Our presence on the internet is measured in footprints. These footprints take the ephemeral impact of our net-worthy selves and make them solid. Cast your mind back to the early carbon footprint questionnaires that converted your polluting output into massy kilos of guilt - the invisible was made tangible, blissful ignorance was forever changed into depressing culpability.
Since then ghostly impressions of where we’ve been and what we’ve done have become more and more popular. As first party data monitoring has improved, individual specialisation has increased, and the customer journey is tracked beginning to end. The impression has become more of a fingerprint than a footprint these days, as our tastes have become more specific.
In fact we now get prudishly insulted when the algorithm gets it wrong - Why, dear god, am I being shown adverts for that! What could possibly have made you think I’d vote for them? What have I done? What have I bought? How did they know?
A world of offence and etiquette has emerged from the primeval grunts of our first marketing footprints. We are insulted when judged to be ’that' kind of consumer, or hit with blunt demands for payment, or when our conscience is squeezed. We are gratified with ads that seem to know us, delighted by cool companies who feel we’re ‘one of them’, and deeply disturbed by ads that seem to know us all too well. Deep down we want to be stroked, managed and cared for. Sensitivity is the name of the game.
Until now, the accepted wisdom on subscriptions has not responded to any of this subtlety. Instead, pay walls have come across as crude, transactional dates. The hard paywall wants to go all in on the first drink or there’s really no point carrying on. The soft paywall will give you a little for free, but by the third date you need to get serious, and then there’s the ‘freemium’ paywall that just keeps putting out in the hope you have a conscience.
This kind of thinking is redundant in the future life of subscription services. A reader relationship strategy is about good faith engagement, individual satisfaction and Customer Lifetime Value. The customer journey is key, and any company that disregards how personally we feel about our internet selves, risks offending and alienating audiences. A one-size-fits-all policy is several years out of date.
The redundancy of old pay wall thinking is apparent when you consider how people engage emotionally with journalism. An accurate report from Anfield is half way between fandom and a civil right. We feel represented by columnists and comedians as much as by politicians. So while pressure and urgency might work for Black Friday sales at PC World, they are totally inadequate tactics for encouraging subscriptions to The Economist.
Dynamic pay walls are re-organising the customer journey, and responding intelligently to different readers. The Wall Street Journal’s intelligent paywall caters for 60 different variables including frequency, depth of read, favoured devices, preferred content types and a whole lot else. These metrics allow you to calculate the CLV accurately and offer subscriptions at the right time. You can start the conversation on sport, move on to world affairs, and jump into bed much further down the line.
Research conducted by NZZ, a Swiss publication with a similarly smart pay wall, shows that personalised greetings on subscription offers increases conversion by a whopping 25%. They’ve also discovered pushing subscriptions during the commute is pointless, and annual offers are much more attractive than monthly ones. This kind of detail in first party data gives you multiple customer journeys and therefore provides churn reduction on a massive scale.
The proof? Earlier this year the New Yorker moved behind a dynamic pay wall and took 167,000 digital-only subscribers with it. The New York Times added 223,000 in the first quarter of 2019 and the German newspaper Zeit recorded a 123% growth last year. According to Reuters more than half of publishers identified subscriptions as their primary revenue focus for next year. If this turns out to be true the customer journey will be all that matters.
Our footprints are everywhere, and publishers have to thread the needle between a subtle marketing relationship that respects our privacy while tickling our taste buds. In years gone by this might have seemed like molly-coddling, but in this new ‘internet of manners’, etiquette is a mark of respect.