Chapter 3

Making the customer experience frictionless

After breaking down organizational silos and integrating different systems, news outlets should get more granular in assessing areas where they can improve the customer service experience for potential subscribers. One simple way outlets can achieve this is to make the online user experience as frictionless as possible.

That’s exactly what The Keene Sentinel, a daily newspaper serving Keene, N.H., did after building a single database that could house all of its advertising and circulation customers, both print and digital. Terrence Williams, the paper’s president and chief operating officer, said centralizing customer data made it easier for his team to focus on their main goal of creating “the simplest possible way to subscribe.”

Make it as easy as 1, 2, 3

The Sentinel’s streamlined checkout process for subscriptions has three steps. Customers must first register with a username and password, which requires them to confirm their registration via email. “Once that was secure, then it was an easy three steps to get a subscription, including the payment piece,” Williams explained. “That made a huge difference.”

He estimates that his team spent around five weeks working with a couple of vendors to revamp the process, which involved a lot of work updating the Sentinel’s tech stack and payment messaging to remove the more legacy, print-oriented language. Despite this effort, however, Williams said the paper’s circulation customer service department was “very responsive” and welcomed the changes because “they knew it was going to make their life easier.”

“We’re pretty happy with what we’ve got. I mean, we can still make improvements to it, but we’ve got a good, simple, basic way to subscribe now,” he added.

Williams said the Sentinel “immediately saw an uptick in subscriptions,” which he attributed partly to the frictionless checkout process, but also to the paper’s introduction of Easy Pay, an online payment system similar to PayPal, as well as heavy marketing and promotion of online subscriptions.

“We’re making it so hard on readers who just want to get a subscription.”

This new checkout process is a major departure from how it was before. After it became clear that the Sentinel needed to make it easier for customers to subscribe in order to drive circulation, Williams asked everyone on his team to sign up and test out the process.

“It was a horrible process,” he said. “I remember being extremely frustrated myself, personally, trying to subscribe. I managed to finally do it, but I don’t consider myself necessarily a Luddite when it comes to tech — but boy, this was a challenge.”

“We all went through and kind of reached the same conclusion — that we’re making it so hard on readers who just want to get a subscription.”

Grab low-hanging fruit

The Seattle Times took a similar approach to improving its checkout process, which like the Sentinel’s, originally had a lot of friction. Curtis Huber, senior director of circulation and audience revenue, said this goal was the daily newspaper’s top priority early on because it was “low-hanging fruit.”

Before revamping the process, customers had to fill in 24 form fields across six pages. “If somebody actually had had the guts to make it all the way through that, then hopefully we could actually fulfill the subscription,” he said.

Today, Huber describes the Times’ checkout experience as “the gold standard” because customers only have to fill in five or six fields, depending on their subscription preference. To achieve this, the paper removed delivery-address and phone-number fields for digital-only customers. It also added options for social logins, so customers don’t have to create usernames or passwords, and instead can log in using their Facebook, Google or other accounts.

The Times now has multiple payment methods, too, including Amazon Pay and PayPal. The team is working on getting Apple Pay, which enables customers to subscribe automatically by pressing their iPhone’s Touch ID sensor once they hit a paywall — a virtually frictionless experience. All of these changes involved frequent testing on different platforms and of attributes like payment messaging and button colors and positioning.

Beyond optimizing its checkout funnel, the Times is also optimizing retention processes to minimize involuntary churn. After becoming a subscriber, customers provide their credit card information or other payment information to enroll in automatic payments, which happen every four weeks for the Times.

“When you put your entire subscriber base at risk every four weeks because you can’t process a payment, then you have nothing — that’s far different than the print world,” Huber explained, adding that 62% of “stops” among digital subscribers happened because the Times just couldn’t process the payment. Sometimes, a card’s expiration date changed or a card was replaced, for example.

To address this issue, the paper improved its dunning process — that is, the process of communicating with customers to try to collect payments due — by sending pre-notifications and revising messaging, among other tactics.

Meet customers where they are

Finally, the Times optimized conversion by ensuring customers have easy access to its payment portal so they’re incentivized to subscribe. Many readers don’t arrive on the Times’ website via its homepage, but rather through a newsletter, a breaking-news alert, an in-app notification or something else, according to Huber.

That’s why the paper is focused on deeply engaging readers with Times journalism, and providing multiple pathways to subscribe via its various news products. “It’s this focus on content and finding out where they are, and surfacing content in front of them” because readers are more likely to pay for something they value, he explained.

Much like the Times and the Sentinel, Vermont-based investigative journalism outlet VTDigger applied similar best practices when reducing friction in its checkout process. For example, VTDigger has an address form field, but it’s optional and can be autofilled.

The publication also pays a lot of attention to website responsiveness, not just with the latest iPhone, but also older devices. If a customer is on an old device that VTDigger doesn’t support, its site shows a message saying, ‘“We’re really sorry if this is not the best experience for you. Please call Florencio [Terra, the membership and development coordinator]. He’ll help you,’” said Stacey Peters, a full-stack web developer who oversees VTDigger’s technology solutions.

On the other end of the spectrum, Peters added that the publication also strives to accommodate customers with the latest, fanciest devices. She recounted a time when a major donor asked her why VTDigger’s site didn’t look good on his expensive 56-inch monitor. “We want to make sure it works for the guy spending $50,000 on a monitor because he’s also probably writing a check to us. So, you know, being able to fill in the gaps and make sure that we’re supporting the people writing the big checks, as well as the people giving us five bucks, is I think kind of the scope of our interactive design,” Peters said.

“We really want to guide your journey,” she added. “We really, really take great pains to make sure that everyone is covered, at least to some degree.”

Making it easier for customers to unsubscribe can actually be a way to build trust with a publication’s brand.

Over the years, VTDigger has added small, frictionless ways for their customers to give feedback. On the business side, it uses the email marketing platform Mailchimp, which has automation tools that enable customers to provide feedback. Indeed, customers are able to leave comments at every point in VTDigger’s membership funnel — for example, when they subscribe and unsubscribe to the mailing list, as well as when they donate — so the publication knows how to improve. “That’s all just a few words that we’re gathering from people, but it really helps guide almost everything we do,” Peters explained.

And though it may seem counterintuitive, part of reducing friction for customers is making it easier for them to unsubscribe; this can actually be a way to build trust with a publication’s brand. But according to API research, just 41% of U.S. news publishers make it easy for subscribers to cancel their subscriptions online.

On the editorial side, VTDigger has a “tip drop” function and a “report an error” function on every story it publishes; when they’re clicked on, a form pops up asking customers for their name, email and relevant information. According to Peters, the editorial team follows up on all the tips they receive, and have written stories based on around 800 tips so far. The tips are input into spreadsheets, which journalists analyze for trends to determine what Vermonters are interested in. The “report an error” function has resulted in both minor typo fixes and major reporting corrections. VTDigger simplified these tools iteratively over the past few years to make them easier to use.