Toolkits asked a selection of publishing leaders what trends and challenges they believe will shape the year ahead for content-based subscription businesses.
A handful of key themes emerged, including why transparency and clarity are crucial for building trust and credibility with subscribers, how to convince audiences to register, and the importance of optimizing for the long-term.
- Fiona Spooner, Financial Times – managing director of consumer revenue
- Julia Beizer, Bloomberg Media – chief digital officer
- Emilie Harkin & Rachel Sturm, The Guardian – svp of growth & director of consumer revenue
- Samantha Winkelman, The Daily Beast – svp of product
- Michael Ribero, Condé Nast – svp of consumer revenue
- Steve Hayes, The Dispatch – editor and chief executive officer
- Corinne Osnos, Foreign Policy – head of subscriptions
- Heidi Strom Moon, Slate – director of subscriptions
- Matt Lindsay, Mather Economics – chief executive officer
- George Di Guido, The Information – vp of growth
- Stephanie Solomon, Foreign Affairs – chief revenue officer
Putting trust and transparency first
Fiona Spooner, managing director of consumer revenue, Financial Times
Trust and credibility: 2024 will be a consequential year for democracy, and there’s a huge opportunity for trusted publishers to be a source of truth. At the FT, we put trust and transparency first – not only with our gold-standard journalism but also throughout the customer experience. For example, we’re enhancing our cancellation journeys to make them as easy as possible for customers to cancel, pause, and renew their subscriptions. Although stricter governance of subscription contracts could lead to higher churn rates, lower conversion rates, and additional operational costs and complexity, greater transparency increases customer engagement and loyalty, which is at the heart of everything we do.
Generative AI (of course): Exponential growth in Gen AI tooling is a potential threat for publishers, especially when it comes to intellectual property, marketing tactics and our internal processes. At the same time, we think it will bring significant benefits, such as improving the efficiency of our marketing campaigns and customer communications with enhanced audience targeting and offer relevancy. We also have a huge opportunity to use AI in the way we communicate with our customers, particularly around subscription management and delivery complaints. It’s important for publishers to cautiously embrace AI but, crucially, also invest in education across the business to ensure employees understand the risks and opportunities and how to make the best use of AI, both technically and ethically.
Data privacy & first-party data: Having a direct relationship with our customers has been a fundamental part of our business. It is as important today as it was when we first implemented a paywall. The removal of third-party cookies from the landscape in 2024 creates a risk to current revenues, but the focus on first-party data acquisition and monetization will also reap huge benefits.
Optimizing for the long-term
Julia Beizer, chief digital officer, Bloomberg Media
Subscription publishers are now in it for the long haul. The days of the Trump Bump and the heady search-and-social spikes are over. And that’s good news for those of us still in the game. Instead of focusing on acquisition above all, we can put our efforts into the hard, sometimes-unglamorous work that goes into any long-term relationship: learning about our users, meeting their needs, repeat.
Some trends I expect we’ll see:
- Eschewing of monthly: Annual plans are better plans – at the right price, they give our users a long time to determine whether or not they see value in our offerings. Subscription publishers will also bank on longer-term trials as a way to build loyalty.
- Utility as a feature: Publishers need to prove their value beyond content. What distribution methods fit into our users’ lives? How might AI help users get more out of our content? Can personalization drive greater user value?
- Skinny bundling: Publishers will experiment with new bundles to capture audiences that don’t need or want the full offering.
Subscription businesses remain a game of inches. To make them work, we have to grind out great work every day in support of our readers’ needs. But when it all starts to click, the rewards are so sweet.
Treating readers and supporters with respect
Emilie Harkin & Rachel Sturm, svp of growth & director of consumer revenue, The Guardian
The Guardian’s end-of-year appeal campaign calls 2024 “one of the most consequential news cycles of our lifetimes”; and while we don’t yet know exactly what the headlines will be, we do know the importance of being a media company that people can trust. We earn that trust by publishing reliable and credible journalism, of course, but also by treating readers and supporters with respect and care.
That means using data and technology not to exploit our audience but to enrich their experience; providing clarity and transparency to our more than 250,000 recurring donors, especially on payment details; as well as giving them the ability to control and change account settings with ease. As the subscription economy becomes increasingly crowded—not just in news but in streaming, food, beauty boxes, and more—respecting our audiences will become ever more important. In the end, we want our readers to have a customer experience that allows them to focus on our journalism above all else.
Giving people more reasons to register
Samantha Winkelman, svp of product, The Daily Beast
Registration has already proved its role as a win-win for readers and publishers. Readers get to do what they want – read the article for free. Publishers get an email address, which benefits two often opposing business lines by entering a reader into the subscription funnel and enabling first-party ad targeting. With this, we saw the rise of the combination registration wall/paywall this year, which made total sense and will continue. But there’s still a tradeoff for gating content, namely bounced users and ad revenue.
The why, when, and how of acquisition and churn will continue to reign supreme as subscription business priorities, but registration will become a bigger part of that mix. Specifically, why else would a person want to register? What other features or formats can unlock this exchange?
Publishers will focus more on understanding this growing sliver of audience and testing ways to get that email address with lower tradeoffs. Maybe not all incentives will provide that same instant gratification of registering to read an article, but they will (or at least should) deliver clear value for the reader – like the ability to save articles. This should continue to be a win-win: investing in experiences to engage readers and bolstering the benefits of a registered experience in a way that grows the business. And ultimately, whatever is unearthed about this class of users will help snag that subscription in the end, too.
Converting first-time subscribers without eroding value perceptions
Michael Ribero, svp of consumer revenue, Condé Nast
I am interested in how we can get the 80% of people who don’t pay for digital publications to start without eroding perceived quality and long-term value. Maybe it’s continuing low introductory rates and/or bundles, but I’d love to see someone innovate the model more dramatically. I’ve thought about tiering and incremental utility through new features but I’d love to hear more!
In 2023, I think many publications learned the need for specificity in their 1st party data approach. I think key foundational questions like what data point(s) are we going to collect, where are we going to collect these data points, are we going to force readers or incentivize them to share, and how are we going to use this data to grow and capture more value were required to be answered (or people are still working through them). Some might have even asked how do we build them into our processes going forward.
Treating subscriptions as relationships rather than transactions
Steve Hayes, editor and chief executive officer, The Dispatch
We’ll probably never see an end to gimmicks to push subscriptions, but in a business where trust is at a premium, I think publishers will increasingly look to push subscriptions in ways that build trust — or at least don’t erode it. If your product is worth $100/year, charging 1/100 of that to get people in the door devalues your goods and their intellect.
There are, of course, dozens of things that contribute to a successful subscription publishing business. But nothing matters more than understanding subscriptions/memberships as relationships rather than mere transactions.
Relying on sleeper subscribers is not a viable strategy
Corinne Osnos, head of subscriptions, Foreign Policy
In 2024, media brands can no longer rely on retaining sleeper subscribers as a viable strategy. Technological advancements combating subscription fatigue will be integrated into platforms, reminiscent of major banking apps that now incorporate features replacing Venmo and Klarna. Take Gmail, for instance, which suggests unsubscribing from senders whose emails go unopened. Users will gain the ability to set reminders to unsubscribe, along with optimizations revealing potential savings from cutting recurring costs.
On the acquisition side, artificial intelligence will predict subscription sales based on past behavior, advising potential subscribers to wait for better deals or consider alternative plans for optimal savings. Consumers will employ these tools for informed spending decisions. Coupled with robust consumer protection standards, these changes will prompt media companies to rethink the value they provide to subscribers. The shift to Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) will accelerate, focusing companies on reinforcing lasting relationships with a smaller customer base.
Unique voices and impactful coverage that can’t be found elsewhere
Heidi Strom Moon, director of subscriptions, Slate
In 2024, we’ll continue to face some of the challenges that started to pick up this year, including news avoidance and the decline of social referrals resulting in digital publications competing for a share of an ever-shrinking audience. On the audio side, competition for earballs is similarly fierce. When we get those new readers and listeners into our funnels, we have to compete for a share of wallet. And as many digital subscriptions – from media companies to behemoths like Netflix and Disney Plus – increase revenue by increasing price, retention becomes a bigger challenge than ever.
The good news is that these challenges also create opportunities. If you have unique voices and impactful or interesting coverage that can’t be found anywhere else, your loyal audience will stay with you, and new audiences will discover you. They’ll also be willing to pay for it—and keep paying for it, year after year.
For Slate, this means our incomparable jurisprudence coverage of the courts and the law, led by the legendary Dahlia Lithwick. It also means launching new useful and unexpected features for the news-weary, like Human Guinea Pig and One Thing, which offers personal odes to one thing that makes life better. We also expanded our news-adjacent features like the Slate Quiz, making it a new daily habit. We’ll also be building on our audio portfolio – one of the earliest in the business, launching in 2005 – with new shows covering everything from politics to wellness that feature expert voices.
Every publication’s brand centers around the journalism it does best. Finding new ways to build on and expand that journalism will help us find opportunities within the challenges of 2024.
Publishers add focused content for niche audience segments
Matt Lindsay, chief executive officer, Mather Economics
My predictions for subscriptions in 2024 reflect the slowing macroeconomic environment, product innovations that are taking place, advances in AI and other technologies, and the maturity of many digital subscription offerings.
I expect 2024 to bring higher average prices for subscriptions as publishers leverage their pricing power with core customers to offset slower acquisition volumes. Churn rates should be higher in 2024 due to slowing growth or declines in household disposable income. Publishers will focus on capturing first-party data using aggressive acquisition offers, access to games, or registration walls, and product bundling will grow as publishers add focused content for niche audience segments, games that grow engagement with the publisher’s content and audience community, and audio/video content access. Subscription companies are also focusing on efficiency gains to lower costs as well as improvements in the effectiveness of their operations by using AI to automate processes and optimize their user experiences and management of their subscriber lifecycle.
A specific focus on audience development
George Di Guido, vp of growth, The Information
A key theme for next year will be audience development. Publishers will continue to look at ways to scale their audience base and returning to a specific focus on audience development should, if done correctly, have a big impact on publisher bottom lines.
With respect to challenges, AI will be something publishing subscription businesses continue to have a love/hate relationship with. Love in the ways that it will help market, personalize, and simplify workflows and hate with respect to LLMs using their articles to train on and allowing users to get summaries vs paying for a subscription. Some publishers will embrace it, some will look at ways to prevent it from eating away at their businesses.
A focus on owned properties
Stephanie Solomon, chief revenue officer, Foreign Affairs
As the utility of 3rd party platforms declines, experimentation will come back to the home front; Website redesign, paywall testing, native app investment etc. Publishers will focus on cultivating engagement and maximizing attention on their own properties, which will help acquisition and reduce churn.