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 The State (Columbia, S.C.) newsroom, whose Dwayne McLemore, director of sports and video, teamed with McClatchy’s Phil Schroder, head of engagement and retention, and their coach Amanda Wilkins, product manager. Isabella Cueto, now a reporter with Lookout Santa Cruz, also contributed. The newsroom participated in the Poynter Table Stakes program in 2018-19 and the Gannett-McClatchy Table Stakes program in 2019-20.
Question: What problem were you trying to solve, and why was solving the problem strategically important for your organization?
Answer: For a bit of background, The State is based in Columbia, S.C, and serves the capital city along with the local counties of Richland and Lexington. The State also has a presence serving the Charleston and Greenville areas. Daily print circulation was 22,596, according to the last public report available. The newspaper was founded in 1891. One of the paper’s founders and co-owners, N.G. Gonzales, was shot and killed in 1903 on a public street in Columbia by South Carolina’s lieutenant governor, who disagreed with Gonzales’ criticisms of the politician.
Fast forward to the 21st century: Reducing digital subscriber churn was the theme of The State’s 2019-20 Table Stakes project and our overarching goal. In practice, we wanted to raise our own business literacy on the topics of churn, loyalty and audience retention, then use that to teach reporters and editors how their work affects whether a customer chooses to stay or go.
It was important for The State’s Table Stakes team members to learn that reducing churn wasn’t solely about lowering the frequency of credit card expirations. And it was important to learn, and share with the newsroom, how a subscriber’s behavior and interactions with our work are indicators of their satisfaction.
A core value of retention is that someone who is engaged and actively using your products stands the best chance of becoming, and staying, a loyal customer.
It’s not a bold statement to say that our print readers historically are our most loyal customers. And it’s equally as accurate to say the digital eEdition — the online replica of the printed newspaper — is extremely valuable to those who use it.
Enter the disconnect. Thousands of our loyal print readers were paying for digital access they weren’t using. One of our project’s core outcome goals was set around growing the percentage of The State’s print subscribers who are digitally active.
With digital being our future, it was important to convert as many of those loyal print readers as we could to using our digital offerings. The eEdition is a natural print-to-digital bridge for someone who values holding the newspaper in their hands.
We spent the prior year focusing on adding new digital subscribers. This Table Stakes commitment around reducing churn was a natural, and needed, evolution of our knowledge and emphasis.
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 Stake No. 1 (Serve targeted audiences with targeted content) and Table Stake No. 4 (Funnel occasional users to habitual and paying/valuable loyalists). Our goal was to get a particular audience to visit the content that they wanted, specifically the eEdition in many cases. That would in turn convert them into loyal users of our digital products.
Q: How did you go about solving the problem?
A: We set the main outcome goal of increasing our digital activation rate from 43.8% in May 2019 to 53.7% by May 2020. “Digital activation” is defined as those print subscribers who have access to our website, apps and eEdition and have gone online to start using that access. You can see how the interface looks at thestate.com/activate.
From there, we set smaller monthly goals for incremental gains around past analytical evidence and around eEdition promotions. (More than half of our print subscribers who had digital access were not using it in any shape or form.)
It was important for us to ask these questions: If we have a print subscriber who loves the newspaper and is on the fence about digital — or is not considering it all — what’s the selling point to make the conversion a reality? What’s the value proposition to get these legacy print customers interested in digital?
We didn’t have to look far. The size of the newspaper wasn’t what it once was, and earlier deadlines were limiting the timeliness of the news and the sports offerings. Want more news, stock listings? Need a late box score or complete Major League Baseball statistics? Those are in the eEdition, with so much more. In fact, the eEdition on any given day can be four or five times larger than what we’re delivering to customers’ homes.
We ran two in-print campaigns (late fall 2019 and again early in 2020) featuring 1A and Sports-front promotions.
An example of a promo that ran on 1A:
Here at The State, we often hear from readers who are unhappy with the size of the newspaper or the depth of coverage we’re able to offer as compared to the past.
As advertising revenue has decreased for the newspaper industry across the company, as business models shift and readers move to online spaces, we have struggled to maintain the size of our daily paper. We are not able to publish as much national, world and business coverage as much as we once were.
There’s good news.
Our online eEdition of the newspaper, which looks just like the paper in your hands now, includes dozens of extra news pages we weren’t able to print. Yesterday, while our main news section had eight pages, the eEdition had 28 additional pages.
The printed Sports section had five pages. The eEdition had 41 additional sports pages and six more pages dedicated to stats and standings. That’s dozens of extra stories every day.
Best yet, if you’re a subscriber to The State, you probably already have access to the eEdition. You can read it daily at www.thestate.com/eedition or have it emailed to you each morning.
Why miss out on this great coverage that’s already included in your subscription? Go to www.thestate.com/activate today and turn on your digital access.
A similarly worded promo that ran on the Sports front had some additional information:
Our online eEdition of the newspaper, which looks just like the paper in your hands now, includes dozens of extra sports pages we weren’t able to print.
The SportsXtra is our eEdition bonus section exclusively for subscribers who want the latest on sports. Every day, fans will find highlights and recaps, as well as analysis and commentary that go beyond the game. Yesterday, while our printed sports section had four pages, the Sports Xtra section of the eEdition had 23 additional pages. And there’s an entire section dedicated to sports stats. That’s dozens of extra sports stories every day.
With the COVID-19 pandemic hitting in the middle of our push, we also decided to develop a task force to promote digital activation with a large marketing push. From banners on the front page to multiple emails a week, we looked for every way possible to remind customers of the digital access that they were missing out on by not activating their online accounts.
To help readers who make the transition to the eEdition, we created an FAQ that helps them understand the features of the eEdition and how to use them. Our customer service team has a more detailed internal FAQ as well and is trained to help people navigate any issues they have with the product.
We are always concerned that print subscribers might switch to digital-only access. But that’s better than the alternative of those folks not being a customer at all — and that’s happening across the country. According to the Pew Research Center, newspaper circulation is the lowest it’s been since such data started being tracked in the 1940s. The State’s daily print circulation is down 50% over the last five years, while online-only subscriptions have almost doubled in two years.
The paper continues to devote valuable print real estate to promote the digital eEdition, with two promos daily in the masthead.
Q: What worked?
A: Our digital activation rate was at 43.8% in May 2019. The goal was to get that to 53.7% in 12 months. We exceeded that goal and reached 59.9% by May 2020. As of early February 2021, the digital activation rate was just north of 60%.
We saw a 15% May-to-May increase in the number of unique visitors to the eEdition and a 28% increase in page views consumed on the eEdition.
We learned that an eEdition user reads the eEdition and not much else. Only a few customers regularly (over months) use both the eEdition and contribute significant (greater than 25%) page views to other digital offerings.
Users of the eEdition are almost exclusively tablet or desktop users (as opposed to mobile phones). The content they consume outside of the eEdition are stories that appear on the regular website. Like our print readers, eEdition users are creatures of habit. They’re likely to access the product through a bookmark or our daily email that provides a link to that day’s edition.
Meanwhile, we tracked churn from an overall standpoint and not specific to who was digitally active and who was not. We wanted to reduce the overall churn rate from 28.7% to 25% and saw a slight improvement to 28.5%. However, we know that digital activation has a direct correlation to an improvement in churn, regardless of how small, so that does help improve revenue.
Q: What didn’t work?
A: We crafted smaller monthly goals for digital activation growth — in addition to the bigger end-game goal we set. It was not the best idea to look for growth while tracking digital activation in smaller chunks. It was, however, insightful. We saw waves of new people come on board when a broader digital offer was made. Similarly, we saw departures when a deal expired.
Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?
A: McClatchy stopped publishing the printed paper on Saturdays. However, the company continued to “publish” a Saturday offering through the eEdition only. That actually ended up driving eEdition unique visitors as well as page views as subscribers now only had one way to read the paper on Saturday. This change took effect in Columbia in January 2020.
McClatchy also changed our eEdition vendor during this time. As with any technology shift, that caused a short-time dip in page views and unique visitors. However, those metrics did bounce back and continued growing after the change.
The COVID-19 pandemic greatly raised our readership and product usage across the board.
Q: What would you do differently now? What did you learn?
A: We learned that roughly half of our eEdition customers use that product exclusively. Next steps we might have considered: A closer look at the consumption behavior of eEdition users whose habits vary. How often do they visit such things as the app, the website or our email newsletters? If they only use the eEdition and nothing else, why?
We also would consider forming at least two small focus groups: one for digitally inactive users and another for those who are loyal digital users and frequent the eEdition. Why do the print folks remain digital holdouts? The digitally minded customers would likely offer valuable feedback we could use for future efforts.
Q: What advice would you give to others who try to do this?
A: The eEdition is one pillar of digital activity, and it’s a curious one. Understand that you’re dealing with a different kind of customer — but a highly valuable and loyal customer. Many users are folks who value (or valued) the printed newspaper.
If you don’t have an eEdition, consider it. Weigh your technology options with a premium on timeliness of upload, stability of the platform and perhaps an interface that makes the product as interactive as possible.
eEditions can also provide distinct revenue opportunities that may not be available in the printed product or the website. We are able to offer ads on the left rail (side) of the eEdition as well as interstitial ads throughout. Most of ours is programmatic advertising, but that is something our advertising team values in order to produce incremental revenue. It is also another tool in their arsenal to offer to prospective advertisers looking to reach the eEdition demographic. So get beyond just uploading a PDF if you can.
If you do have an eEdition, learn how and when (and perhaps why) your customers consume a digital replica of the newspaper. Certainly make it a priority to communicate to customers what their overall subscription includes.
We want our legacy print customers to stay with us, and getting them to try the eEdition might be our best tool that both raises their awareness of our digital offerings and gives them more of what they historically appreciate the most about a physical newspaper.