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The 5 steps of the subscription journey: From unknown to raving fan

Admin | 22 November 2021 | Read time: 9 minutes
  

Convincing readers to subscribe is no easy task. A customer’s subscription experience with a publisher is defined by their subscription journey - the road they take to get from first-time visitor to repeat customers. Demonstrating value at each step in this journey is essential to create a strong, loyal customer base and mitigate churn. 

And so, in an increasingly crowded subscription economy, publishers must ensure that each stage of the subscription journey is tailored to and optimised for the reader if they want to stand out and succeed. Publishers are not only competing with each other, they are fighting for share of wallet with a plethora of other consumer goods, retail, and media subscriptions. Post-lockdown readers have far more leisure options to spend their hard-earned cash on than they did this time last year, meaning brands need to offer more to retain their portion of the £550 UK households spend annually on subscriptions

In this article we explore the various stages of the subscription journey. Publishers that build a robust awareness of this journey are able to understand their users more deeply, target them more effectively, and, ultimately, convert them with ease.

Subscription journey stages

Stage 1: Exploration

Before an unknown reader interacts with your service, they get to know the lay of the land. Readers search the offerings available to them in order to decide whether to interact with your service, or move on to another content provider.

At this early stage, it is critical for publishers to know what their target reader is looking for, what topics they want covered and how they want to access that content. Crucially, publishers need to understand what is getting unknown or first-time readers clicking and engaging.

Taking this unknown audience seriously is vital for revenue growth later down the line. However, it is unlikely that users will subscribe cold if the product you are offering is not enticing and unique. In order to see healthy returns on their investments for new eyeballs, publishers must ensure there is no obvious disconnect between what readers desire and what they are offering. 

If the reader signs up or registers on your site, then that reader becomes known, and, on the business side, the reader’s behaviour can be translated into data. This data will give insight into the reader’s desires and movements, critical for the next stage of the journey. 

Stage 2: Persuasion

At this stage, the reader is looking for a clear demonstration of value. Publishers are operating in a landscape of constant competition. Therefore, it is up to the publisher to demonstrate to the reader why they should subscribe to you and not go elsewhere. 

While there are elements to this that will be out of the publisher’s control (such as word-of-mouth giving one site the edge over another), publishers should use their data as a powerful lever to get the reader hooked on their content. 

Personalisation is critical in this pursuit. Publishers must be demonstrating that they can adapt to the needs of each unique customer by curating their feeds or changing their communication strategy, for example. If they are going to capture a growing customer base, publishers need to focus on the user experience, minimising any negative or clunky interactions with their site that might put a potential customer off.

Stage 3: Subscription

Showtime. If the publisher demonstrates value to the reader, then they will decide to subscribe. It's simple, but that doesn’t make it easy. 

An essential tool here is the paywall. Paywalls are the focal point of your acquisition effort, and using them correctly gives you the best chance to convert.

An intelligent, dynamic paywall allows you to adapt conversion strategy based on the behaviour of the reader. For example, if the reader is heavily engaged with your content, they likely require fewer free articles before hitting a paywall and are more likely to be persuaded by an annual subscription. While for the hesitant reader, the publisher should allow them access more free content before tempting them in with a shorter-term monthly subscription rate, perhaps with a free trial period. 

By addressing the needs of each reader, subscription becomes far more likely across different demographics. 

Stage 4: Decision 

While subscription is the goal, the subscription journey does not end once payment is made. Though subscribed, the reader is not a loyal customer just yet. 

Perhaps they have subscribed at a lower, promotional rate, or have only bought a month of the service rather than an annual package. Readers have the freedom to unsubscribe from publishers at any time, hence their early experience with the service will be a telling determinant of whether that fee is worth it, and whether their subscription will last long-term. Publishers need to aim to maximise the lifetime value of a reader and increase their return on early investment as much as possible. In the weeks and months following subscription, publishers must prove their worth and cement their relationship with the reader to ensure retention. 

A key method for this is propensity testing. Propensity modelling predicts the future behaviour of readers by analysing their past behaviour. Importantly, it can accurately predict which of your readers are most likely to unsubscribe, identifying churn risks. This allows you to  directly target the customers that pose the biggest threat to your bottom line through personalised marketing and content. The result: happy subscribers and lower levels of churn.

Stage 5: Advocation 

With measures in place to mitigate cancellations and demonstrate consistent value through a tailored consumer product, loyalty arises. In the long term it becomes far easier for the reader to remain subscribed as the cumulative knowledge a publisher has about them grows. Gradually gathering first-party data allows you to consistently improve your offering and communicate with your reader appropriately.

What publishers should be observing is customers being consistent with engagement - the sign of a lasting, valuable relationship between publisher and reader and the key to long term growth. Once your customers become advocates you’ve reached the more lucrative stage in their subscription journey. Not only will these repeat readers stay paying for your content long-term, they will also represent your brand and market for you through word-of-mouth and referrals. 

The Value of a Strong Subscription Journey

Unlike traditional product selling, subscription-focused companies face the mighty task of delivering consistent, relevant value even after purchase. Customers not only need to be shown the value of your service to convince them to subscribe, they also need to have value consistently demonstrated between each and every billing period.

Only publishers who effectively lead their readers through each stage of the subscription journey, and provide value at each stage, will succeed in achieving a lasting customer base and low levels of churn. It is therefore integral for publishers to keep these stages in mind when building their subscription models, experiences and offers.

Zephr helps leading publishers such as Which?, Dennis Publishing and the New York Post deliver consistent value across each stage of the subscription journey. Read our case study on how FIPP doubled subscriptions 10 days after launching an intelligent paywall.

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