Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
9 mins read

Subscriptions are not going to work for everyone, and here’s why

Subscriptions are great. They’ve really helped a beleaguered industry feel its way forward, but as we celebrate another record-breaking year for subs at The Guardian or The New York Times there is a reality that we need to address, and it’s one that’s usually pushed to footnote status.

The fact is, they can’t possibly work for everyone. Why? Let’s start here:

  • There can be only one (or, at best a few)

The title of an article at Nieman Lab last year said it all: “Even people who like paying for news usually only pay for one subscription.” These findings (a summation from last year’s Reuters report) show that even in countries where the percentage of people who pay for news is higher (and yes, if you’ve guess that’s the Nordics, ten extra points for you), those people still tend to subscribe to only a single publication.

The implications of this should be plain, but the learnings from statistics like this suggest otherwise. 

Even in somewhere like Norway, if people are only willing to pay for news from a single source, logic states that only a handful of publications are likely to benefit, and as the larger media houses (like Amedia) report increased subscription rates, common sense suggests that other publications cannot possibly boast the same good fortune.

  • When you can get it for free, why pay?

Subscription fatigue is an entirely relatable predicament. 

Last year, Reuters asked respondents to their annual industry survey which kind of subscription (online video, online music, online news) they would pick if they could only have option. Only 7% said news.

“Much of the population is perfectly happy with the news that they can access for free and even amongst those who are willing to pay, the majority are only willing to sign up for one subscription” 

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

It’s not surprising. There is still a vast amount of news and information which is available online for free, and – as Nielson points out – that’s sufficient for many people. The trouble is that because this news is available without cost, convincing readers to pay for a new product that does have a price tag attached is tricky.

News has been commodified. 

  • It’s demographics

Here’s another problem. Reuters report that in the US, most subscriptions are taken up by those with a higher level of education: on average this group is twice as likely to pay as those without. It’s the same story for those with higher incomes (three times as likely to fork out the cash) and those with “very high interest in the news” (a whopping five times as likely). It’s little surprise, then, that The New York Times is doing so well. In fact, subscribers to The Post and The New York Times account for more than half of those in the US who pay for news.

Furthermore – and again this from Reuters – subscriptions tend to work at the “quality” end of the market. So, again the likes of The New York Times are winners. 

Let’s recap:

There are so many moving parts, but it’s worth taking a moment to piece them together.

We have that figure of 5%, which is generally accepted as being the average, realistic percentage of people likely to take out a subscription (notable exceptions, well, noted). Next, there are publications like Schibsted, who report they’re able to reach 80% of their market (though obviously they’re talking access, not subscriptions). Add in the figure that most people – even in those lauded Nordics – are only prepared for one news subscription and what do you get?

Several things – not least a very, very rudimentary assessment of where we’re at. It’s not intended to be conclusive, more illustrative. And the point being illustrated is this:

Given what we know about user behavior when it comes to subscriptions, patterns of news consumption up until now and expected uptake rates, the inescapable conclusion is that it doesn’t leave much room for growth.

Yes, well done to the NYT. But, the more they make inroads into their subscription strategy, the more people sign up, the fewer people are – by this rationale – must surely be in a position to sign up for other publications.

It’s really not that rosy.

So, what’s to be done?

Here’s where we do a sharp U-turn. Buckle up. 

This absolutely isn’t an article suggesting that the pursuit of reader revenue is futile. Far from it. 

As Innovation Media’s Juan Senor said, “it’s inexcusable for a publisher today to not be experimenting with it, to not try to demand that people give you their data or their dollars. If you’re not extracting this from your readers today – their data or their dollars – you really shouldn’t be in publishing, let alone journalism.”

Let’s make a distinction. Subscriptions are unlikely to be the financial savior that these jubilant articles about the big titles doing well suggest They may form part of the solution, but the reality is more nuanced.

Several things are required of the modern newsroom to give them the best possible chance to succeed.

1. Loyalty is an excellent base on which to build subscriptions – can you track it?

Loyal readers – as our own data study recently proved – on average read five times as much content per month, as compared to their more casual counterparts. If that figure doesn’t quite make you spit out your morning coffee, it may well be enough to make you set it down carefully and have a good ol’ think. Who are your loyal readers? What do they like? How do they behave on your site? How do you nurture loyalty and get more casual readers to become avid readers? But firstly – and critically – how do you measure ‘loyal’, anyway?

We’ve spent a lot of time on this one, so the Content Insights team think we’ve got this more than most. Loyal readers don’t just come often. They don’t just read tons. They don’t even share loads (though they might – it’s just not their distinguishing characteristic). 

No. Loyal readers are “routinely highly engaged”. 

What does this mean? Well, it translates as this: over a set period a loyal reader must have visited the site habitually, and this should remain true at any given point you measure it. If you look at their behavior over the last two weeks, the reader should be coming to the site as regularly – just like they would undertake any habitual action, like brushing your teeth or eating your vegetables. And, if we’re using the example of a habit, if your dentist asks you if you regularly brush your teeth, the answer can’t be ‘yes’ if you also mention there was that month last summer where you mostly forgot, can there? No. If something is habitual it has to be sustained. It’s not enough to look at regularity, frequency and volume. I could brush my teeth for five minutes in a high-octane fashion and do so every six days. That would be classed as ‘regular’, wouldn’t it? But ‘habitual? Well, there’s where it gets all nuanced….

Why’s this important? Simple. It’s one thing for a fresh, enthusiastic, new reader to devour all the content available every day for two weeks, but it’s quite another to have a reader reliably read articles every other days over a four, five, six month period. The latter persona has clearly developed a habit. And, unlike hard drinking, this is a very good thing indeed.

There’s a reason we like to keep coming back to this point. It’s not just that the definition is groundbreaking (because frankly it is the first of its kind) – it’s because what it recognises that other approaches to loyalty don’t base their calculation on the fact that loyalty is – at its very core – a human behavior.

Once you understand who this band of merry, loyal readers are, how they interact with content is likely to be really informative – and indicative of how other, potential loyal users might behave also.

And, to draw this neatly round again, if your readers can sustain a habit, it’s more likely they’ll be able to sustain their subscriptions also. Boom. That’s the crux of it.

2. Befriend the data

Data is your friend. No, not in a frenemy kind of way. It’s the kind of friend that doesn’t mind terribly that you’ve ignored it these past years. It’s just glad you’ve finally decided to invest in the relationship.

‘Knowing’ your audience means communicating and engaging with them (read more about that here), but it also means understanding how they read what you publish.

In a market as competitive as this one, data isn’t a luxury. It’s an absolutely essential part of any newsroom’s toolkit. It has the power to reveal, prove, challenge and inspire all at once.

Many might find the prospect intimidating, but don’t prejudge today’s analytics solutions by last decade’s UX. They should be designed with newsrooms in mind, because they can. If they don’t, give us a call.

3. Time to review and upskill

What’s that saying? “If nothing changes, nothing changes”.

The way newsrooms are structured matters a great deal. Data and editorial should talk to each other, just as sales and marketing should speak to each other. Collaboration not only strengthens your company, but it also joins the dots in what can look more confusing than a Dalmatian’s back.

In the UK at the moment there’s been a great outcry about news that a university is proposing to drop shorthand from its journalism course. The impassioned responses on Twitter are a clear indication that tools and processes matter enormously, but also that there can be no one-size-fits-all answer. 

What suits one newsroom might not suit another, and that’s exactly as it should be. If we compare ourselves to our peers we’re closing in to what is already a very inward-looking industry. What we need to be doing is retooling in a way that supports the needs of our newsroom, our readers and our raison d’etre. If my local sports paper is modelling best practice on a national broadsheet, something’s off. By all means take inspiration, but let it be a guide, not a prescription. 

Where the new upstarts have the advantage over the established newsrooms of old is in the simple fact that they’re not wedded to long-accepted ideas about what newsrooms look like. They’re able to experiment with structures, and layouts, and reporting lines. They are, in short able to see what’s required for their readers and organize themselves accordingly. Just last week the Digiday podcast featured a conversation with love-it-or-hate-it lifestyle blog Goop, in which Elise Loehnen said she felt that their success was partly down to

4. Reader revenue takes many forms

Subscriptions don’t have to look like a monthly debit from your bank account. The idea of membership packages the idea of money-for-access differently – does this mean that the reader views the transaction differently (ie doesn’t count it as a subscription, but rather as an investment)? Perhaps paying for content through one-off donations, via a micropayment tool like Axate, or as part of a bundle seems more attractive. There are many ways to make it work. The more it needs to work, the more it seems likely we’ll find a way for it to.

One last thing…

There’s a running joke here in our content team that I’ve banned the use of the New York Times’ paywall as an example of subscription when we talk about success. I stand firmly by this. If you’re the New York Times, by all means look at what the New York Times are doing, but if you’re not? There’s plenty of inspiration to be had from elsewhere – and chances are it’ll be more transferable, anyway.

At the beginning of all this, it was pointed out that the smaller newsrooms are going to find it harder to monetize than their multinational counterparts. They certainly have challenges in order to do so. But you don’t have to be the NYT to make it work. Where it works though, is where editorial understand their audiences and produce content that is specialized and targeted enough to be considered worth paying for.

Go and look at what The Local are doing. They’ve successfully managed to move towards a subscription-funded model – and they’re decidedly unNYT-esque. If you’re feeling still more curious (and you have good Danish) go and check out ZetlandTortoise are doing interesting things with a slow-news model for those overwhelmed by information. Patreon – the crowdfunding-meets-patronage site – supports an ever increasing number of interesting, unique (and frankly often quite idiosyncratic) content creators through its pledge system. They’ve all been astute enough to know what their readers want, need and enjoy – and they have fostered loyalty by catering to that.

There’s a fine line between ‘pivoting’ on a whim and being agile enough to bend with the wind. Know the difference.

by Em Kuntze

Republished with kind permission of Content Insights, the next generation content analytics solution that translates complex editorial data into actionable insights.