We have reached a point at which paid subscription growth, for many media companies, feels unattainable. I both vehemently disagree and, sadly, agree. There are more tools than ever for reaching larger audiences (the disagree part), yet, most of the time, they are not deployed to their full potential (the agree part).
“No one is seeing an increase in paid subscription revenue.” “Of course I lowered the circulation revenue budget; it was unrealistic when the budget was created and it’s proven to be unrealistic now.” “Our subscribers are dying off, and the ones behind them don’t want a print subscription.” “You should reward me for just maintaining a sellable circulation number.”
Sound familiar? From my experience, this is usually the perspective of the same circulation (or audience development) professionals that are sending out postcards and emails with a homogenized message to a diverse audience expecting (cynically) to replace canceled subscriptions with new ones. “We will be incredibly lucky if we can keep revenue even close to even to last year. No one is growing paid.”
Some will partially overcome shortfalls with “escalating subscription pricing,” which I discourage. Under this model, for example, the first subscription is purchased for $89.99, the next year it becomes $122.99, the year after that it becomes $140.99, and so on. I’ve been in meetings during which I’ve challenged this approach and was told that it was “common practice” and “this is the only way to keep any circulation revenue.”
This practice began pre-web when there was little to no transparency in pricing, when there were limited ways for an audience to gain its information. It’s an approach that should have ended years ago, and probably never should have begun. The same people who engage in this practice would scream foul if it was used on them.
Consider what service escalates its customers’ payments, thinking they are too distracted to review the bill? Generally, the types of companies most distrusted by consumers: cable and internet providers and mobile carriers.
The most significant asset a media company has is its audience, and during a time when trust is the most powerful currency, publishers shouldn’t do anything that will undermine how their brands are perceived. There is a stratosphere of content choices available to consumers, many of which are free. A paid subscription relationship is no less precious and fragile than a personal relationship, and it should be treated accordingly.
As long as you have an online subscription form and are practicing the escalating subscription pricing model, it’s only a matter of time before trust is destroyed and audiences form new habits.
“Paid subscriptions are declining and you are challenging us to remove a common practice that has worked. How are you proposing we stay in business?”
Cost-Effective Ways to Retain and Grow Subscriptions
I once worked with a media company that sent out the same subscription form (mail, email, pop-up, banner, text) to all current, past and potential paid subscribers. There was no recognition of an individual’s specific content needs.
When the team was asked to come up with marketing approaches that would attract and maintain subscribers, the best idea presented was to charge $1 for the first month, and then hit their credit card (which was obtained during the $1 transaction) with the full amount on a monthly or annual basis going forward.
That is, until they call to cancel their subscription, at which time a negotiated price is determined to hold onto the relationship. That act of a subscriber contacting a brand to cancel the subscription, the customer support involved in negotiating the price, the cost of marketing that subscription (technology, design, headcount, overhead, etc.), and the fulfillment operation makes the cost of that subscriber pretty high.
We tested the approach with light success. As long as you are clear with the pricing, no harm is done. Plus, we want our teams to try out new ideas and experiment.
Today, customers expect communication and not to be sold to on a transactional basis. Storytelling is what media companies do so well. Taking a similar approach to your subscription strategy creates a bond, a sense of belonging and alignment with the media brand. It’s how you get married and stay married, and is one of the reasons metered paywalls are so successful.
One size fits all just doesn’t work. War planes were once designed to fit the average-sized pilot. The result was lower pilot performance. Why? There’s no such thing as an average-sized pilot. What was the solution? Adjustable seats.
Bring together the editorial and circulation/audience development teams and workshop assumptions, or personas, about who four or five typical subscribers are on a human level. If your brand is serving B2B retail, for example, there are levels of management, sales, marketing, purchasing, suppliers, associations, etc. If your brand is serving B2C, there are different levels of interest, knowledge and sense of belonging.
Once the different subscribers are developed based on a hypothetical subscriber’s role, career, interests, habits, desires, use of time, etc., then it’s time to test these assumptions. Work with a researcher on structuring a survey that enables you to more fully understand each individual type and what their subscription triggers are. How do you communicate with them to establish a must-have relationship?
Bring the team back together with the sales and marketing pros and present to them your assumptions and findings. Allow them challenge themselves and together define the four to five (or more) personas per brand that can impact how circulation teams solicit them, how editors write for them, how events are structured and how salespeople represent them in the market. This deeper, organizational grasp will inevitably introduce new products and revenue streams.
With digital marketing, identifying each persona and targeting them at a relatively low cost is another available method. I’m not suggesting one message at this point to each persona; I’m pushing for multiple versions of each persona’s message, watching to see which ones work the best and then optimizing each buy. A CEO’s desire for a paid subscription is going to be different from the CFO’s. A homeowner’s desire for a paid subscription might differ from a condo owner’s desire, which might differ from someone who owns a summer home, and so on.
All these findings should be shared openly with the entire brand’s team, as they will influence every area of your business in a new, more connected way.
This persona creation and testing experience will not only define messaging, it will provide insights on structuring paywall pricing, defining a new “membership” offering and, ultimately, an e-commerce strategy.
Audience development today means aligning subscribers with the messaging that resonates the loudest with them. It means increasing trust, not escalating rates because there is a belief no one will look at the subscription web page or the universal “tote bag” offering—which, amazingly, is still widespread. The more you know about your audience, their personas and their habits, the easier it will be to retain them.
This is the era of rewarding the loyal and transforming detractors into promoters. Let me be clear, this is by no means a pushback on introductory annual subscription rates that are transparent in purpose. Advertisers want one-on-one communication with prospects. You already can do this; it’s only a shift in thinking and confidence in what you uniquely provide to maintain and grow your paid audience.