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The Arizona Republic considers killing “zombies” a staple of its digital subscription strategy

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: If you want to maximize your digital subscription growth, you must have a focused plan on not only how to grow your subscriber base, but also how to retain and improve the engagement and loyalty of your current subscribers.

This is a series on Better News to a) showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole. This “win” comes from John Adams, senior director of digital storytelling and strategy at The Arizona Republic, and Alia Beard Rau, formerly of the Republic and now senior news editor at the Salem Statesman Journal. The team participated in the Gannett-McClatchy Table Stakes program in 2019-20.

You can also hear all about it on the It’s All Journalism podcast.

Question: What problem were you trying to solve, and why was solving the problem strategically important for your organization?

Answer: The Arizona Republic, which is owned by Gannett, is the state’s largest daily newspaper and has been around for more than 130 years. Our website is azcentral.com.

We all know we need more digital subscriptions because the business plan of yesteryear — selling and packing more ads on our pages no matter how annoying they are to our audience — just won’t get us where we need to be as news organizations. Print/digital newsrooms nationwide have pivoted to focus on this effort, but the shouts of, “WE NEED MORE SUBSCRIBERS!!” can only take us so far.

A successful subscription plan must include a targeted strategy for how we keep those subscribers and turn them into loyal consumers who can’t live without our content.

The latest flash sale promising everything you’ve ever wanted in local journalism can bring the masses through the front door. But just as quickly as they flood the proverbial lobby, many will exit through the back door as soon as their sweet subscription deal expires.

So, at the end of 2018, The Arizona Republic decided we needed to focus on reducing churn. We were tired of working so hard to gain one subscription only to see two leave. We also wanted to focus on what the newsroom could control, separate from efforts in other departments that address churn issues like credit card expirations and customer service complaints.

When we began analyzing the data, we found an unnerving reality. About 42% of The Republic’s digital-only subscribers were not visiting our site once a month. Yes, re-read that and let it sink in. Forty-two percent of the people paying for a digital subscription were not even reading one single article. Introducing: our “zombies.” The un-dead. Paying subscribers, but not a part of our living community.

We also discovered that 50% of our stops each month originated from that same group of disengaged subscribers. And so we started our journey to reduce churn through killing zombies.

Special side note to all the journo nerds out there: No zombies were actually hurt during this exercise in churn reduction. We also know that we didn’t want to “kill” these zombies (yes, technically, they are already dead). We actually wanted to bring them back to life as loyal, engaged subscribers. But we also knew that, “Creating loyalists and bringing zombies back to life” didn’t have the same pizzazz. So, don’t @ us.

Also, zombies aren’t real.

Q: How is this approach related to Table Stakes (e.g. one of the 7 Table Stakes and/or an outgrowth of the Knight-Lenfest initiative, etc.)?

A: This approach is related to Table Stakes No. 1 (Serve targeted audiences with targeted content), Table Stakes No. 2 (Publish on the platforms used by your targeted audiences), Table Stakes No. 3 (Produce and publish continuously to meet audience needs) and Table Stakes No. 4 (Funnel occasional users to habitual and paying/valuable loyalists).

Q: How did you go about solving the problem?

A: Just like in the movie Zombieland, we created a few “rules” to survive a zombie apocalypse of subscription churn. OK, they aren’t really rules but are better described as the things we committed to doing and developed outcome-based plans around accomplishing.

Rule #1: Be prepared for the zombie apocalypse

For nearly a year, we had been tracking how our content was performing with the various audience groups in our funnel — new visitors, prospects and subscribers. We assigned every story we produced to an audience group within our funnel. Why? Because we wanted to be strategic about what we were writing and for whom we were writing it.

We also began providing reporters with data on which stories were catching the interest of our zombies, and we celebrated wins in that arena. So maybe a subscriber-only story got only one or two new subscriptions but engaged a large percentage of zombies. WIN!

Here are a few examples.

A subscriber-exclusive with 20% zombie readership (the average is about 2%):

A metered food story with 17% zombie readership:

If you don’t have access to that specific data, take a look at which subscriber-only stories are also earning large page views. That’s a strong indicator that you’ve caught the interest of more than just your usual loyal readers.

Rule #2: Don’t be afraid to admit that zombies exist

You have to lose your ego, and so do your reporters. Not everyone in the world is interested in what journalists are interested in. Let’s admit it: Journalists are pretty odd ducks. That’s fine. But if we want to move beyond an audience of just journalists, we are going to have to lose our ego.

Look at the analytics. Accept them and stop making excuses for them. It’s not an audience problem. We don’t get to tell the audience what they want or need. We need to listen to what they want, deliver it in a smart and unique way, and provide a seamless transition to more significant works of journalism.

Also, stop hiding behind the excuse that you are just trying to “do good journalism.” If no one reads your “good journalism,” is it really good journalism? And, we’re all trying to do good journalism.

Rule #3: Know what ‘brains’ zombies like

No, we are not talking about “click-bait” stories. Breathe. But we are talking about being strategic about topic, headlines, photos and writing style. We found that the most successful zombie-killer stories in the newsroom were those that had strong news elements combined with a bit of a hook — a unique spin on a viral story, a strong human element, or a format that grabbed readers quickly. And, most importantly, one not written on print deadline. Don’t wait to hit publish. Verify. Write. Publish.

 Timing is important. Editors were strategic in posting, both to the site and on our social platforms. We set new deadlines with reporters for some stories to post before noon when site traffic was highest.

Site readership drops at night, so news stories filed after 7 p.m. were held to post early the next morning while more social stories were posted and socialized later at night to take advantage of high social traffic. A daily 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. push alert created a new deadline for key stories, and assured that those stories didn’t get lost in the shuffle.

 Rule #4: You can’t hide from zombies; you have to go after them

Zombies, like nearly everyone else, aren’t in the habit of coming to your homepage to find your “Big-J Journalism” stories. You must go find them on their preferred platforms and give them what they want.

For many, that means social media. Facebook and Twitter are key for the demographics of our readers, but not necessarily zombies. Those social platforms remain strong in the national dialogue, but those clicks are slowly (or quickly) going away. We have to start thinking outside the box with platforms and storytelling techniques: Instagram, podcasts, TikTok, YouTube, WhatsApp, text and email newsletters, Reddit and good ol’ search.

What initially grabbed a zombie isn’t what will bring them back. We have to prove to them that we are worth their money.

Rule #5: Loyalists are hard to lose and zombies are hard to turn

Let’s be honest. We’ve done a whole lot to push our loyal subscribers away. And yet, they still keep coming back. We’ve done very little to reach zombies, and they stay away like we have the plague. We need to continue to focus on making sure we are creating loyal subscribers, but we need to work twice as hard to keep our zombies.

So, we need to make sure we communicate the benefits to loyalists AND zombies. We can’t solely focus on those daily readers. We need to put real effort and resources into “killing” zombies — yeah, we know, we know. We need to move zombies into that loyalist category and that could mean a reorganization of beats, expansion of beats and rethinking coverage.

For example, as COVID-19 readership spiked, we transitioned a reporter to focus temporarily on breaking coronavirus news — posting daily numbers counts, breaking news and seeking out those affected to tell their stories. We added handcrafted email and text newsletters to address those audiences’ needs for pandemic information where and when they were more likely to access it.

After the success of a mini-doc highlighting the south Phoenix high school football team, we added a reporter through Report for America to cover a diverse and previously ignored part of the community. During the election cycle, we added a breaking news politics position. That reporter focused on trending political issues while others on the team focused on more in-depth analysis.

At this point, you may be stressing about how to introduce your newsroom to one more initiative. But don’t look at it that way. That is part of your subscriber initiative, and it requires us to think farther down the audience funnel than that first subscription sign-up.

The ultimate goal is to establish loyal subscribers who click on our content multiple times a day because they know they’re getting great, accurate, reliable journalism about their community.

Rule #6: Celebrate when you kill zombies

Even with data and cool lingo, zombie killing requires some effort to get the newsroom engaged. Yep, most journalists aren’t usually early adopters. But seek them out. Build through them and celebrate the wins of everyone.

 We built buy-in with a weekly award. The staff nominated and selected coworkers who did something great that week to kill zombies — writing a story that attracted zombie readers, creating a perfectly worded tweet explaining why a story was subscriber-only, patiently helping a frustrated caller navigate customer service, etc.

The examples of great effort reinforced the many ways everyone in the newsroom could help, and the winner got a super-cool Zombie Killer trophy for a week.

Community reporter Josh Bowling won one week for taking a deep dive into the usually dry topic of water. He focused on the local impact of accessing water in the midst of booming desert housing developments. The story at the time had 77 subscriptions, 9,000 page views and 16% of its views from zombies.

Another week, social media reporter Angel Mendoza won for his coverage of the Trump impeachment on every platform possible — posting a story in time for print, expanding it for online, posting a Facebook live that got more than 45K views and live tweeting.

Producer Leah Trinidad wins the Zombie Award for her consistent great work making sure readers have the highest quality content, catching errors and improving our grammar. (Alia Beard Rau/The Arizona Republic)

Q: What worked?

 A: In Arizona, we steer clear of the corporate-speak. We kill zombies and build loyalists. It’s cheesy, but it’s fun. And it works. It’s so much easier when everyone in the room speaks the same jargon. When we stop a conversation about a new idea to ask how the proposal will kill zombies or build loyalists, the priorities are clear.

 Another thing that worked was asking reporters to incorporate more local trending/social stories into their beats. These are stories that still have a news component but are the water cooler fodder that people can’t resist reading and sharing. Metrics quickly showed us that zombies, and many at the top of the funnel, responded most to these stories.

It’s not rocket science. It’s zombie killing.

A story about swimming snakes was an early zombie killer win.

Q: What didn’t work?

A: After we found success with trending stories, we tried to find a team that would focus on those stories, first our social team and then our breaking news team. That didn’t work for us. The best of these stories are found on a beat. Asking a reporter to spend their entire day digging around for what could go viral fell short nearly every time.

We reverted to asking all reporters to incorporate those stories into their weekly work. Some reporters are better at it than others, and we lean on those who know a great trending story idea when they see it.

 The trending stories that come off beats tend to have more authority. For example: an education reporter who hears about a male student kicked out of school for wearing earrings and can offer context on the discrimination issues that often surround dress codes, or a politics reporter who happens to ask the right question about John McCain’s dog for an audience that can’t get enough of the local political hero.

Reporters who are experts on their beats know a great story when they hear it, and they can add unique context and take the reader deeper into the story behind the story. That allows us to offer readers more than a simple aggregated post.

 Editors need to have conversations with their reporters when talking about stories. Where does this story fall in the audience funnel? Is this for loyalists? Is this about killing zombies? Communication is a must at the beginning of a story. Being strategic is another must.

Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?

A: When we started the Table Stakes program, 42% of our subscribers were zombies and 26% were loyalists — those who visit the site at least once every three days and account for 20+ page views over a 7-day period. Everyone else fell in between.

In a year, we flipped those two numbers, all while increasing the subscriber pool by 63% and reducing our overall churn rate by more than a percentage point. Even that small decrease in churn saved us more than two full-time employee salaries over a year.

Not all of that was through our newsroom’s zombie-killing efforts alone, but we’ll take some of the credit. Before our efforts, 50% of all our stops came from the zombie category. By the end, 50% of all our stops still came from the zombie category, but the percentage of zombies had dropped drastically, meaning our overall zombie churn number was dramatically down.

Q: What would you do differently now? What did you learn?

A: We wish we could have rolled everything out at once. Our staff did feel a bit of whiplash, and it took a while for them to grasp that we weren’t abandoning our subscription obsession to refocus on zombies but instead extending the subscription funnel beyond just subscribing to developing more loyal subscribers.

Q: What advice would you give to others who try to do this?

A: Don’t rely on the low-hanging fruit everyone else is already going after. Find local, unique social stories that zombies want and add your own spin. Don’t create a separate team that just does those types of stories. And don’t try to rely on click-bait stories — zombies aren’t brainless. Be smart. Be unique. Be on time.

Dispense with the corporate jargon. Zombies, loyalists and funnels are easy to grasp.

 Show your work. Show the newsroom how they can track the numbers themselves, and celebrate daily wins to give concrete examples.

More on subscriber retention: The Seattle Times focused on retention with three strategies — grace period, credit card management and targeted customer communication
More on digital subscriptions: The News Journal in Delaware reinvented the watchdog newsroom and grew subscriptions