There have been a lot of articles recently about publishers, namely the New York Times and Norwegian publisher Amedia, having substantial success with subscription models. While reading these articles, there are two questions that you may well ask – the idea of subscriptions isn’t exactly a recent one, so why are we only starting to really see publishers successfully using them now? And what benefits are subscription models bringing to publishers that other revenue generating tactics, like paywalls and advertising, are not?
To answer the first question, we need to consider what some of the key problems in publishing are right now. Off the top of my head, ad blockers and fake news spring to mind. When we consider this, the benefits of subscriptions to publishers at this moment in time start to become clearer.
REASON 1: AN ALTERNATIVE TO ADS
There is a reason ad blocker usage is on the rise, and it’s because readers (including myself) are becoming increasingly fed up with adverts filling our screens. One thing we can deduce from this, as well as from the rise in paying subscribers is that we are becoming more willing to pay for content without (or certainly with less) advertising if we feel it is good enough. In short, readers want an alternative to advertising.
Publishers are also gradually starting to discover that advertising revenue alone may not be enough to sustain them, and that other revenue sources are required, and it isn’t just because we readers are rebelling against ads. It is also due to our increasing use of mobile to consume content on. Google and Facebook, for the want of a better word, own the mobile ad market; having over half of the market share between them in 2015. It is probably unrealistic for a publisher to think that advertising will provide enough revenue on mobile by itself. In short, publishers, in many cases, could do with an alternative to advertising.
Subscriptions, certainly on the surface, seem to fit the bill for both parties, on one hand providing an alternative income stream (certainly on mobile) for publishers, and on the other providing an alternative to those pesky adverts for readers.
REASON 2: MORE LOYAL READERS
As you are almost certainly aware, fake news is also a major gripe with readers at present. We are, on the whole, less trusting of publishers and the content they publish than we have been for a very long time. As a result, if we truly perceive your content to be well-researched and honest in its claims and information, and we feel welcome and valued on your site (through personalisation and a good user experience), then we will be prepared to pay for it.
Bearing this in mind, it seems reasonable to charge your audience (certainly your more frequent readers) to read your content, certainly from a monetisation perspective. But what advantages do subscriptions have over other monetisation strategies? The answer, put simply, is flexibility. Often the main factor dissuading us paying for a service is the thought of paying for things that we’re just not going to use, and thus wasting our hard-earned money. Having flexibility with subscriptions averts this problem, and increases the probability that people will pay for the content they like and benefit from.
Developing relationships with audiences and prioritising the customer is looking more and more like the way forward for publishers, and subscription strategies, with the flexibility and targeting that goes with them, are an effective way of going about this.
REASON 3: DATA
Subscribers not only provide money, but they provide valuable data too. Even the most basic details (gender, age, region etc.) can help a publisher see the demographics of the readers who engage more within certain topics, or respond better to certain types of content.
The data gathered from subscribers has a plethora of benefits, ranging from vital knowledge about your audience (both on a general and a personal level) to the ability to more accurately predict what your audience will want in the future before they even know they want it (giving you the time to focus on the design and quality aspects of the content.)
The digital publishing industry has changed a lot over a considerably short space of time. Ad blockers are slowly yet ruthlessly suffocating ad revenues, and we are looking for content we can trust more than ever before. We want our reading experience to be as tailored to us and our interests as possible, and we are more inclined to pay for content that provides this than we have ever been before. Whilst subscriptions won’t work for everyone and potentially won’t generate the same amount of revenue as ads (not in the short term, at least), it is beyond doubt that our wants and habits as readers are changing, and that adopting more customer-based approaches (with subscriptions the eventual goal) is definitely an avenue worth considering.