The Athletic's cancellation and win-back approach

and its possible sale to the NYT

We’ve changed the format of the newsletter this week by starting with a deeper look at how The Athletic handles cancellation and attempts to win-back subscribers. Let us know if you like it and if you do, please pass it on to others. Also covered this week:
- Dark Patterns
- Headspace emails
- New York Times to buy The Athletic and much more
- Amazon buys MGM

The Athletic win-back grit, but lack of tactical flair

We’ve looked at other cancellation processes and win-back strategies before. For The Athletic we wanted to play the long game, to see what approach a start up media business with Strava alumni would follow.

Cancellation was easy

So just before the end of December I visited The Athletic website and clicked on my profile. “Cancel subscription” was in plain sight and all I had to do was click to cancel. No friction, in complete contrast to my New York Times experience.

They quite reasonably asked me why I wanted to cancel. I selected “I can find similar content for free” to see if this impacted future marketing messages. I like the fact they included a button to “keep subscription” - but I went ahead and cancelled.

Then I was given the opportunity to “Add 30 days for free.” a nice attempt to save and keep me engaged. But putting my love of sports aside, I went ahead and cancelled.

Win-back activity

Immediately - nothing within the first seven days and unless I missed it no confirmation of cancellation - which felt like a missed opportunity.

January - 9 days after I cancelled I received the first marketing email with the subject line “Rob, rejoin The Athletic and Get 6 months on us” - nice free offer, given that I had been paying £1.00 per month. The small print showed that I would have to pay $29.99 for the first year - so a steep increase on what I had been paying and not in my chosen currency.

February - 4 separate marketing emails. Only one of them was about coming back. All the others were specific offers linked to European football (soccer) coverage. So it looked like I was receiving two separate marketing streams, one to win-back and one general push to subscribe. There was no reference in the messaging to address my reason for cancelling eg that I could get the same content elsewhere for free.

March - social kicks in - as well as a weekly email pushing me to subscribe, I received one “Last chance” email to get the 6 months for free. In the middle of March I began to see offers on social channels that were targeted at rejoining.

The social adverts did seem to address the reason why I left, promoting exclusive access to the best writers in football.

April - as with March I received a marketing email every week but with a generic offer. Which made me wonder whether I was being targeted as a subscriber to their emails rather than a lapsed subscriber. Social ads continued although with less frequency.

May - The Athletic are nothing if not persistent, every week I received an email offer, but they now all seemed generic. I wonder if the persistence is because I did occasionally open their news emails. I was also targeted on social channels with the offer below.

This was poor on several counts - Tottenham aren’t my club and the offer was more expensive than one I’d been shown previously and that I was offered via email in the same week.

How does The Athletic rate?

Persistence - 10/10 - they still haven’t given up.

Creativity - 5/10 - the emails and ads look good, the copy is strong but too often they were generic.

Use of Data - 1/10 - there is little evidence of using any information I gave The Athletic or exhibited while I was a subscriber or through interacting with their emails. The equivalent to missing an open goal? Surprising for a company with founders from Strava.

Going through this process was a reminder of just how hard it is for email to reach people (although I could be unrepresentative in the amount I receive). To be fair to The Athletic it may be that they identified that I wasn’t worth any special marketing effort - I had only subscribed for a short time, had signalled I was happy with similar content for free and I didn’t respond to initial offers.

Dark patterns?

I came across this critical / cynical article on subscriptions and the use by publishers of dark patterns (basically tricks websites use to get you to do things you didn’t intend). It has some great points. What surprised me was that the view came from the EIC of Digiday, Brian Morrissey. Key points from the article:

  • Subscriptions should make life easier for publishers, this direct business model (people pay for the product they receive) means you don’t have to balance the, possibly, opposing needs of advertisers and readers

  • But the subscription models that have emerged are “just as much as a hustle as ad models”, users are being trained to expect low price offers.

  • As noted in last week’s newsletter Sleepers represent up to 40% of any publishers subscriber base - rather than address this, most publishers are trying to make sure they don’t disturb them.

  • The dark patterns Morrissey refers to are related to cancellation where it turns out you can take someone’s credit card info with ease but cancelling a subscription requires either a telephone call or as covered in our piece on cancelling the New York Times a torturous chat session.

Maybe I’m mis-reading the tone of the article, but it came across to me as pretty scathing. I would definitely agree on the poor cancellation experience. But there are plenty of publishers who’ve adopted a subscription model that are successful because they’re providing a quality product. The use of promotional offers and god forbid marketing to gain subscribers doesn’t invalidate the subscription model. Read more.

Aggregating subscriptions

As reported by Axios the New York Times is considering an acquisition of The Athletic. Given that The Athletic raised $50 million last year, giving it a valuation of around $500 million it looks expensive. Axios reports that:

  • The Athletic has 1.2 million subscribers - their growth was likely stalled by the pandemic and generated around $80 million in revenue

  • They employ around 600 people full time the majority of those being in editorial

  • The New York Times track record with acquisitions is mixed, although the Wirecutter, bought in 2016 has been a success

The acquisition would seem a nice fit given that The Athletic could be bundled as part of a broad subscription offer and it would add to subscription scale and learning for the New York Times.

And in timely fashion Chartr produced a nice chart to go with the story:

Amazon captures Bond

Amazon’s acquisition of MGM for a reported $8.45 billion is widely covered elsewhere. It’s the second largest acquisition Amazon has made to date, only beaten by the purchase of Whole Foods. But given that Amazon spent $11 billion on content last year it doesn’t seem that expensive. MGM gives access to a back catalogue of 4000 film titles, 17,000 hours of TV and the Bond franchise. It will be fascinating to see whether Amazon can leverage this back catalogue and the franchises within to create the new content it surely needs to compete. Read more.

Quick links

Best practice for landing pages - this is a very practical look at how some of the best SaaS companies use landing pages to acquire customers. The simple rules outlined are a great reminder.

Netflix appears to be moving into videogames as a subscription as it looks to recruit a team to grow beyond its entertainment base. Netflix has already created games from its IP (Stranger Things), this seems like a logical move. The link takes you to The Information which requires a subscription.

Back behind a paywall - Sky Sports Germany have allowed people free access to their sports news since 2016. They’ve had a change of heart and feel the service is valuable enough to help people buy a sky sports package.

Headspace - a great graphic showing emails from Headspace, the meditation app, showing how it onboards users, manages cancellation and then win-back.