m leaving you. If you read me 30 days a month, there’s a good chance I’m staying with you,” he said. “If you can reach that habit status — that my breakfast is not complete without reading you — your retention campaign is complete.”

Reading varied content was also a driver of retention, Malthouse said. The more people read “differentiated” content, the more regularly they read.

There were effects from specific newsletters, too. Those that focused on local news, sports, breaking news and family topics were strong indicators of retention. On the other hand, politics, entertainment and travel were considered commoditized information and were not good indicators of retention.

There was another — and pleasant — surprise from the Medill research: It seems that there’s a twist in the CLV, the vaunted “customer lifetime value” of a subscriber.

Sure, as prices increase, retention falls. But CLV actually increases, the researchers found.

“Are we actually undervaluing our content?” Malthouse asked.

That certainly could be true, Gannett’s USA TODAY NETWORK’s vice president for local news, Amalie Nash, said during the panel discussion.

At its Bergen Record in northern New Jersey, rates were pushed up a record 116% year-over-year, with no dramatic increase in churn. Their secret sauce: Focusing on newsletters, eliminating churn and turning a spotlight on newsroom talent.

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