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The art of customer retention through community building

As people struggled to stay entertained and informed while in lockdown, their media consumption exploded – and that’s not just for popular streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, but also for magazines and newspapers.

In fact, publishers have not only attracted more readers during the pandemic, they’ve also seen subscriptions boom. Bloomberg Media witnessed record subscriber numbers, with the average daily subscriber count being three times higher than usual. The New York Times subscription revenue rose 5.4% during three months in 2020, gaining a record 600,000 new digital subscribers. Major UK publisher Dennis Publishing recently reported that subscription rates across all its titles have grown by 9%. Similarly, Condé Nast has seen new subscribers in the US double, with subscription orders for UK titles up 420% compared with the same period in 2019.

As publishers contend with diminishing ad revenues, customer acquisition becomes even more vital to success. A bigger challenge is ensuring customer retention. That these new customers stick around once the world returns to some form of normality and stability, and people leave their screens behind, emerging blinking into the daylight. And, of course, this is already starting to happen in many parts of the world.

The value of subscription retention is clear, particularly when you consider that it’s four to five times cheaper to keep existing subscribers than acquiring new ones, according to research from the Financial Times.

There are several common tactics used to increase retention. New product development, pricing strategies, newsletters, events, apps and perks to name a few. These are designed to do one thing: develop a relationship between a media brand and its customers. But in the rush to attract and then lock in subscribers, those titles that look beyond traditional publishing strategies and innovate to boost reader engagement and strengthen relationships will be the winners. 

For example, the idea of community is an overlooked aspect of driving customer retention. A subscription to a magazine is a part of someone’s self-identity. Building a community of fans around this self-identity is the key to increasing loyalty and love.

Look at the support sports teams like The Chicago Bulls and Manchester United have built. Players and coaches come and go, but love for these organisations will never fade as they are at the centre of a community.

So, how can publishing brands create a community of fans? The key is driving human connection under the banner of the brand; essentially, to step off the page and into people’s lives. Taking a look outside publishing can provide key inspiration as to how to achieve this.

Some of the most successful brands in other categories have built an almost cult-like following by bringing together like-minded people under a set of shared values. Several have used this principle to drive loyalty.

Take Vans, for instance. It has built a mainstream following, but its core fans have always been in the skating and snowboarding community. To prove its support and dedication to this group, Vans has built enormous skateparks in a number of cities worldwide, coupled with annual extreme sports and music events – demonstrating it’s more than a company; it’s a way of life.

Meanwhile, in the drinks sector, BrewDog has grown one of the most engaged communities of any beer brand. From Chain Gang cycling groups and a crowdfunded hotel, to creating a TV network and selling company shares in their pubs, BrewDog has led the way in terms of customer engagement and loyalty by focusing on consumer passion points and bold creative branding.

Customer Retention Through Purpose

Right now, purpose has never been more powerful. By learning from other brands, this can provide a key way for publishers to galvanise their audiences.

For example, politics is a part of the outdoor clothing brand Patagonia’s identity. It was one of the pioneers of the Stop Funding Hate movement, which boycotts advertising on Facebook, as well as creating a text petition for Americans to lobby the government to remove all climate deniers from office. This willingness to stand up for what it believes in alienates some but fosters deep devotion from others.

From its support of Colin Kaepernick to its Running Clubs, despite being a global sports brand, Nike has always put itself at the center of its community. For example, in 2015, it collaborated with fashion brand Pigalle on the stunning renovation of a basketball court in the heart of Paris, showing its commitment to athletes in deprived communities. 

The most successful brands in the world create environments for communities to form around them, with activations and experiences playing a key role in their strategies. To boost retention, publishers should take inspiration from them and create mechanics in their marketing to bring like-minded people together under a set of shared values. It’s an opportunity to create cut through by taking the brand off of the page or the screen and into the real world.

A good example is The Texas Tribune’s tiered approach, which treats every reader who pledges ongoing support as a member, each enjoying key benefits. First-tier members gain access to behind-the-scenes insights, including Q&As with reporters, together with discounted rates and priority status at its annual festival. Those making higher donations receive invitations to exclusive experiences where they can rub shoulders with political insiders and other influential figures, as well as network with fellow community members and industry colleagues. They even get discounted rates for the Tribune’s event space.

When taking this approach, three factors are key to success: Be different – the best marketing is distinctive and genuine; be agile – keep up with and, if possible, anticipate your audience’s next move; be committed – building a loyal fan base doesn’t happen overnight.

If publishers follow these rules consistently as part of an ongoing engagement strategy, while continuing to learn from the innovative and creative approaches of other brands, their loyal audience community will start to grow. Customer retention will happen naturally, and they will not only retain subscribers, but also capture more, helping overcome falling advertising revenues and driving future success.

Hayley James is Vice President at global brand experience agency Sense New York.

This article first appeared in What’s New In Publishing.

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Experiential. Neither dead nor forgotten, but redefined

It wasn’t long ago that experiential marketing was hailed the future for most industries… but since the Covid-19 crisis, experiential is facing a seismic shift with many questioning its ability to bounce back and its place in the marketing mix.

This has led to a dizzying use of the word ‘pivot’ and multiple brainstorms debating, “how will we use [insert latest hot new ephemeral geo-fenced live-streaming video social platform]?” 

This kind of thinking could be true of experiential if you define it as a marketing channel that only serves up virtual events – or face-to-face experiences, such as events, conferences, pop-ups, sampling and so on.

However, experiential marketing is in fact a whole lot more than that. It is a technique that represents the absence of channel. It’s format-free – designed to be disruptive, relevant, and inspiring – meaning the creative opportunities are truly endless.

Experiential Marketing Campaigns During The Pandemic

Since the start of the pandemic, communities worldwide have been applying this experiential technique on a grassroots level, with incredibly creative results. We’ve seen numerous drive-in raves, neighbors in Ireland enjoyed projected movie screenings together, artists have been leaving rainbow benches across London, and florist, Lewis Miller, thanked healthcare workers through flower flashes in New York.

Experiential activation for brands is about adding color to somebody’s day. About truly standing out and resonating in a way that a 2D experience often cannot. It’s when a brand becomes human, feels empathy, uses humor, and says it how it really is. Something, no doubt, that we’re all craving right now.

An experiential moment with a brand can take place in many forms. It’s walking into an Apple store that’s designed to feel like a ‘town square’. It’s Patagonia telling you not to buy their jacket to help tackle the issue of consumerism. It’s Purina creating interactive billboards that scans canine urine for diseases. It’s the Nike x Pigalle technicolor basketball court that brightens up an otherwise grey street. It’s Google’s AR experience that tells stories of the Stonewall Riots. More recently, it’s Trojan’s recent ‘Rising Time’ cookbook which is designed to spark passion during the lockdown, and Burger King encouraging people to use their billboards as Zoom backdrops for money off coupons.

In June, we saw Babe Wine take to the streets of Brooklyn, with their baby pink socially distanced truck, offering free manicures to New Yorkers – and much welcomed TLC. The founder, Josh Ostovsky – the man behind the popular Instagram account “The Fat Jewish” – came up with the idea. It was designed to be a one-off experience, but the brand is now brainstorming additional locations, due to the huge amount of PR and social traction received – and lines seen around the block. This proves the huge demand for safe, real-world experiences and is hopefully a sign of what’s to come from brands.

Experiential digital moments have undoubtedly served us well these last few months and will continue to do so in the future. However, as people step back into the real world, brands should relish this chance to deliver unique creative moments to capture the hearts and minds of those craving life beyond the screen.

Taking this on board, the approach to briefing for great experiential ideas is this:

  • Keep the brief focused on the business problem – stay media neutral and avoid getting prescriptive 
  • Ask heretical questions about your brand and business challenge. Encourage your team to be brave and open-minded to do the same. Instil the mentality that no idea is a bad idea
  • Seek out productive tension. Tension makes people pay attention, especially in today’s crowded market. In a tedious world of routine, it pays to be different    
  • Never be afraid to think big and push the boundaries. Experiential is meant to leave a lasting impression so constantly test yourself, your team and the limits of your creativity
  • Analog and digital are not concepts that should be considered in a dichotomized way. They must and should coexist
  • Be agile. The future belongs to the fast

For brands looking to cut through and build relationships in this ever-changing world, the brand experience marketing agency must not forget that experience is everything.

Experiential needs a more holistic treatment to reveal its full potential. It’s isn’t dead, it’s just being redefined.

This article first appeared in Campaign US and UK.

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The COVID Divide

Over the past few months, COVID-19 has been described as the ‘great leveller’. Although many have debunked this label due to the virus’s disproportionate impact on certain communities, the idea that we’ve all been impacted in the same way has led to a lack of nuance in the way brands have approached their recent comms. 

Put simply, some brands have failed to consider their audience or their product when planning their brand communication in response to COVID-19. We have all seen the generic ads. The tinkling of a piano, the smiling faces on Zoom, the ‘unprecedented times.’ This approach lacks empathy at best and is boring at worst, the cardinal sin for marketing. 

COVID-19 Considerations For Brand Communication

Research undertaken by The Futures Lab paints a different picture regarding the differences in attitudes towards COVID-19. Take age as an example. There are stark differences in opinions towards COVID-19 in those aged under 45 years old versus those over 45. The following statistics are taken from YouGov and represent statistically significant differences between demographics:

  • 19% of under 45s say they are not coping well with the current situation compared to 8% of over 45s
  • 51% of under 45s are worried about their financial situation compared to 42% of over 45s

There are differences between the attitudes of men and women also:

  • 76% of women describe themselves as worried about their family’s health compared to 65% of men
  • 45% of men say they are not scared of COVID-19 compared to 30% of women

And differences between social groups:

  • 39% of ABC1 are not worried about losing their job compared to 30% of C2DE

It is simply not true to assume all people have been impacted by COVID-19 in the same way. It is essential for brands to consider this when planning their next steps. The short term is over. The time has come for long-term thinking. There are big opportunities for those who embrace the nuance and connect with consumers in a more targeted, personal, authentic way.

As we emerge from lockdown, while the average person may still be hesitant to venture out, younger demographics are desperate to return to the social environments. This provides a great opportunity for brands to connect more deeply with their audience by pioneering the return of experiential marketing and in-person experiences with the appropriate social distancing and sanitisation measures in place. When it comes to marketing, it is always good to be distinctive. However, for some brands, it essential to push forward and create the new world. Especially when it’s what their audience is demanding. 

Vaughan Edmonds is Planner at Sense.

The Futures Lab by Sense examines changing consumer behaviour to understand how people and brands can continue to connect in the real world.

This article first appeared in Advertising Week.