The rise and professionalization of independent publishers brings useful insights for news publication in general.
It’s not a surprise to see so many independent, subscriber- or member-supported publishers riding the reader revenue wave.
First, it was media and entertainment tech players that taught audiences to pay for movies, for listening to music. Big publishers followed the trend, getting people to pay for good journalism.
Sure, independent creators existed before. So did paid podcasts before Apple and Spotify decided to make it easier for podcasters to set up paywalls and give them tools to convert listeners to subscribers.
Still, I think we can agree that April 2021 will be seen as a turning point in podcast history. And it’s all thanks to two tech giants who finally decided to simplify podcast paywalls. I mean, Spotify even announced its Open Access Platform, which means publishers will be able to connect their paywalls to Spotify and distribute paid podcasts via OAuth authorization [explained here].
Of course, this approach will also benefit independent creators looking to boost the amount of content they provide subscribers and get paid for that. Although that is a model pioneered by The Guardian, there are not that many other successful followers in the world.
Which gets me to my second point, even though it appears big media and the entertainment industry made subscriptions mainstream, smaller independent publishers and creators had to come up with a unique selling point for their audiences. That’s where you can find the lessons bigger players have overlooked.
1) Less is more
If this publication let me (and I’m sure they would be not entirely opposed to the notion), every week I would be writing a column about how much redundant content news media creates (ironically, creating redundant content myself).
I recently spoke to several European publishers and many highlighted that they have cut their output, especially reposting press releases (in other words the content which is not unique).
The results were the same for all. Everyone reported higher time spent, more pageviews and increased overall satisfaction based on the key metrics.
Sometimes cutting down a certain type of content happens when you have finite resources and you want to start doing something new. First you need to stop doing things (that do not matter) and then take on more meaningful projects.
This is kind of back to roots thinking for bigger publishers that relied on ad-driven revenue from pageviews, when more content meant more pageviews (not always, but usually), and not many very much cared how many are reading all of that output or how much time they spent with it (think reader satisfaction).
For independent creators this is not an issue. Usually there is just one person creating content and they think really hard about what gets published. It has to be unique, compelling and maybe opinionated (usually the reasons audiences choose to follow certain independent writers).
2) Thinking in terms of conversions and retention
With creators building their subscription businesses on their own there is this constant thinking about growing the paying audience, looking at churn (how many people stay subscribed after each month) and as I mentioned above, thinking of what type of content are the subscribers paying them for.
Let me translate that, as you are building a subscription business you need to be thinking about two approaches – acquisition and retention. It sounds a bit far fetched but in the literal sense it would look like every piece of content gets a score based on how many new conversions it made happen and how many existing subscribers consumed it (+ how much time they spent reading it).
If you can attach such a score to each article, you can create a list and if you order it most to least score points, in the bottom you will get articles nobody really wants. You can then give each writer a guidance on how his pieces were performing.
That’s of course a hypothetical, the main takeway here should be the constant thinking of fulfilling the needs of your audience.
Quote: Adding paid subscriptions doesn’t necessarily mean turning off your free posts. Most writers with paid subscriptions continue to write a mix of free and paid content. Some writers have paid subscriptions for extra-supportive readers, but make all their posts free.
Think about your free content as the writing that draws new people into your orbit. While it seems counterintuitive, your free content should be your best work, effectively serving as an advertisement for your paid work.
3) Build a community
This lesson is not a surprise but there is a hitch for big publishers when it comes to building a community, and maybe this story of a Facebook cooking group by The New York Times is a good example of why.
The Times decided to abandon its widely popular Facebook group because it was too much work.
It is very, very hard to meaningfully moderate a big Facebook group, perhaps nearly impossible to moderate one the size of a small city. As it turns out, it’s a full-time job — likely more than one — and one the Times no longer wants to do.
In the discussions following that story on Twitter many ideas were floated, some argued that there is a breakpoint in how big a group can be to moderate it meaningfully and it still stays a closed community with almost self-regulating principles.
Sure, a small publication in Eastern Europe or anywhere else does not have to be scared of growing a giant Facebook group that spirals out of hand. Still, the argument given by The Times that it wants to use its own resources on its platform and not on Facebook’s is something many media managers feel the same about.
From personal experience I can tell you running a closed Facebook group, a community, inside a national publication read monthly by millions is not a one person job.
I started a podcast club as a closed Facebook group a few years ago and it has evolved throughout the years as an extension of our own platform with several moderators and admins taking turns, sparking discussions and jumping into open debates.
It takes time but I believe the feedback and value created is immense, both for us creators and the audience. More on that maybe sometimes in the future.
Creating a community for your subscribers is a no-brainer for any independent publisher / creator, I believe it should be the same for bigger publishers as well.
4) Personal touch
I am a proud subscriber of The New York Times but it does not even know my name. To The Times, I am merely a nickname (or just an account number as I am looking into my profile) it uses every time it wants to upsell me on something.
I also have other subscriptions – Spotify knows my first name, Netflix knows my first name, heck, even most of the newsletters I subscribe to greet me with my first name. It’s a small thing but if you have ever taken a course on social media or Facebook advertising, one of the examples of targeting they are using to explain it is by the first name. People simply react to their first name. Advertisers know this, independent creators know this, big publishers should too.
Another small (but you know I mean big) thing is when you subscribe to a newsletter from an independent creator, you will get an e-mail from a certain person.
Most media publishers just use their own brand. Yes, that’s safe but at times obsolete especially when you have star writers writing your newsletters, which is more and more an industry standard that you turn a weekly column of a popular writer into a newsletter. People subscribe to the column and you will increase the chance of them opening the newsletter.
5) Clear value proposition
OK, this last one is an obvious one and it has been mentioned at times in previous lessons. To sum it up, when someone is going to subscribe to an independent creator there is usually a very clear value proposition – you will get this many members only articles (locked for non-members), you will have access to this community (Discord, Slack, etc), there is going to be a monthly Ask Me Anything Q&A session and you will have access to the paid podcast.
Looking at it as a person ready to buy, I would be up for that. I know exactly what my money gets me, I have a clear overview of what I get and sometimes they add “more things to come”.
That’s one piece of the puzzle, knowing exactly what to expect. The other piece was already mentioned above – having real clarity of what kind of content to produce. It also comes down to the feedback from the community and being able to quickly understand from the key metrics what works and what does not.
This piece was originally published in The Fix and is re-published with permission. The Fix is a solutions-oriented publication focusing on the European media scene. Subscribe to its weekly newsletter here.