Bridging the digital subscriber gap
As the industry shift to digital picks up, most eMedia companies are becoming dual-medium brands with editorial content in print and online. With this transition comes the added challenge of tying together print and online readers.
For ESPN, linking print to an online product has been part of the company’s game plan for years. Its 2 million “ESPN: The Magazine” subscribers have become one of the top referral sources for the company’s “Insider” service on ESPN.com.
“Insider” is the website’s premium content section that features exclusive columns and sports rumors for die-hard fans. A subscription to the service cost $39.95 per year or $6.95 a month, but magazine subscribers can access Insider for free. However, once the magazine subscription expires, the Insider service automatically renews at the prevailing rate.
“Insider has always been about predictive analysis, and the magazine is always about what’s happening next, so they are a great fit,” says Kent Schacht, director of ESPN Insider.
Despite the free offer, many print subscribers historically chose not to take advantage of the Insider offer. To help increase conversions, ESPN began to make a more concentrated effort that required the use of the company’s technical, editorial and marketing teams.
ESPN saw the Insider/magazine connection as an easy way to increase brand loyalty while allowing print readers to become accustomed to consuming ESPN’s premium content online.
There were some logistical challenges to linking the two subscriber sets. ESPN housed Insider subscriber data in a proprietary system while its magazine subscribers were catalogued in a system run by its fulfillment service, CDS Global. Combining the two wasn’t simply a matter of cut and paste.
“We’ve been working with our magazine partners to reach that universe of subscribers that have not activated their Insider subscriptions,” says Schacht.
ESPN asked CDS Global to help connect the two databases so the company could identify print subscribers who had not yet signed up for Insider.
The integration of the two databases took about a month, says Schacht.
“It was just a little bit of work asking CDS to help us create this system and the calls and the coding to make sure they can talk to each other in real time,” he says.
Determining the user flow took a bit longer than that. Connecting the databases allowed the company to see what subscribers had information missing, which enabled ESPN to adjust its marketing efforts accordingly. For example, for those subscribers without an email address, the magazine would send a direct mail urging them to sign up for “Insider” and hopefully snag a new email address in the process.
“[The databases] work independently for the most part, but together in these situations to make sure customers get the content that they want,” says Schacht.
ESPN declined to cite specific conversion rates, but did call the effort a “great success.”
What lessons can publishers learn from ESPN’s approach? Consider these takeaways:
One is better than two: Before launching any new online databases, ask your fulfillment company how you can tie the new online database with the offline system. The initial integration effort is nothing compared to the amount of redundancy that having two separate databases will create. If you have two existing databases open up a dialog with both database owners to see if you can pool your efforts.
Know thy customer: The more complete picture you have of your readers, the more targeted your e-commerce and other premium content offerings can be.
“The magazine folks can now use every method at their disposal to reach out to subscribers to get them to convert their accounts,” says Schacht.
For future efforts, ESPN can now query its database to get information that it needs to target other marketing campaigns.
Embrace auto-renewal: Because magazine subscriptions are often fulfilled using a third party, subscriptions to the magazine do not auto-renew on the customer’s credit card.
However, ESPN has complete control over Insider transactions and the service automatically renews. By connecting Insider and magazine subscribers, the company is protecting its bottom line from print subscriber loss.
Target your cross promotion: Despite ESPN’s wide reach, some magazine readers were slow to convert to Insider. After combining databases, however, ESPN could easy see what segments were not being marketed to and adjust the cross-promotion efforts accordingly.
“We’re not living in a box. We work hand-and-hand to create that experience for a fan that wants the most in-depth coverage they can get,” says Schacht.