The insights shared below come from participation in the GNI Subscriptions Lab, a partnership with Google News Initiative and FTI Consulting. Through Accelerate Local, we invite expert practitioners from among the 10 GNI Subscriptions Lab participants, or from other organizations, to share key important topics relevant to subscriptions success

The Southeast Missourian, a daily newspaper in Cape Girardeau, MO, is one of ten publishers in the GNI Subscriptions Lab. Through its participation, Assistant Publisher Lucas Presson said the company has focused on building stronger relationships with readers and improving page speed.

“Since we started, not only are our stats so much better with items like newsletter sign-ups and opens, our overall digital subscriptions are up 81 percent,” he said.

The GNI Subscriptions Lab began with individual consultations and group benchmarking, and now publishers are seeing the initial results of tests built through learnings in the Lab. We asked Presson to share what he has learned and how it has improved the business.

What has been your biggest takeaway so far from participating in the Subscriptions Lab?

So far it’s been all about building frequency with users — and hitting them regularly with subscription offers and a simple, cancel-anytime check-out process.

These two ideas guide us in everything we do, from how we think about content or set up our email newsletter strategy (to drive frequency and retention), to, for example, how we frame our rates and what colors we use on a subscription landing page. Of course, building frequency also relates to the relevancy of our content and overall user experience – so we’re constantly measuring, evaluating and seeking to improve.

An important corollary to building frequency is getting our traditional print readers more active online, because if we are going to make the transition to mainly digital in the future, it will be imperative to take a high percentage of them along.

Were there any notable surprises from the FTI benchmarking of the SE Missourian’s audience or subscriber data, and overall consumer revenue business? What changes did it spark within your organization? 

Our pay flow efficiency rate was at the upper end of the cohort but still significantly lower than we wanted. We had more than 70% of potential subscribers not completing the final step in the process. This led us to re-examine what information is required and in what order.

We also set up a three-option strategy in our subscribe page – which seeks to frame a “readers choice” option between a high-cost option and decoy. This not only provides clarity to readers and helps them make a quick positive decision, it leads them in the direction we want them to go. The removal of friction from the purchasing path has been a consistent theme.

What specific opportunities are you pursuing in the testing phase of the Lab as a result of cohort roadmap development? 

Our primary test is a 30-day onboarding campaign to retain new subscribers. These customers made the decision to purchase a digital subscription, but it’s our responsibility to make sure they know how to take full advantage of the subscription. This goes along with building frequency.

The five emails include:

  1. Welcome message — something to connect the subscriber to our mission and community.
  2. What newsletters do we offer and how to opt-in.
  3. E-edition, sometimes referred to as the replica edition. Especially for print readers, this is the closest thing to the newspaper without having the hard copy in hand.
  4. Letter from publisher. A thank you for supporting local journalism and an invitation to let us know how we’re doing or even pitch a story idea. We’re using this as a way to connect with readers.
  5. Download the app. Our Southeast Missourian and Semoball (the regional sports website that comes with a newspaper subscription) apps provide subscribers an exclusive experience. And the apps provide us with opportunities to push specific pieces of content through push alerts.

Another test, which we are close to starting, is a pay modal for lead generation. Non-subscribers who provide their email address will have an opportunity to access content free for a day. Mobile non-subscribers will receive a week’s access. This gives us an opportunity to send them special offers in the future.

You talked to us about the three-option pricing/positioning strategy for subscriptions. Tell us more about how you came up with the different subscription paths and what you’re learning from the test.

The three-option strategy is designed to lead readers to the center option. It’s the best price of the three but includes what we believe readers want. It’s based on research that suggests this design is most conducive.

We’ve also recently launched an in-article design. When a reader hits the paywall, instead of requiring a subscribe button click to see options, now the three options appear on the page automatically. It’s too early to tell how successful this change will be, but it’s another step in removing friction from the subscription process.

One final note: We have also updated the design and messaging on our subscription pages to try to create an emotional bond with our readers and connect them better to our mission while at the same time creating urgency around words that have tested positively for enhancing the likelihood of their subscribing.

Very little of this we would be doing without the insights from the Subscriptions Lab, certainly not without the same urgency and confidence we’re implementing them. And, since we started, not only are our stats so much better with items like newsletter sign-ups and opens, our overall digital subscriptions are up 81 percent.

SEMO’s email newsletter metrics are up substantially through your work in the Lab. What are key steps you’ve taken, both to acquire more qualified emails and then generate more consistent engagement with this known audience? 

We’ve added newsletter opt-in widgets to story pages and moved the widget up to mid-story instead of the end.

We’re adding toasters to the bottom of the page and a modal that asks readers to sign up for our daily headlines newsletter. This is delivered once every 30 days.

We’re doing more in print to promote our newsletters. On most stories, you’ll find a promo at the end to encourage the reader to signup for a specific newsletter if they liked the story they just read.

In our contests, we’re doing a better job of adding a pre-checked email newsletter opt-in. This has been a big help with list growth. Then we monitor which readers are opening the newsletters. If they’re inactive for a certain period of time, we cull them from the list.

Finally, we send out more newsletters than we did before starting the Subscriptions Lab. Everything from daily headlines to college sports to business and even obits. Our emails consist of fewer stories but with greater frequency. Instead of putting everything in one email, we have more targeted lists.

Taking a closer look at another specific initiative, tell us more about SEMO’s focus on page speed, particularly on mobile. How have you created organizational focus around this? What specific actions have you taken that have had the most significant effect on improving page speed and overall UX?  

User experience drives a lot of our decisions, and page speed is top of the list with UX. Many of our users live in rural areas where high-speed Internet access is not ubiquitous. So for us, website speed is not a luxury. It’s a necessity.

Because we have a proprietary CMS and are not dependent on multiple vendors, we have an advantage when it comes to website speed. We have reduced the number of advertisements to subscribers — including the removal of Taboola. This is actually a differentiation for users between the subscriber and non-subscriber experiences, and we actively promote the benefit of an ad-light environment to our non-subscribers as one reason to subscribe.

With Taboola no longer there for subscribers, we can use the space to promote more of our own stories to improve re-circulation. Meanwhile, while we do serve Taboola ads to non-subscribers, we include our own stories in the mix within the widget.

Read more insights about the critical publisher benchmarks for digital subscription success described in this Q&A and the digital subscriptions playbook crafted through the Lab.

Original interview date: Nov. 25, 2019