How Publishers Can Improve Subscriber Retention with Email

8 minute read

Upland Admin

With all the doom and gloom surrounding the publishing industry (not even counting the doom and gloom in the news it covers), it’s easy to miss the few glimmers of hope. For instance, premium publishers have seen subscriptions skyrocket in the last year. More people pay for digital news and other online content than ever. Even better, all signs point to more readers being willing to pay for content in the future.

Overall, as more publishers go behind the paywall, this uptick in paid subscribers seems promising. It’s especially good news for an industry that’s seen some growing pains in its move from print to digital. But as last year’s new online subscribers close in on their one-year anniversary (the Paper Anniversary, oddly enough) as paid members, publishers face another problem.

Getting new subscribers is one thing. How do you keep those subscribers?

Turns out, email is pretty good at subscriber retention too. As Hearst Connecticut Media Group’s director of audience development told Editor & Publisher, “Implementing a robust engagement and acquisition email marketing program has been the single largest contributor to our improved subscriber retention.” But it’s a little more complicated than just bombarding readers with more and more email.

After all, anyone who’s been following the news has seen how an email misstep can come back to haunt you.

Instead, it’s about harnessing the many strengths of email to your advantage. Here are 5 ways your email program can keep more subscribers around.

1) Curate content in your email newsletters.

A direct link to your audience, email engages users more than any other medium. Call it a digital matchmaker: it pairs readers up with the content they want in an intimate space, ensuring they see what you have to offer. With email, you don’t have to rely on fluctuating search and social algorithms. As long as you don’t have deliverability problems, your message will make it there.

That’s why pretty much all publishers have email newsletters now, and most of them involve some sort of content curation. When publishers curate their articles into various newsletter products, they provide readers with the opportunity to self-select the email newsletters they’re most interested in. They can encourage readers to sign up for these specialized newsletters with lightboxes and email capture forms on relevant article pages.

After signing up for the newsletter, readers receive this content directly. That makes them more likely to turn to you when they need their fix of their favorite subjects. While social may bring pageviews, these visitors often can’t recall what sites they visit. Meanwhile, email creates returning traffic. A visitor from social media will rack up 2.3 lifetime page views on your site; on average, an email subscriber will view your content at least 40 times.

So email is a great tool for nurturing readers into subscribers, but it’s also important for keeping them engaged even after they’ve decided to subscribe. A recurring email mimics the physical delivery of print publications. In the real world, this delivery creates a reading habit. As a result, print subscribers often incorporate those publications into their daily routine. Establishing these habits digitally is the key to keeping subscribers.

Best of all? You can automate email content curation. That means less time spent building emails and more time acting on data, planning strategy, or even just watching more reruns of The Office.

2) Create email-exclusive newsletter content.

So most publisher newsletters curate content, but what are the other ones doing? With the ongoing email resurgence, some major publishers now view their emails as products in and of themselves. This means they don’t simply see the inbox as another place to regurgitate the same content. Instead, they realize that devoting resources to the creation of email-exclusive content can provide returns as well.

Because the email inbox is a more personal place where 1-to-1 communication happens, publishers take this opportunity to let their guard down and send more personable content. While high-quality media content keeps readers coming back to your site, setting a more personal tone can build the deeper audience relationships that ensure a renewed subscription.

Some premium publishers, such as the Financial Times, offer a selection of free newsletters while also reserving some newsletters for paid subscribers. These exclusive emails play a significant role in their efforts to retain and even upsell subscribers. At the very least, as more publishers work to provide paid content, unique newsletter products can set your publication apart in the minds of readers. That can work to your advantage as they decide which publishers deserve their subscription dollars.

3) Cross-promote your email newsletters.

When you have a direct link to your readers, it only makes sense that you should take advantage of this link to engage your readers as much as is prudent. Offering multiple email newsletters increases the likelihood that you’ll engage an individual reader, but only if they sign up for them. You can encourage readers to sign up for additional newsletters by using cross-promotion tactics in your newsletters. By sending more email content to these readers, you maximize the value of the email relationship. provides an excellent example of how email cross-promotion can increase these opportunities for engagement. After incorporating cross-promotion, 52% of all unique subscribers began receiving more than one email newsletter. More news means more chances to click. It also reminds readers about your content more often, which can come in handy when it’s time to renew.

Cross-promotion can also provide a special benefit for premium publishers. Receiving multiple newsletters potentially diversifies the types of content that readers consume. There’s no doubt that politics is largely to blame for the spike in digital subscriptions, but a reader consuming content in multiple areas might be a good indicator of whether they decide to keep the subscription going another year. If publishers encourage audiences to try a good mix of political and non-political content, they’ll be more likely to hold onto subscribers.

4) Send dedicated marketing emails to engage and re-engage readers.

Email marketing is a little different for publishers when the email is often the product itself. Still, that doesn’t mean that publishers don’t ever send a few old-fashioned marketing emails. These emails can encourage free readers to buy a subscription, or they can call subscribers to act too. For instance, if their subscription isn’t set to auto-renew, publishers can send a few reminders in the time leading up to the end of their subscription. Publishers like The Atlantic coordinate their email efforts with their latest print issues, giving online readers an enticing look at their magazine.

Even if your paid subscribers also subscribe to your newsletters, it can be easy to lose interest in a daily email. Your email subscribers might still like your content, but when readers receive email newsletters by the dozens, email fatigue quickly sets in. The news digests can be among the first to be deleted without reading on days when readers find themselves particularly swamped. If that’s the case, changing it up with a unique marketing email and eye-catching subject line might remind readers what they’re missing.

Publishers work hard to engage readers and nurture them into subscribers, but the focus on engagement shouldn’t end when the reader pays up. Engaging subscribers even after they’ve converted is equally important, which means that publishers should work to understand how the engagement habits of subscribers and nonsubscribers differ. Using this data to shape your email efforts to subscribers can result in increased reader retention.

The Washington Post routinely sends emails like this to newsletter subscribers.

5) Appeal to the importance of your content.

Every publisher emphasizes their own content’s significance, but in recent years, this language turned more urgent. Today’s readers can hardly visit a publisher or media site without being hit with an impassioned defense of the importance of journalism. On some sites, each article ends with a plea to pay up in order to keep this content going.

For publishers, the Call-to-Action has been replaced with a different CTA: a Call-to-Arms.

It’s a common sight in internet news, but publishers often use this sentiment in their emails as well, whether in standard marketing emails or something a bit more informal. Publishers might occasionally send stand-alone emails containing a letter from the editor. These emails may highlight significant recent work, but they also reach out to the audience in a personal way. The call to stay informed rings even clearer when it’s a personal call from one individual to another.

With the recent swell of subscribers from the political world, there’s a good chance it was that very feeling of importance that compelled subscribers to convert in the first place. Returning to this narrative can be a powerful way to keep those subscribers by your side.

If you’re monetizing your content behind the paywall, these email strategies and tactics can keep the revenue flowing. Don’t have a paywall yet? We can help. To learn how PostUp’s Dynamic Content Wall empowers publishers to optimize their monetization strategy, check out our free solution guide.

Reliable products. Real results.

Every day, thousands of companies rely on Upland to get their jobs done simply and effectively. See how brands are putting Upland to work.

View Success Stories