Digital Publishing Reader Revenue
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Cosmo, paywalls, and chicken nugget math: The shift toward paid strategies for digital content

“ … a mere fraction of your chicken nugget budget.” 

That’s how Cosmopolitan recently positioned their new Cosmo Unlocked subscription service to readers, according to Kathryn Hopkins in WWD.

“For $20 a year, they get the web site, print magazine and newsletter, as well as various deals,” Hopkins writes. “Without a digital subscription, readers will be able to access four free articles a month.”

It’s the latest in the shift toward paid strategies for digital content … and it’s long overdue. It may have taken a pandemic to put the fine point on the need to shift reliance away from ad revenues, but publishers have been giving away far too much content for far too long.

To make this pivot successful, the drumbeat continues to be clear: Connect with your readers in a deeper, stronger way and make yourself essential. And positioning your price relative to chickens nuggets doesn’t hurt either, especially now that we are getting used to the subscription model for so many of the things we use every day, from grocery deliveries to TV.

“Membership and paid digital programs are an important focus for us,” Brian Madden, senior vice president for consumer revenue and development at Hearst, said. “Our premium brands help us build a more connected relationship to the consumer, providing greater opportunity to generate revenue across our branded products, affiliate commerce, events and more.”

Cosmo Unlocked joins other Hearst titles Popular Mechanics and Men’s Health in the bid to sell subscriptions. According to a company spokeswoman, all three are “off to a good start.”

It’s not strictly a COVID phenomenon, although the lock-down orders have increased reader interest, no doubt. As Hopkins notes, other titles like Esquire and Runner’s World have been using the “micro-membership” idea since 2018, while metered paywalls at Condé Nast have been successful.

“Audiences at The New Yorker, Wired, and Vanity Fair have proven that they are willing to pay for the quality journalism we create, and the performance of each of these paywalls has exceeded our expectations, said a Condé spokeswoman.  “Subscriptions from these sites have increased four to five times since their respective launches,” she told Hopkins.

Will the interest in paid digital content continue once we all “get back out there?” It depends a great deal on how well publishers build and maintain that all-important connection to their readers. It’s a delicate dance finding the right balance, and what worked last year or last month might not work later this year or next. That’s the inherent beauty in this complex industry.

David Pilcher
VP of Sales & Marketing, Freeport Press

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