Media subscription teams could learn a lot from online dating

When news organisations talk about how to attract and retain subscribers, the discussion is often cold and scientific. Concepts like “conversion” or “sales funnels” are used to describe the different stages in a buyer’s journey toward subscription and loyalty, and how to move them through that process.

These discussions often talk about audiences in the aggregate, defined by what they consume, do for leisure or work, what values they have, and other (socio-)demographic attributes that put them in a particular group. What is missing is the emotional component that happens between a person and a brand when they decide to spend time and money with this media brand.

To bring this component into the equation and make the process more human, it is helpful — and perhaps ultimately more successful — to think of subscription management in terms of personal relationships. In fact, digital subscription management is a lot like online dating.

Like personal relationships, the customer relationship is defined by the level of commitment.For those seeking serious relationships, the ultimate goal is finding a long-term partner. To get there, you have to give something to get something.

Before the Internet, both dating and subscription management were more haphazard. You met potential dates in bars or at work or through introductions by family and friends. If you hit it off, you might see the person more often and your interest builds.

Your relationship with a newspaper was much the same. You might be introduced by your parents, who get it in the home, or in a café or on your commute. You might flick through a copy and find something interesting. You do this several times, and then a special subscription offer catches your eye. That would be how a relationship begins in the analogue world.

But life is very different in the digital world.

Dating sites have become the method of choice for many. At first, the attraction is based primarily on photos and short descriptions. You make a judgement based on this first, very brief encounter.

It is a very quick process, so first impressions are important. People on dating sites want to put themselves in the best light, choosing flattering photos and writing clever descriptions, aimed at the potential partner they have in mind. For publishers, it is done with the stories, the subjects they cover, how the titles and teasers are written, and the photos and videos and how they are used.

For news brands, the title might pop up in a Google search. If the headline and snippet hold promise, a person clicks through, looks at the Web site, and very quickly decides if it fulfills their needs. They may like the way the story is written and presented, and sees other stories that seem interesting. Or maybe the Web site isn’t nicely built, loads very slowly, and is not optimised for the device they use, or the topics aren’t to their taste. Everyone has certain expectations and taste and that goes for a partner or a product.

Obviously, the better you know the people you want to attract, the more you can tailor for them.That’s where the science of customer insight and subscription management comes in. And it is the same in the online dating world: Algorithms are used to connect likely matches, based on preferred taste and activities. In both cases, you decide how you want to present yourself.

The first encounter, in both online dating and media choice, is anonymous. The next step is a commitment to identify yourself. In the online dating world, you would “like” the other person or send a message, whatever the platform provides to engage. If the interest is reciprocal, the person responds and you exchange messages. If the interest continues, you arrange to meet.

In the digital product world, a potential customer visits a few times and looks at your free offerings. If they see something they like — perhaps a newsletter on a particular subject — they provide their e-mail address to get it. This is a very important step and also holds the expectation of an immediate reaction from the other party. Your customer would appreciate an acknowledgement of some kind — perhaps a thank you note welcoming them to a community of thousands of others, including contact details. You demonstrate an interest in this relationship.

Still, this is a relatively low level of commitment. Not much is wagered. If you don’t hit it off, you walk away.

The next level — for our daters meeting for the first time — is to see if the chemistry is right, if the conversation is good, and if there is a physical attraction. If all goes well, they arrange to meet again, leading to a deeper commitment to a relationship.

In the publishing world, the equivalent is a test subscription, at a low price and limited duration. This gives the customer a chance to look around at the entire offering and learn more about you. And if all goes well, that leads to a full subscription. As with a personal relationship, growth comes from spending time frequently and discovering new things.

That, of course, isn’t the end of the love story. Relationships need attention and work, lest they get stale. The challenge is to keep the level of commitment strong. In both personal and commercial relationships, it all comes down to continuing communication and taking nothing for granted. If there is a crisis in a relationship, you talk about it or you are doomed to failure.

People notice when their partner is losing interest and companies should as well. Thanks to the analytics digital provides, you can see if your subscriber is visiting and interacting less often. If they appear to be withdrawing, you don’t just let it go; you can note they haven’t visited in a while, approach them with a new offer, or push stories likely to interest them. You fight to keep the commitment you reached by getting the subscription in the first place.

But if it doesn’t work, you have to accept it. When the other party wants to end a relationship, it doesn’t make sense to put hurdles in the way — begging or even threatening doesn’t help. Putting them under pressure never improves things. Yet some publishers think making it difficult or awkward to end a subscription will somehow convince the customer to stay. In both a personal and a commercial relationship, such behaviour just leads people to think badly of you and possibly to tell others.

So, the next time your subscription manager talks about the level of commitment in a conversion funnel, you can think of it as the levels of commitment in a personal relationship. Because that’s what it is — whether it’s a relationship with a person or a relationship with a brand.

This article was also published on the INMA Media Leaders blog.