Nordic innovators look to revive the zombie subscriber population

Consumers’ eagerness to consume content, and fickleness as to where they consume it, has led to the rise of the zombie subscriber. Nordic innovators are urging media outlets to change their approach to content, as part of a more personalised, transparent, single-purchase model, to bring this huge contingent back to life again. 

Zombie subscriptions are active accounts that people are unaware they are paying for. With the wealth of content options now out there, and Covid-19 playing its role in encouraging people towards these one-off articles, movies or broadcasters, many have been left with a membership that they still pay for each month despite no longer visiting the site.  

This might sound like great news for the provider if they’re still getting paid, however the actual outcome of this zombie population is a lack of quality data around regular consumption trends, a devaluation of content as very little is actually being consumed, and a potentially disgruntled customer base once they realise they’re paying for a service they don’t use. 

Significant consumer churn and damage to the reputation of the brand isn’t just an outcome for smaller providers. In 2023, it was revealed that in one quarter alone, Disney+ subscriptions fell from 157.8 million worldwide to 146.1 million, a loss of 11.7 million. Netflix lost nearly 1.2 million subscribers in the first six months of 2022, the first decline in a decade, after a viewership boom during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Regionally, this issue is prominent in the Nordics. It is a world leader in the tech space producing a vast range of subscription options, with an equally digitally engaged prospective audience. With digital news, for example, 30% of people in Sweden consume content this way, compared to only 9% in the UK.  

The region is also best placed, therefore, to deal with the zombie subscriber problem. Tech enablers are now urging providers to give customers the option of single-purchase pieces of content as a precursor or alternative to monthly memberships – generating the same valuable and actionable data, without the risk of creating a zombie. 

Content access at a reasonable price 

It’s not necessarily surprising that this issue has become so widespread. The convenience of offering consumers automatic renewals was compounded by the – perhaps naïve – expectation that it would yield both regular consumption as well as regular revenue.  

“This convenience factor, however, coupled with the plethora of activities available to consumers since the end of the main pandemic storm, has resulted in many still having subscriptions they no longer need,” says Måns Ulvestam, co-founder and CEO of Sesamy.  

Sesamy was founded in Stockholm in 2021, the three founders building on their experiences from also incepting the world’s largest podcast company, Acast, back in 2013.  

“In 2016, we released Acast+, which gave all podcasters the ability to easily monetise individual episodes and series’, and turn listeners into dedicated fans,” Ulvestam continues. “Unlike other blanket subscriptions, we wanted to make sure listeners could access specific content at a reasonable price. It was in the process of doing this, that we realised all digital content should be able to be purchased this way. That planted the seed for what later became Sesamy. 

“It is no secret that the mass-subscription model is unsustainable. What we aim to do at Sesamy is make sure that premium digital content can be easily accessed, owned and remunerated without further contributing to the zombie subscription problem.” 

They do this through software that protects the interest of the creator and consumer, facilitating transparent and fair exchanges for either single-purchases or, once return custom has been secured, more tailored subscriptions.   

Quality over quantity 

As a result of many subscriptions remaining unused, it is incredibly difficult for businesses to find useful and actionable data, and this is before you analyse the impacts of unhappier customers further down the line and how that relates to brand reputation.

With millions auto-renewing without actually engaging with the content on offer, the data collected from these profiles won’t be representative of actual usage. The danger then is releasing the wrong content to the wrong demographics based on that inaccurate data. 

One of Sesamy’s customers, Fokus, a Swedish news content provider, was keen to counteract this problem. 

Managing director Julia Lundmark explains: “Since the pandemic, Fokus has increased its subscriber base by several hundred percent. It is, of course, an ongoing effort to engage these customers and provide them with value to encourage continued subscription. Due to having a significantly larger number of subscribers now, we have intensified our efforts to engage our audience and deliver genuine value. 

“Even though we had a lot of knowledge and there was a wealth of data, we still found that it was hard to act on that data. We needed to prioritise quality over quantity, and breathe life into our customer relationships to get more loyal consumers.” 

This objective led Fokus to Sesamy’s door. 

Ulvestam adds: “We were able to funnel potential subscribers through our Sesamy Smart Software, which uses AI to maximise revenues through in-depth analytics. This is designed to complement subscriptions, not compete with them, by informing a user on when it would be financially beneficial to purchase a subscription to their chosen newspaper or magazine.” 

Awaking the zombies 

This level of transparency and communication already makes it less likely that a consumer would have a bad experience with the brand, and all the more likely that they would return. This latter possibility is improved further by forming a personalised profile of the single pieces of content they consume each time. Specific topics, writers or genres become the basis for future one-off recommendations, and – if they return enough times – a tailored subscription proposal. 

Ulvestam notes: “Acast was the first company to introduce a subscription model for premium podcast content. At the time, this was an important step forward in finding new ways to monetise podcasts and grow the burgeoning industry into the behemoth it is today. This being said, we never foresaw the extent to which the subscription model would become so overly dominant in the digital world. 

“By placing consumers at the forefront of their business models, companies can win back customers and awaken their zombie members.” 

The Nordics has seen its subscriber numbers rise exponentially, it has seen the pitfalls that it can create, and now it is first to the punch with a solution. 

Lundmark concludes that Fokus, and companies in their space, should keep the objective simple, to bring zombie subscribers back to life: “Be transparent, engage with purpose, and deliver real value.” 

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