Lessons From the Nordics: 5 Ways to Get More Out of Mature Subscription Strategies

Call them the pioneers of digital subscription providers.

While many media companies are trying to determine the best model for their digital subscription or membership product, and others are still wondering if they need one at all, some publishers seem to have it all figured out. Those are the companies that implemented a product early on and have matured as the digital landscape around them has evolved.

And, geographically speaking, when it comes to digital subscriptions, the Nordic Region is more mature than most.

Media companies across Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland were early to adopt digital subscription products and have been perfecting their strategies since. They’ve seen their efforts come to fruition, too — a fact noted by the International News Media Association in March 2019 when they reported a 49 percent increase in digital subscriptions across the Nordics over the 18 months prior.

But even the most mature organizations reach plateaus in their subscription success. And a new report suggests the Nordics may be beginning to face exactly such a slowing-off period.

So what can companies throughout the Nordics do to rebuild momentum for their subscription strategies? And how can mature subscription providers worldwide learn from the region’s continued evolution?

The Nordics Experience

A strong newspaper culture combined with pervasive internet usage both contributed to the early adoption of digital subscription products across the Nordics. But media companies haven’t settled for the status quo in the years since. Instead, companies have evolved their strategies and goals to meet the needs and behaviors of their users.

Now, a new report out of Sweden shows that habits in that country are changing. The total reading of digital newspapers has dropped for the second year in a row, from a peak in 2016 of 81 percent to 77 percent today — the same as 2009 levels.

It could be evidence of the beginning of a plateau throughout the region. And that’s a trend that’s familiar. Mature media organizations, whether they’re in the Nordics or not, will often find themselves at a point where they’re losing some of the momentum they’ve gained. It’s how they react to it, and what they do to turn that momentum around and optimize their performance, that will help define them as digital subscription leaders.

5 Tips for Optimizing Mature Subscription Strategies

So what’s the next step for mature companies? How do they continue to optimize their performance and grow conversion? A few strategies might help:

1. Keep users engaged. At the heart of every site is the user, and media companies that succeed create a site experience that keeps users coming back. That starts with content — a fact that Nordic publishers have long been aware of. They know that content has to connect with their prime audience and understand the value of quality over clickbait. Take Piano customer The Local, for instance, a Stockholm-based English-language multi-region digital news publisher targeted primarily at international readers living abroad — with local editions in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and seven other countries. They understand who their audience is and the type of content their users are looking for, as well as the paths those users take to reach conversion.

By targeting direct and dedicated users with their metered paywall, while giving casual users a separate experience to encourage newsletter signups, The Local increased conversion on their paywall by 40 percent in 2019 and opened up new opportunities to move those casual users through the funnel. And by identifying users likely to leave, and targeting them with unique offers, they managed to reduce churn 28 percent over four months. The Local also uses data to decide what’s driving engagement for both non-members and members, in order to determine many of their content decisions. “I work with the managing editor daily, even hourly, on what’s converting and what’s working, so they can make their content decisions based on that,” says Nicholas Rabbidge, Digital Marketing Manager with The Local. “We’ve always had a core of very loyal readers, and I think those members now are much happier, because we can really write the content for them.”

2. Change Up Your Offerings. When you consider the products consumers today buy — whether it be a pair of Nike shoes or an Apple iPhone — the ones that thrive are the ones that are in a constant state of evolution. It’s the same in media, where keeping buyers engaged in your product means constantly evaluating your offerings. That might mean creating new offers and bundles to build interest, or changing your subscription or membership product based on user behavior. Or it may mean introducing events and/or newsletters, with the idea of providing new value for current users and a new reason for prospects to convert. When Schibsted in Norway tested out new approaches like these, they saw a five percent decrease in churn and a 30 percent increase in digital engagement. The Local found success when they teamed up with The Washington Post, giving every new member 90 days of free access to the Post. “With membership you want to be able to offer your readers something more than just a transaction. You want to be able to give them other benefits,” says James Savage, CEO and publisher of The Local. “We felt it was great to be able to offer our readers that type of extra content on top of what they’re getting from The Local itself.”

3. Embrace AI. Every user takes a different path to conversion, and a more sophisticated strategy will consider them all. AI-based solutions like the Piano LT[x] machine learning framework can help them do that, allowing companies to customize their paywall based not only on pageviews, but on dozens of other metrics. And by predicting likelihood to subscribe, Piano’s first propensity model — LTs — lets companies put subscription offers in front of likely subscribers sooner, while keeping advertising revenue in front of those less likely to subscribe for longer, to maximize revenue potential. Early beta tests of LT[x] showed a 20 percent increase in one LT[x] customer’s paid conversion rate, and a 40 percent increase for another.

4. Don’t Fear 'Unsubscribe.' While the goal of any subscription strategy is obviously to reduce churn and improve conversion, the “unsubscribe” button offers opportunity to achieve both. But mature organizations, more used to attracting users rather than losing them, may not be taking full advantage of that opportunity. By remaining transparent and open about unsubscribe policies, companies can help build trust in their brand and use ‘unsubscribe’ as a chance to re-engage with opportunities for different subscription types, new bundles and other offers. Even declining audiences themselves offer room for ingenuity, a fact that Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat figured out when they hit a plateau of their own. They realized they needed to target a younger audience to grow back their digital subscription base — to do so, they analyzed their content and started testing premium online offers, seeing a 57 percent increase in digital-only subscriptions between 2016 and 2018 as a result.

5. Widen the Idea Pool. Even the best teams sometimes run out of ideas or have trouble looking at things from a different point of view. By calling on an outside perspective, they invigorate their subscription strategy through new ideas and a wider view, including the context that comes through industry benchmarks and best practices. Piano’s Strategic Services team helps companies do exactly that, bringing their years of experience to work with companies at all stages, to help them optimize or reconceptualize their approach.

After all, the most important lesson — one that Nordic publishers have demonstrated time and time again — is to never settle for the status quo. And for subscription providers around the world, hoping to build on their success, that’s something to ascribe to.