How Harvard Business Review Reevaluated Retention for Monthly Subscribers

When it comes to retention, the length of the subscription (i.e., monthly vs. annual) plays a big role. The obvious difference is that monthly subscribers have 12 chances to cancel or have a payment failure over the course of a year, while annual subscribers have only one.

Looking at hundreds of websites on the Piano platform, our research team compared performance over the first year of a subscription and found that, at the median, only 45% of monthly subscribers are left at the end of that year, while 75% of annual subscribers remain.

How can publishers close this gap to achieve better retention rates for monthly subscribers?

At our fall 2021 edition of Piano Academy, we spoke with Nini Diana, Director of Consumer Marketing at Harvard Business Review (HBR), about the success of some recent testing our Strategic Services team and the HBR team have done together to improve retention. Here’s what we’ve found so far.

Design impactful onboarding experiences

When a new user converts to become a subscriber, an onboarding experience is the best way to get them acclimated with their new subscriber benefits and immediately engage them in the offering.

To test the impact of onboarding experiences, HBR showed half of new subscribers a series of on-site messages about their new benefits—like “HBR insights sent right to your inbox”—in the first day, week, two weeks and month of their subscription. Tested against a control group that received no messages, HBR saw some lift with this approach.

This was a sign that onboarding for monthly subscriptions might require a different strategy than annual. As monthly subscribers use the site heavily in their first 30 days, offering a holistic onboarding experience can be more effective than an email campaign alone. On-site messaging can add much more influence in this critical time period.

Extend grace period to try charging cards more than once

A simple, but high-impact, change publishers can make is shifting the grace period for retrying credit cards that had a failed payment. Although many marketers never envisioned overseeing the intricacies of payment processing, this has become an integral part of subscription strategy to optimize revenue.

By extending grace periods for monthly subscriptions, HBR was able to increase the share of failed payments successfully charged upon retry from around a third to a little over half. For a publication the scale of HBR, that adds up to thousands of incremental subscriptions per year.

Target churned users with offers to re-subscribe

Former subscribers are naturally better prospects than a general audience, as you know they’re familiar with your brand values and willing to pay for your offering. 

Piano and HBR tested the impact of showing an offer to re-subscribe with half of churned users using an on-site model window. Compared to a control group that was shown nothing, this test branch drove 52% more re-subscriptions. A later iteration combining the modal window and a sidebar widget drove 100% lift compared to the control.

The results speak for themselves, and on-site messaging has proven effective for HBR. Connection with churned users can’t be limited only to email.

Always keep the subscriber in mind

Providing a superior user experience for subscribers can also have a significant impact on retention. When thinking about the customer journey, HBR wanted to find a way to set up some of its most-loved assets in a way that makes sense to users.

To accomplish this, the HBR team set up a landing page with its 50 best-selling articles, intended to showcase the best of the publication’s archive, with executive summaries and links to articles along with related infographics and other digital assets.

Although it’s a less immediate metric, the page is a single showcase of brand value and encapsulates the quality of HBR’s editorial content that subscribers can expect to have access to. From a commercial standpoint, this provided a better subscriber experience and deeper understanding of HBR’s values.

Experiment to power optimization

No subscription program will reach its full potential without ongoing experimentation and optimization. Not only collecting data on your users’ behavior, but actually understanding it and putting it into action, is critical for your success.

While it’s unlikely that a single test will completely transform your business, the combination of dozens of incremental optimizations add up to significant improvement to grow your revenue.