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Implementing a subscription model – what should publishers consider?

Adi Pinco, July 20, 2022


Takeaways:

  • Diversifying revenue streams is essential for publishers to expand on offerings and create a balanced subscription model
  • Website optimization is vital for publishers that want to convert flyby users into loyal brand users
  • Publishers need to communicate with audiences to understand better what loyal users are looking for when it comes to subscriptions and contextualized ads
Photo by ConvertKit on Unsplash

Like everyone else, we’re pleased that the coronavirus rollercoaster seems to be coming to an end (touch wood). For publishers, however, the ongoing unreliability of ad budgets has left them wondering if there is another way to gain the stable revenue needed to keep creating great content. The majority, it seems, have settled on subscriptions.

Subscriptions have become a part of all of our daily lives. We have music subscriptions, TV subscriptions, grocery subscriptions – even clothes subscriptions. While the declaration that we now live in a ‘Subscription Economy’ might be overblown (I’m not sure I need new underwear sent via subscription), the options are, essentially, endless.

But subscription models aren’t as simple as building a paywall, sitting back, and waiting for the money to roll in. Publishers need to ask themselves some serious questions before diving headfirst into the world of subscriptions:

What are your aims?

The New York Times’ recent proclamation that it had reached 10 million subscribers will have been a vindication of the subscription model to some publishers. But the cold truth is that the hard paywall model implemented by the NYT and others such as The Financial Times probably won’t work for many publishers.

When deciding if and how to implement a paywall, publishers first need to ask themselves what their aims are – audience growth, for example, can be stunted by the implementation of hard paywalls.

A soft paywall, on the other hand – one that partitions some content but leaves some free to read – can offer both a solid user base and help turn first-time or fleeting users into paid subscribers. Alternatively, paywalls that reward subscribers with bonus content can reward your most loyal visitors while leaving others to explore the rest of the site.

Whichever path you take, you need to have a clear vision of long-term goals and factor in how a paywall can get you there.

Is your website optimized?

No one likes a slow website. Many of us are still scarred from the agonizingly slow days of dial-up and are relieved those times are behind us. For all publishers, keeping their websites as fast and responsive as possible is a priority. But when users are paying to use your service, your website has to work perfectly.

With frameworks like Google’s Core Web Vitals providing a clear set of metrics relating to speed, responsiveness, and visual stability, poor site performance should be a thing of the past. While it can seem basic, optimizing these pushes up a website’s CWV performance and ultimately keeps loyal users coming back.

Are there other options?

Everyone knows not to put all their eggs in one basket – and in the same vein, publishers should be wary about banking solely on subscriptions? Audio and video, for example, have captured eyes and ears worldwide – especially during the last few years. The barrier to entry for those mediums is also getting lower all the time, allowing publishers of all sizes to add their voices to these new spaces.

And while the whole point of subscription models is to lessen reliance on advertising, publishers cannot simply dismiss it altogether. Online advertising is continuing to mature, with expanding safety and suitability options giving brands more confidence to invest, while cookieless targeting solutions are providing a new way to reach consumers when third-party data is phased out.

Diversifying revenue streams shouldn’t be binary – various different content types can be balanced to enhance a subscription model.

What does your audience want?

Any subscription model will fail if you don’t consider one key thing – your audience. Publishers need to listen to what their audiences actually want and whether they’d be willing to pay for it. 

Diving into the data and examining audience journeys can help determine the right balance for your audience. Reaching out and asking them for input can also be powerful. They may be willing to pay for new forms of content a publisher does not currently offer – such as audio or video – or they may be willing to pay micropayments for newsletters or certain columns. Conversely, they may be simply happy to view more advertising on the site but not pay a subscription at all.

Finding the right solution will involve trial and error, but by listening to audiences, publishers can make small adjustments to strike the perfect balance instead of wholesale changes.

Laying the foundations for a hard paywall? Looking to entice users with exclusive content? Get in touch with our team if you’d like to talk more about how subscriptions can work for your site.