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Build a loyal reader base by reviving ‘zombie’ subscribers

In a study of 45 markets, Northwestern University’s Medill Spiegel Research Center found that 20% of digital-only subscribers were classified as "zombies," defined as subscribers who didn't visit the news organization's website at least once a month. (Photo by Daniel Jensen on Unsplash)

Disengagement isn’t easy to recover from, but carefully reconsidering content for target audiences might help.

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” features highlights from a piece previously shared on BetterNews.org by John Adams and Alia Beard Rau, both formerly of the Arizona Republic. You can also hear John and Alia talk more about the strategy on the It’s All Journalism podcast. The Republic participated in the Gannett-McClatchy Table Stakes program in 2019-20.

After the Arizona Republic found that 42% of its paying digital subscribers weren’t even visiting the publication’s site at least once a month, the publication aimed to reduce churn and boost re-engagement through a new strategy known as “killing the zombies.”

The Republic defines zombies as “Paying subscribers, but not a part of our living community.”

The Republic wanted to reengage its subscribers and get them to consume their content as loyal, paying customers. The team evaluated content funnel efficiency over a year and found that every story should be directed toward a specific audience, whether it be zombies or loyal readers.

Are zombies an industry standard?

The Northwestern University’s Medill Spiegel Research Center confirmed that the Republic isn’t the only newsroom facing this challenge. In a study of 45 markets, 20% of digital-only subscribers were also classified as zombies. This number jumped to 49% when reviewing combination subscribers, who have both digital and print subscriptions.

The negative financial impact of zombies 

In terms of revenue, sales that brought in new subscriptions weren’t sufficient. About 50% of the failed payments or bounced credit cards stemmed from these zombie “readers.”

“The latest flash sale promising everything you’ve ever wanted in local journalism can bring the masses through the front door,” the Arizona Republic team said. “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.”

Consider content revisions to boost zombie engagement 

Luckily, it’s possible to win back these disengaged readers.

It became clear that the headlines weren’t drawing readers in — so the team returned to the drawing board in search of zombie-friendly content.

“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,” the team said.

For newsrooms with limited data, the Republic team suggested examining which subscriber-only stories received the most page views. “That’s a strong indicator that you’ve caught the interest of more than just your usual loyal readers,” the team said.

Instead of asking one reporter to embark on daily quests to find oddities, the Republic incorporated more local and trending stories into the preexisting beats. This worked especially well because beat reporters are experts on their topics and know when something is unusually intriguing.  ”Asking a reporter [who’s not on a specific beat] to spend their entire day digging around for what could go viral fell short nearly every time,” the team said.

Producer Leah Trinidad won 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)

Outcomes of reviving zombies

After rethinking its strategy, the Republic increased its subscriber base by 63% and reduced churn by over 1%, raising enough money to pay two full-time employees over the course of a year.

Change might not be immediate, but the Arizona Republic celebrated little wins throughout the process, boosting staff morale. Team members who went above and beyond each week were awarded a trophy to recognize their zombie-killing abilities.

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

“Community reporter Josh Bowling won one week for taking a deep dive into the usually dry topic of water,” The Republic team said.”He focused on the local impact of accessing water in the midst of booming desert housing developments.”

This story alone resulted in 77 subscriptions, 9,000 page views and a 16% zombie readership.

Other success stories included an article about whether rattlesnakes can swim and another one was about a notorious restaurateur. Both of these had about a 20% click rate among the zombie audience while the average story had about a 2% click rate.