To Grow Online Subscriptions, Get Out of the Reader's Way
I have this feeling we’re on the verge of an upswing in media. I say this every January, but this time I really mean it. Really. I do believe that there’s been a gradual shift in thinking by media owners and the general public, and we’re balanced on a tipping point. It’s become clear, in recent months, that people do want to read well written and authoritative journalism. This gives me hope for the future, but the obstacle in the path is us.
Keep It Simple, Stupid
I was at a neighborhood party recently and was introduced to a guy who asked what I did, I told him my background and he immediately told me, in his mind, what was frustrating about our industry. He had been reading a trail of news articles online and had landed on a newspaper website (which I won’t name). Having read several articles he was directed to a subscription page. Being a weekend reader of the print newspaper he impulsively decided to jump in and subscribe. He was offered a number of options, each of which he needed to consider and before he had a chance to figure out what was right for him his email pinged. It was an important work email, so he closed his browser window, attended to the email and then went to see what his kids were up to. He was intending to go back and subscribe, but his interest waned. He told me that media has become as bad at selling product as insurance and banking. Ouch.
I decided to follow his journey and see how I felt about the process as a potential customer. I sat at my laptop, set up a stopwatch on my phone and began browsing the site and reading news articles. I hit the paywall and started my stopwatch. Bear in mind that I had already spent 15 minutes on the site, at least, without any interruption, which is unusual. Here’s what happened:
- I arrived at the main subscription page and was offered 3 options. This took me 4m25s to fully understand and I still wasn’t sure, as none seemed to be tailored to my needs.
- A further 2m14s of figuring out whether I need crossword access (you flatter me) or a print copy delivered and I finally came to the conclusion that I wanted the cheapest option.
- I then noticed the 4 other, largely irrelevant, options creeping in at the foot of the page. So I checked these, just to be sure, for 55s.
- At this point I spotted the FAQs hovering below, enticing me to back out. I browsed these and saw the cancellation policy, which I felt I should read. Another 1m15s.
At this point I’ve been on the subscription site almost 9 minutes and feel as though I’ve spent most of that being talked down from the ledge. The process gave me so many reasons to give up and planted doubt at every step. I don’t want to make this many choices, who does? When we’re given too many choices it’s inevitable that we will spend more time questioning our own decisions. The smart people will just take the cheaper option and consider an upgrade later, so why not just give them that option as step 1 and let them upgrade quickly and easily in steps over time? What I’m getting to here, in my usual rambling way, is that we’re at a tipping point where we need to look at other business models and start considering our product as being CaaS (Content as a Service). Give the reader one choice, make it a monthly payment, price it below a cup of coffee if you can and let them upgrade easily in future so that their monthly payment increases. The idea of ‘land and expand’ is hardly new, but still applicable.
There's Still a Place for Print
At the same party I spoke to another guy who said he felt nostalgic about magazines. He used to have print subscriptions to a men’s lifestyle and a weekly current affairs magazine. He found, over time, that his appetite for these was being satisfied online; where he could more easily fill the gaps in his day, so he cancelled years ago. Now he misses having a magazine subscription. He misses the buzz of getting a surprise in the mail. He misses having them lying around his house. You don’t get that warmth online. I asked him what content he’d buy in a print format and he was very clear. He would be unlikely to deviate offline for news and lifestyle content, which makes perfect sense, but he would consider buying a print product that catered to his special interest and hobbies. This explains perfectly why the market for niche is standing up so well.
Niche and hobby publishing has a strong future in all formats, by building small communities of like-minded people. This is why blogging and social media groups have become successful and grown so quickly. It’s not Facebook themselves, but their users who are actively building the communities and audiences, which is our remit. If we’re looking for areas of growth then this is the natural place to start rebuilding our strategy for all content formats, online and offline. Whilst researching fast-growing niche Facebook groups I came across Barn Finds, which is a great example and has almost 230k followers at the time of writing. This is the kind of content that would have been given perhaps 2 pages in the back of a classic car magazine, but there’s clearly a big interest in the classic car restoration community, enough perhaps to support a (hyper) niche brand. Building a community like this, in my mind, is the most profitable future. It may not suit our business model to have a wide spread of products, brands and communities, but we’re being pulled in that direction.
If we could apply ourselves to simplifying our price offering, giving people a reason to feel warmth towards our physical print brand, and a reason to connect within the communities we are creating then we may have a bright future in all formats. I’d forgotten about the warm feeling of my magazine arriving in the mail, and I’m feeling inspired to buy a print subscription, for the first time since 2009. Let’s just hope it’s a simple process and not riddled with choices.
Robert Grainger had 15 years experience in magazines in the UK before co-founding Stonewash, building apps for publishers, in 2009. He served as the CEO of Stonewash until its sale in 2015 and has served on the board of SiiA (Europe), as well as being a regular speaker and commentator on the subject of digital media.