What Drives Subscribers, In Their Own Words

What Drives Subscribers, In Their Own Words | The Sterling Woods Group

As a content creator, you understand the time and effort that goes into creating a valuable and thoughtful product. It’s your livelihood, it’s something you’re passionate about, and it’s likely something you sometimes struggle to monetize.

The digital display ad market is not a viable way forward for publishers. With advertisers dedicating their dollars and efforts to Google and Facebook, subscription models are the best path for everyone else—from the big guys like the New York Times to smaller publishers focused on a niche market.

Fortunately, a recent study conducted by the Media Insight Project takes an in-depth look at subscribers—what drives them to convert, and why they stick around—and just might help you to create a solid subscription model for your own business.

What Draws In Potential Subscribers?

The study surveyed 4,100 new subscribers to 90 local newspapers across the country. Each of the participants had subscribed to a publication within the past three months. (Note: while the study focused on newspapers, most conclusions are applicable to other content formats).

First, participants were asked questions about what initially drew them to their respective publications.

Access to local news appeared to be the biggest driver, with 60 percent of participants citing that as one of the factors encouraging them to engage with the content. Forty percent cited interesting and useful content as a draw, and nearly one-third of those surveyed said that they wanted to support local journalism.

The takeaway for non-local papers is: readers who feel part of your community or cause are more likely to subscribe. Can you play up the emotional benefits (like belonging) in what you do?

The study also found that most subscribers had interacted with the content before making a commitment; 74 percent of users read the publication for several months before becoming a paid subscriber. This underscores the importance of having an effective lead nurturing strategy.

What Triggers a Subscription?

While there are a number of factors that attract a potential subscriber to a given publication, the most common trigger for conversion was a discounted subscription. Forty-five percent of the new subscribers surveyed said that they finally decided to take out their credit card when they were offered a promotion.

Of course, users will only subscribe if they find the content they’ve already interacted with worthwhile. Below we’ll take a look at three other factors that work in conjunction with a discounted subscription to drive conversion.

1. Paywall Converters

For half of all digital subscribers, hitting a paywall was a conversion trigger. If you’re creating good content, people will want more of it. And when you limit what they can get for free, there will come a time when they’ll pay for it.

There is an art to establishing a paywall for your content, and publications are experimenting with the model to find what works best for them. The most important feature, it appears, is a clear and user-friendly signup page.

Readers do not want to jump through hoops to pay for your content, so make the signup page easy to find and uncluttered. Only ask for essential information. A simple signup page alone can increase your number of conversions.

Additionally, some content creators have transitioned to dynamic paywall models, where they limit free access to content that the user has historically engaged with most heavily. Some publications are also targeting users who have an interest in the work of a specific writer, offering them access to other pieces by that author, if they choose to subscribe. For more tips on optimizing your paywall strategy, check out this post.

2. Niche Topic Converters

Whatever a reader’s passion is—be it sports, politics, opera, gardening, or anything in between—it’s likely that there’s a lot of content on the internet about that topic. However, if you provide the best, most interesting, and in-depth information on whatever your niche is, this alone can drive conversion.

Those who are looking for information on a specific area of interest are most likely to come across your content via web searches and by following your content creators on social media. Because of their intense interest in the topic at hand, they will likely consume a lot of content, hit a paywall, and choose to convert. Twenty-three percent of survey participants fell into this category of converter.

The great thing about these niche topic converters is that they’re very likely to share your content on social media (55 percent reported doing so). This in turn allows you access to an even wider audience.

This is precisely why I talk so often about focusing on your whales. Unsolicited, enthusiastic endorsements from your subscribers are truly priceless, so finding those whales within your niche converters and catering to them should be a key part of your strategy.

3. Social Media Converters

A lot of readers, particularly those in younger demographics, find new sources of content through social media. These users are tech-savvy, always consuming content on their phone, and highly engaged on social media. Nearly one-fifth of survey respondents identified as this type user.

If this kind of person sees a lot of quality content from a particular source on their Facebook or Twitter feed, they’re likely to seek out the publication and the specific content creators on social and follow them there. Then, as with the other types of converters, once they begin to follow that topic or writer passionately, they find themselves hitting a paywall and converting to subscriber status. Thirty-five percent cited access to unlimited articles as a key subscription benefit.

Knowing all this, content creators can harness the power of social media to their advantage. Some have chosen to give subscribers access to exclusive content on social media (i.e., creating a Facebook group on a given topic that only subscribers can access). Others encourage their writers to engage with readers on social media, answering questions and participating in discussions.

What Makes Them Stick Around?

After you’ve made the conversion, the challenge becomes driving renewals of existing subscriptions. When asked what fosters their loyalty to a given publication, most survey participants cited accuracy, a willingness to admit mistakes, and being very good at covering a specific topic. Nearly a third of respondents also noted that access to exclusive content was a major subscription benefit.

While the process of attracting renewals may feel amorphous, using analytics can help you get a clearer handle on what’s working, what isn’t, and what you can change to increase retention. One of the best ways to measure how you’re doing with your customers is just to ask them. A one-question survey, like one asking a subscriber’s likelihood to recommend you to a friend, can provide you with a surprising amount of information about your users.

Do you have a question about the best way to approach your own subscription model? Drop me a line.

About the Author

Rob Ristagno, Founder and CEO of Sterling Woods, previously served as a senior executive at several digital media and e-commerce businesses, including as COO of America’s Test Kitchen. He started his career as a consultant at McKinsey. Ristagno holds degrees from the Harvard Business School and Dartmouth College and has taught at both Harvard and Boston College.

Rob is the author of A Member is Worth a Thousand Visitors: A Proven Method for Making More Money Online. He regularly speaks at key media conferences, including at Niche Media events, Specialized Information Publishers Association meetings, and the Business Information and Media Summit.

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