Zombie subscribers are not the worst problem for a digital news source to have

Photo (cc) 2012 by Gianluca Ramalho Misiti

You may have heard about a new problem facing news publishers as they continue to transition to reader revenue — “digital zombies,” or paid-up subscribers who rarely or never visit. A study at Northwestern University “found that 49% of subscribers didn’t go to the websites they had paid for even once a month,” according to Mark Jacob of the university’s Local News Initiative.

I would argue that this isn’t the worst problem to have, and that it may be more of an artifact of our ability to measure everything in the digital space than it is something new and threatening. Back in the days of print-only, we simply didn’t know how much time people spent with the newspaper. Oh, sure, there were surveys, but you can be sure that most respondents would want to tell researchers that yes, of course, they read every word of that seven-part series on pension reform because, you know, it’s very, very important.

The fact is that people signed up for newspaper delivery out of habit. Some spent a lot of time with the news. Some read only the sports section. Some read the funnies. And some might have only picked up the paper so they could clip out the Wednesday food coupons.

If a digital subscription is cheap enough, you might sign up so that you’ll have access on the rare occasions that you need it and so you can support the work those news organizations are doing. I’m not going to identify the news sources, but I can think of one that I gladly pay even though I only look at it once or twice a year and another that is, at best a tertiary read. Of course, I understand that I work in news and so my habits may be different from others’. But I don’t think that having customers who pay without reading is all that terrible unless they suddenly start canceling en masse.

“Concern is growing about this problem because even though the living dead may still pay for local news, they seem like a weak foundation to build a future on,” writes Jacob, adding that publishers are trying several strategies to reanimate their zombies, including targeted newsletters, better recommendation systems and the like.

According to the Better News website, Gannett’s Arizona Republic found a direct correlation between lack of engagement and canceled subscription — 50% of canceled subscriptions came from the 42% of subscribers who were visiting the paper’s website less than once a month.

And yes, it’s important to try to keep those customers. Publishing strong journalism and making sure that even your zombies are aware of it really matters. But most papers offer steep discounts to new customers. For instance, you can get a three-month digital-only subscription to the Republic for just $1, which the paper touts as a 97% savings.

If I’m doing the math correctly, that comes to about $32 a month once the discount expires. That means the Republic and others who offer such discounts, including The Boston Globe and The Washington Post, have a few months to make their case.

Or maybe the zombies will act like many people did before the internet — keep getting the digital paper out of habit whether they read it or not.

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