How to Create a Successful Online Subscription Product (Part 1)
These days, it seems that nearly every publisher is considering some form of paid subscription model. Companies want to diversify from reliance on advertising. Some want to adapt their print subscription model to the digital realm while others want to launch a new paid subscription offering online.
Unfortunately, most publishers aren’t setting themselves up to succeed. They underestimate the commitment it takes to make paid subscriptions successful online. They’re hesitant to make the necessary changes with their systems and tactics. Or they want they want paid subscriptions but aren’t willing to give up any online traffic or ad revenue to get it.
When you boil it all down, the big question isn’t about technology or advertising or metered versus hard paywalls. It’s about commitment. Are you committed to do what it takes to make a paid subscription model successful online?
First, You Must Have Great Content
Can I save you some time and trouble? Don’t even bother with a paid subscription model online unless you first have great content that is unique and truly hits the core needs or passions of your target audience. This is a non-negotiable. You must have content that people are actually willing to pay for.
Your subscriber-only content could be text and/or video, or it could be some sort of database, knowledge base, or tool that helps people with their job or personal passion. It could even be a private discussion forum with unique access to market experts (consumer or B2B). Or maybe you organize content or data in a way that is better than anyone else…people are willing to pay for convenience.
Whatever your subscriber value proposition is, it cannot be a commodity that your audience could get somewhere else for free. There is no tolerance for fluff content when people are paying for it. And while quality is more important than quantity, you must also add to, or update, your subscriber-only content weekly and preferably daily.
Lock Down Your Subscriber Content
This sounds like a no-brainer, but I still can’t believe how many publishers with paid subscriptions give away all of their content completely free on their website, app, or through a publicly-accessible digital flipbook. People won’t buy what you give away for free. You must lock down subscriber-only content on all platforms.
"People won’t buy what you give away for free."
Publishers are often hesitant to lock down subscriber content for fear their website traffic will decline. But an analysis usually shows that their fears are unfounded.
First, most publishers don’t sell out their inventory. Or if they do, it’s because they’re selling a bargain-basement rates or backfilling with extremely low revenue programmatic ads. With a few adjustments, most publishers could easily manage a reduction in website traffic without negatively impacting ad revenue.
Second, it is often more profitable to convert people into paid subscribers instead of monetizing them through website advertising. Think about it…an average website visitor comes to your site 1.5 times per month and sees 2 pages per visit. That’s 3 pageviews per month per person.
Now, let’s say you monetize your site at a very generous $100 RPM (revenue per thousand page views). That means you make 30 cents per month per person or $3.60 per year in advertising revenue. If you can monetize a subscription at even $1 per month, you’ll make more money from that individual than you will through advertising.
And remember…paid subscribers still look at ads on your site or in your print magazine.
This doesn’t mean that all content needs to be locked down for subscribers. You still need three tiers of content:
- Open content to attract new people and build your remarketing lists
- Lead magnets to build your email list
- Subscriber-only content locked behind a paywall
In fact, your subscriber-only content may wind up being a small percentage of your total content, but it must be your absolute best content and what people would be willing to pay for.
Address Your Platform Issues
Many publishers have platform issues with their CMS, fulfillment provider or email/CRM/marketing automation system. These must be addressed if you want to be successful with paid subscriptions online.
There are CMS providers – especially in the regional publisher market – that don’t even support locking down subscriber content or managing paid subscriptions. Other CMS providers manage paid subscriptions and subscriber content lockdown themselves but have a difficult time integrating with the subscription fulfillment providers that publishers already use.
As for subscription fulfillment providers…most do a poor job integrating with CMS systems for subscriber login and authentication. Payment processing and user account creation isn’t always real-time. Their form designers are usually very difficult to use, lack good visual form-building tools (like what you see with Leadpages or Unbounce), have limited or no A/B testing capabilities, and don’t easily integrate the publisher’s analytics and tagging systems.
Your subscription fulfillment provider must be able to get subscriber information into your email/CRM/marketing automation system. It’s preferable that this happen real-time, but even a once-per-month update via a CSV file can suffice if needed.
Why? Because to be successful with paid subscriptions online, you must have the ability to successfully market your subscription and better communicate with paid subscribers. You need to create marketing automation sequences and show conditional content to subscribers and non-subscribers both in email and on your website. We’ll dive deeper into this in my next article, “How to Market a Successful Paid Subscription Online”
You can overcome these platform limitations. It will take time, effort, and some investment to get them working well. In some cases, you may need to change your CMS, fulfillment provider, or email/CRM/marketing automation system.
But don’t be discouraged. It can be done…and must be if you want to be successful with paid subscriptions online.
So now that you’ve committed as a company to making paid subscriptions work online, you’re creating content that people will actually pay for, you’ve locked it down, and you’ve fixed your system, what’s next?
It’s time to market your paid subscription online. I’ll walk you through how do to this in How to Create a Successful Online Subscription Product (Part 2).
Eric Shanfelt is the founding partner of Nearview Media, a consulting firm that helps publishers with their digital revenue, audience and platform development. Eric is a 25-year digital media veteran and has been the Chief Digital Officer for several large publishing companies. You can reach Eric at email@example.com.