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By Thomas Baekdal - September 2022

Magazines need to sell what's in them, not the magazine itself

This is an archived version of a Baekdal Plus newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as unique insights written specifically for the newsletter. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.

Welcome back to the Baekdal Plus newsletter. Today, we are going to talk about magazine selling and conversions, playing around with churn data, and what puts young people off news.

Don't sell magazines. Sell what is in them

Over the past several years, we have talked a lot about how to better sell a newspaper. In fact, I have written several articles about this, including: "Known to work: Designing the paywall and journalistic focus", and for newspapers, we have seen a lot of progress. Better paywalls, better messaging, better focus area, etc.

However, the magazine industry also needs to change, but here we still see so many magazines just selling their publications as if we are still living in the 1980s. That usually means they are just selling the 'package' with a steep discount and free gift.

We know that this is not a good approach, and so in my latest 40-page Plus article, I take a deep dive into what the problem is, and how magazines should change this.

Take a look at: "Don't sell magazines. Sell what is in them".

Playing with churn data

I'm a media analyst, and that means I love playing with data to see what patterns emerge. How can I combine or compare different data points?

In a previous newsletter, I talked about how useful this is when looking at lifetime value, and how that helps you focus better on what is really important. But, another really important data point is 'churn'. So, let's play with that and see if there are other ways of defining that.

The churn rate

First of all, we have the traditional definition of a churn rate. This should be really simple, but one curious thing is that publishers don't always define this the same way. This often makes it difficult to compare churn across publishers.

But, let's define it the simple way: "churn rate per month".

What we do is to simply take the number of people who have canceled their subscription per month, and then we divide that by the total number of subscribers. This gives you the monthly churn rate.


BTW: Did you know that most publishers calculate this incorrectly? You see, there is a difference whether your 'total subscribers' is from the first day of the month, the last day of the month, or for each individual day for each person who churns. This will give you three different numbers.

For instance, if you have 100,000 subscribers, and you gained 30,000 new ones and lost 10,000, you will end up with:

For most publishers, this is not that big of a deal, but it's fascinating regardless.

Here is another question. When are you recording the churn? Are you recording it on the day their subscription expires? Or are you recording it on the day people clicked the cancel button?

This too can massively change where you see your churn. This is particularly a problem for publishers who have annual subscriptions because then the churn might not show up until a year later, thereby skewing your data tremendously (and at worst, causing you to make the wrong conclusions about which articles worked or not).

But, while a monthly churn rate is nice to have, it's not helpful. So what other ways can we look at churn?

Time to churn

The next really fascinating metric we can look at is "time to churn". Meaning, how long did people stay a subscriber before they decided to cancel?

In other words, for each person who cancels their subscription, calculate the number of days there were between when they first subscribed, to when they clicked the cancel button (not when the subscription expires).

This is then also linked to our lifetime value metrics I talked about in my previous newsletter (link above), but it's a fascinating metric because it tells you about your 'lasting value'.

There are many ways you can visualize this. You can simply do a monthly average, where the goal is to make sure that this number doesn't start to go down (meaning people churn faster). A better method would be to create a running average over X number of days (like 14 days if you are a big publisher).

But, ultimately, what you really want to do is to segment this. You want to put people into meaningful groups that can help you understand how valuable you truly are over time.

The segments depend on what you do as a publisher, but here are some suggestions:

You then take these segments, calculate a running total for each, and put it into a graph or some other way to visualize it. This can be a real eye-opener when measured over time. For instance, if you look at this over the past five years, you are likely to spot problems that you need to do something about.

You might see an accelerating increase in lifetimer churns, which would indicate that your old and previously stable audience no longer feel that you are as valuable as you once were.

That's a problem.

You might also see shifts in the middle segments of churns, where people who used to be early churners are now becoming very early churners instead. Or you might see a polarizing effect with one segment getting stronger (like more loyal churns), and fewer very early churns. This could indicate a lot of things, that your value is becoming more niche, or that your conversion tactics are too shallow, converting too many people who don't really care about you.

(See the Plus article above ;))

One thing that is very important here, though, is to look at churn over a long period of time. Churn is not a short-term metric. You need years of data to really analyze this. Sometimes I see publishers do this for a very short period of time, and it just doesn't work.

Churn is not just about people leaving

Another way to think about churn is to expand the definition to be about more than just when people actively cancel. Often the real problem happens much sooner than that.

Here is an example. Think about email open rates... okay? What is the percentage of people who have started to churn with that?

Normally, you would calculate the open rates as the share of people who didn't open your latest newsletter. So, you simply compare how many emails were sent out, to how many were opened.

That's a useful metric, but it's not a churn rate. To think about this as churn, we need to ask ourselves this: How many of the people who used to open your newsletter did not do it this time? In other words, how many people have changed their behavior and have stopped interacting with this?

Obviously, the rate of this depends on how often you send out the newsletter. Some newspapers send out a newsletter three times per day, and obviously people are not going to open all of those. So, for frequent senders, you might instead ask: "How many of the people who used to read the newsletter have not read anything this week?"

That would be an interesting number to look at. And if you see that this number starts to shift, it would indicate that the topics you focus on have 'run out' of people's interest.

Of course, this is nothing new. This is exactly what the TV industry has done for decades. You will have a show that has run over several seasons, but the TV executives are always keeping a close watch on the ratings. And if a show starts to drop in its ratings, that's when they cut it to focus on something else.

That's the same concept. People haven't actually dropped watching TV, but that particular show no longer resonates with people. But think about this in relation to your newsletters, podcasts, or even just your regular day-to-day news coverage.

Start to measure whether people's interest starts to drop, and do something about that before people end up canceling altogether.

So, these are some ideas about how to think about churn in different ways. It's all about experimenting with the data and seeing what you find.

Young people are tired of news

Finally, I want to quickly talk about young people again. This is a question I get all the time. How do we get young people to be interested in the news?

Now, I wrote a much longer article about this back in July, called: "How to publish news for young people (advisory analysis)", so if you haven't read that, please do.

But, I want to mention two things here that put young people off the news. Two things that, no matter how good you are at all the other things, if you don't fix these two things, young people are just not going to care.

The first is that young people are sick and tired of newspapers being an endless debate, disagreeing about everything. This is what young people see everywhere. They see it in the news, in the comments, on social media ... everywhere.

I came across this wonderful cartoon from Timo Elliot the other day (thanks to Avinash Kaushik for sharing it), and it perfectly captures this.

All the time, the press are acting like the two people on the right. Every day when you open the news, we are covering what those two people are arguing about.

Here is an example happening as I write this newsletter. This is from the front page of a large national newspaper in my country:

You see what this is? That's the two people on the right having an argument.

And what people are saying is that they have had enough of this. They are worn out by the endless amount of opinions and arguments that they see every day, and instead they tell the newspapers to be the person on the left.

Stop being an argument paper, and be a place where you can get clear, fact-checked data and answers. Just stop with the endless debate that is flooding the news these days.

The second thing is about progress.

One thing that characterizes many of the other channels young people follow online is that they are all based on some kind of progress. Whether it's a YouTube channel where you learn something new, or a person building up something. It's all about progress, and you feel that movement in the narrative and the presentation.

This is how young people spend most of their time when it comes to media. With channels that have a sense of forward movement, or that are moving towards a goal.

But then, they go to a newspaper, and we do this:

I mean, what the is this? There is zero progress here. All of this is just whatever pointless drama is happening right now, and tomorrow all of these stories are completely irrelevant. There is no reason for young people to read any of those articles.

This is the second problem. Our focus lacks progress.

Newspapers need to fix this. It doesn't matter what else you do to try to attract young people, as long as you have these two problems, you will always be irrelevant to them.

Want to know more?

If you want to know more about better defining the value you have to the public, take a look at:

Support this focus

Also, remember that while this newsletter is free for anyone to read, it's paid for by my subscribers to Baekdal Plus. So if you want to support this type of analysis and advice, subscribe to Baekdal Plus, which will also give you access to all my Plus reports (more than 300), and all the new ones (about 25 reports per year).

This is an archived version of a Baekdal Plus newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as unique insights written specifically for the newsletter. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.


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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé


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