"How They Did It" is a series of practical guides about how leading publishers around the world improved in a specific area. Here, the team from Canada's largest independent newspaper — the Winnipeg Free Press — shares how they reduced friction in their registration and subscription process, with inspiration from their participation in the Facebook Journalism Project's Accelerator program.
The Winnipeg Free Press is the oldest daily newspaper in western Canada, or as its editor Paul Samyn puts it, "the best damn newspaper in the free world." He's a devoted leader of the 147-year-old daily newspaper and began his career there as a delivery boy at age 15. Now, as editor-in-chief, Samyn is successfully shepherding the newspaper into the digital age with a dedicated team of co-workers, and with a few insights from their participation in the Facebook Accelerator program. “The key impact to date” of working with the Accelerator program, Samyn said, “is that we’ve been able to share a new vision for a profitable future based on online audience growth at both the executive level of the company, as well as with our board of directors and ownership group.”
Samyn’s team recently had explosive growth from fixing their user registration experience — increasing the number of free subscription trials from 2,000 to 10,000 in one month. A team of 12 people made all the necessary changes in two weeks. If you’re part of a news publishing team and want to learn how to make improvements to your site’s registration or purchase flows, here's how Winnipeg Free Press improved theirs, step by step.
Why the registration form is important
Many news sites have registration (the step required to provide your email address) and purchase processes that frustrate readers and make it hard to subscribe or join. “This is a huge opportunity for most publishers,” said Tim Griggs, executive director of the Accelerator program. “In a recurring revenue business like digital subscriptions or membership, even very small, incremental improvements to conversion rate — the percentage of users who make it from an offer page to successfully subscribing — can add up to significant amounts of revenue over time.”
Winnipeg Free Press felt this acutely: Of the roughly 1 million people who visit the site every month, only about 2,000 signed up for a free 30-day trial. The site allows people to read two free articles every 30 days.
Christian Panson, Winnipeg Free Press’s vice president of digital and technology, realized that fixing the registration form was their biggest opportunity for growth. “All we wanted was an email,” to start the trial, Panson said, and they weren’t getting emails from readers. “Something was wrong and needed to be fixed.” Of the 2,000 people who did register, about six percent ended up paying for a subscription when their trials ended.
How to improve your registration form, step by step
Gather your team and set a plan. Panson recruited 12 people from digital marketing, editorial, product design, product development, and customer service departments to work on the project. They evaluated the new form’s success by reviewing data every two weeks, beginning two weeks before the program began.
Identify unnecessary steps in your registration flow. On Winnipeg Free Press’s original registration form, readers had to type and click through 11 total steps to sign up for a free trial:
Step one required the reader to click to another page just to sign up. Steps two to six asked for an email address, password, agreement to the terms and conditions, and opt-in to email newsletters. Step seven required email verification. Steps eight, nine, and 10 required the reader to click from the verification email back to the Winnipeg Free Press homepage, and in step 11, it’s up to them to find the article they originally wanted to read before they had to stop and sign up for a free trial in the first place.
“Anytime you ask somebody to do something, your abandonment rate is going to go up,” Panson said of the 11 steps in the original registration form.
Rebuild the registration form. Web developers rebuilt the new form in about one week. Now there are only six total steps:
The reader shares only an email address, agrees to the terms and conditions, and clicks “Create Account.” Then, steps four, five, and six take the reader back to their inbox, where a verification email provides a link right back to the story the person was originally reading, rather than the Winnipeg Free Press homepage. Bringing the reader back to that specific story makes the user journey especially smooth.
On how to write copy for the registration form: “Keep it simple, and keep it focused,” Panson said. “If you have three things to communicate to a reader, figure out which is the most important, and only do that one thing.” The marketing team wrote the copy, and a few newsroom editors proofread it.
On whether to use verification emails with a registration form: Winnipeg Free Press uses a few extra steps to verify email addresses and make sure they're allowing only real people to sign up for a free trial. "If we just add every email — and people will type in fake emails — the local mail servers will mark our domain as spam," Panson said. The possible problem? If enough people submit fake email addresses, they risk getting bad marks from email service providers that would send more Winnipeg Free Press emails to spam folders, even to real people who had signed up.
Before the project started, about 2,000 people signed up every month for a free Winnipeg Free Press trial. After the new registration form launched, 9,000 people signed up in the first month and 10,000 signed up in the second. The number of readers who ended their free trial and agreed to pay for a subscription went up by 167%, and the numbers are still growing.
While reviewing the data, Panson discovered that a typical Winnipeg Free Press reader doesn't immediately decide whether or not to pay after their free trial ends. Usually, they see (and ignore) about five reminders saying the trial has ended — and then after the sixth reminder, or on the 14th day after the trial’s close, they pay for a subscription.
“We are now building segments of users based on days past a trial, and if they have seen the end of trial message X number of times,” Panson said. “We’ll use these segments to target readers with offers in email and on social, to see if we can drive more conversions at a smaller cost.”
Share results with your newsroom. Panson and editor Paul Samyn briefed senior editors on the new conversion rates. “It is still early days for this project, so we haven’t done anything formal within our newsroom beyond informing staff and celebrating recent success,” Samyn said. “However, my regular emails to the newsroom have laid the foundation for us to build upon this project.”
“When we say the business team works very closely with editorial,” Samyn continued, “Christian [Panson] and I probably talk once a day minimum on these kinds of things — what's working, what's not. My associate editor of digital has weekly discussions with a representative from his department. Our publisher Bob Cox is very much not just an advocate but a champion of this work, and he's making sure that we get time with him to ensure this longstanding title with a glorious history in print has a sustainable future going forward, largely online.”
The entire project was a big win for Winnipeg Free Press to continue building committed readership. Going forward, Panson said they’ll do more A/B testing that focuses on converting more trial readers to paying subscribers.
"What we've learned to date from the Accelerator,” Samyn said, “is a kind of discipline, a wide range of practices that will allow us to accelerate work that we've already been doing. Now we have more tools, more techniques, more ingredients — whatever pie we were baking for our audience is going to be bigger and better."
Results provided by the publisher.
The Accelerator Program The Facebook Journalism Project’s Accelerator Program helps news publishers build sustainable businesses. Funded and organized by the Facebook Journalism Project (FJP), each Accelerator includes a three-month period of hands-on workshops led by news industry veterans, grants administered by non-profit journalism organizations, and regular reports on best business practices. The Accelerator’s executive director is Tim Griggs, an independent consultant/advisor and former New York Times and Texas Tribune executive. For monthly updates on the Accelerator Program, sign up for the FJP newsletter.