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Saying Goodbye is Never Easy: 5 Cancellation Mitigation Lessons from the Telegraph

Tien Tzuo
CEO, Zuora

Welcome! Over the next few weeks, I’ll be discussing a range of topics inspired by Zuora’s recent Customer Day, which was essentially a day-long masterclass in how to launch, optimize and scale a subscription business of any kind. In addition to presenting our new product roadmap and “Journey to Usership” framework, we gathered sharp insights from companies like New Relic, The Telegraph, CarGurus, Aura, and GoPro. And best of all, since it was a virtual event, everything is on-demand. This week I’m sharing some best practices from The Telegraph on optimizing your subscriber experience.

“In my beginning is my end.” 

-T.S. Eliot 

If subscriptions are all about relationships, then cancellations can feel particularly cruel. With a little foresight and preparation, however, they don’t have to be entirely catastrophic. After all, if you’re really serious about implementing a recurring-revenue based business model, then you should be thinking about the moment when that revenue might cease to recur. You just might be able to turn a “Goodbye” into a “Until We Meet Again.” 

We just published a white paper on “The Journey to Usership,” which is a framework we use to offer benchmarks and best practices for subscription businesses in every stage of maturity, from launching to optimizing and then scaling and leading. The quality of your subscriber experience, of course, is a vitally important element across all four stages of this journey. 

This week I thought I’d discuss the five key areas of subscriber experience outlined in the white paper, in the context of a particularly fascinating discussion we hosted during our Customer Day between  Lise-Ann Brennan, Head of Delivery at Telegraph Media and Kevin Reinhardt, Director of Customer Success at Zuora,  called “How to Optimize Onboarding and Engagement.” Lise-Ann is in charge of an ambitious effort at The Telegraph to generate ten million registrants and one million paying readers by 2023.

Spoiler alert — they’re well on their way. The Telegraph is so focused on their subscriber-first strategy that they publish new subscription figures every single month! They currently have over 650,000 paying subscribers, digital subscriptions grew by 79% last year, and they recently celebrated twenty five years of subscriptions.  

So let’s learn from the experts. I thought that Lise-Ann had some particularly insightful things to say about the beginning of a subscription relationship can inform its end, in some surprisingly hopeful ways. 

Optimize Onboarding & Engagement

The way you entice a new subscriber to walk through your door has very real implications for how they might walk out. The Telegraph did some experimenting with their 28-day trial period and found while contracting it definitely had some positive effects in terms of recognizing revenue sooner, that cohort inevitably suffered from retention issues later on in life. They may be invested in terms of revenue, but they’re not when it comes to overall engagement. 

Enable Multiple Payment Methods

It’s very important for new subscribers to engage with you on their own terms. Customers in different regions want to pay in different ways (yes credit cards are standard, but there is also direct debit, Apple Pay, local payment methods like Boletos, the list goes on). As a relatively straightforward direct-to-consumer service, The Telegraph takes most major credit cards,  but those payment methods can be particularly tricky when it comes to subscriber end-of-life care. I’ll explain more later.

Support Multiple Sales Channels

If the old model was about putting products into various retail stores and sales channels, the new model is about meeting your subscribers where they live. In other words, you go to the customer, as opposed to the customer hopefully finding you. The Telegraph has a robust Partnerships Team whose function is to work closely with aligned brands on syndication and cross-promotion efforts.  But all these efforts are based on data-based insights; studying reader behavior allows Lise-Ann and her team to help predict new topics of interest, as well as new places to find readers.  

Provide Self-Service Subscription Management 

The Telegraph offers its readers two basic plans, Digital and Digital Plus. The latter includes additional features like access to crosswords and puzzles,  faster loading articles with fewer advertisements, and a bonus subscription to share with friends and family.  But as Lise-Ann notes, the two are intended to act in concert, so that readers can scale up or scale down as their needs and environments change over time. Making it easy to downgrade, of course, is an important way to save a life, rather than say goodbye. According to our own research, for example, offering the ability for a reader to suspend and resume can save one in six potential churned subscribers. The Telegraph’s pricing-and-packaging strategy is a masterclass in simplicity as well as adaptability. 

Drive a Seamless Renewal Experience

In large consumer subscription operations like The Telegraph, a significant percentage of monthly churn is “involuntary” as a result of declined credit cards. As Lise-Ann notes, “We all know the dread of wondering how many websites we need to update after a credit card expires.” Make sure your outreach efforts are polite and empathetic, but you should also realize that there are automated retry options out there that will contact merchants directly to take care of all the update logistics. What’s one of the most immediate ways to influence your churn rate? Automated renewal and retry solutions. 

So there you have it. The Telegraph may have just gotten you a promotion, or at the very least chopped down your churn rate. The real key to their success, of course, is their remarkable editorial content, but they also demonstrate how effective onboarding and optimization is crucial to retention. 

The way you gain a new subscriber has material consequences on how you lose one. In your beginning is your end. 

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