A Rewarding Experience

Apr. 30, 2021

Churn is real, and it is a subscription-based publication’s worst nightmare.

You can do as much new user acquisition as humanly (or algorithmically) possible, but if you constantly lose as many subscribers as you gain, well, you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

One of most cringe-worthy moments in recent subscriber churn history happened in 2019, when the Los Angeles Times announced that it added 52,000 digital subscriptions — which was great! — but ... it also lost 39,000 existing subscribers during that same span.

As Joshua Benton of NiemanLab reminded folks when reporting on that Calichurnication, there are a number of ways to defend against subscriber loss, including:

The Times, like a lot of newspapers across the country, clearly had some work to do.

Fast-forward to 2021.

At the end of the first quarter of this year, the Dallas Morning News had amassed a total of nearly 51,000 paid digital subscriptions. That’s about 11,500 more than a year earlier. Meanwhile, the company said its print subscriber base has stabilized with just a slight decline in home delivery revenue year-over-year.

At the same time, the average print membership rate has increased 8 percent year-over year ($9.70 per week) and average digital membership rate has increased 21 percent year-over-year ($3.35 per week).

But once again, those numbers won’t mean a thing unless the DMN can hang on to those customers. One of the ways the publication avoids churn is via a rewards program for subscribers.

We’re not talking about a few discounts at local restaurants. We’re talking about an entire monthly calendar of events and experiences for subscribers, both in person and virtual.

Here’s a look at the current calendar for April and May.

DMN loyalty and retention manager Jessica Cates said the rewards program, which started in 2017, is a way to enhance and add value to their subscribers’ investment in local journalism.

The rewards program provides multiple levels of benefits, from chats with newsroom talent and local leaders, to workshops with staff photographers and tickets to sporting events and art exhibits around town.

In 2019 (aka The Before Times), the DMN provided more than 90 different events and experiences for subscribers. In a COVID-dominated 2020, that number actually increased to 125 virtual events.

Those virtual events turned out to be a big hit with certain sections of their audience, especially the older crowd, which may not feel comfortable driving downtown or at night.

Cates does all of the content planning, while a co-worker helps with implementation and another distributes tickets.

But the newsroom staff also gets involved in a lot of the events, especially the virtual chats.

“A lot of our journalists have dynamic personalities and a following,” Cates said. “The feedback they get is rewarding and they love doing them.”

Cates said the newsroom is now contacting her with new event ideas. 

“Now they’re coming back to me,” she said. “Plus, they’re seeing a return building their brands.”

A lot of the event passes are obtained via barter relationships with sports and art organizations around town. If those organizations are already advertising, the DMN might bump up the size of the deal for tickets in return. The orgs get new people in their doors, they get additional promotion of their events, and the DMN ends up with happy subscribers.

In general, the DMN doesn’t try to add sponsorship to these member events, but it is something under consideration, especially as virtual events mean a potential increase in audience size. Cates said it may be possible to bundle a series of sports-related events, for example, if an advertiser is interested in reaching that audience.

In the end, this is still all about the subscribers and what they are interested in, and what can enhance the value of their subscription so that they will continue to pay the DMN for years to come.

Cates said she is constantly doing subscriber surveys in order to figure out what they want. “If they are not getting it, can I deliver it through an event?” 

She said she generally does three subscriber surveys a year, but also probes for feedback in the DMN’s weekly rewards newsletter. She also can pose specific questions to certain demographics or ZIP codes. And, she said, she’s got a list of “ambassadors” — about 25 or so diehard fans who she can tap for anything. And yes, she’s on a first-name basis with all of them.

So what’s next for the DMN rewards program? They are currently testing a member discount offer to join the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. If that works, DMN subscribers may start receiving offers for discounted memberships to other cultural institutions around town.

If this all seems like a lot of work, well, it is. But it’s also work that can have a big impact on a publication’s bottom line.

Right now a lot of publications are seeing an increase in subscribers because folks have a renewed interest in local journalism, or they finally realize that it may be necessary to pay for quality reporting. 

But remember those membership rate numbers from earlier? The DMN is getting about $3.35 per week from every digital subscriber. That will need to increase over time. How can outlets justify those increases? Rewards for maintaining a subscription might be what it takes.

Oh and ponder this: as more paywalls go up on local content — whether it be newspaper websites, newsletters, SMS services, etc., subscription fatigue is bound to set in and publications are going to have to up the ante. Providing added subscriber benefits like those offered at the DMN may eventually be the industry norm as outlets fight for their slice of the subscription pie.