In this week’s Subscription Publishing Briefing:
The marketing messages that drive news subscriptions most effectively
When attempting to convince consumers to pay for news subscriptions, publishers should give consumers multiple reasons to do so, according to a new study conducted by a team of researchers from City University London and Universität München.
The study established four main categories of marketing messages (or “subscription pitches”) and tested the effect each had on a sample of 815 U.K. consumers’ self-reported willingness to pay for online news. The categories were: digital-specific (i.e. replacing print with online access), social (being part of a community), normative (supporting independent journalism), and price transparency (highlighting the difficult economics of news publishing.)
Messages were tested alone and in 11 different combinations of two, three and four approaches. Participants were instructed to imagine they had come across the subscription pitch while browsing the website of a newspaper they like., and although the pitches themselves were not branded for any specific publisher, they were written to mimic common approaches.
The findings showed that no single message proved more effective than any other when presented in isolation. Consumers reacted no differently when asked to support independent journalism than they did when asked to become part of a community, for example.
Combinations of two or more pitches did boost willingness to pay, however, with two combinations proving particularly effective. The first was normative and price transparency (i.e. asking consumers to support independent journalism and why it needs funding to survive.) The second was a three-pronged approach of digital, social and price transparency, (ie focussing on community, why journalism needs funding to survive, and messaging around digital-only products and pricing.)
The research also found that gender, education, monthly income, and frequency of access to online news via desktop are not significantly associated with people’s willingness to pay. However, the older people are, and the more frequently they access online news via mobile the greater their willingness to pay for online news.
The FTC sued Amazon for “sabotaging” consumers’ attempts to cancel subscriptions
The Federal Trade Commission has sued Amazon, accusing the online retail giant of using deceptive practices that make canceling subscriptions to its Prime product intentionally difficult for consumers. The FTC said Amazon used “manipulative, coercive or deceptive user-interface designs known as ‘dark patterns’ to trick consumers into enrolling in automatically renewing Prime subscriptions,” and it’s seeking civil penalties and a permanent injunction to prevent future violations.
Specifically, the complaint said that consumers who attempted to cancel Prime were faced with multiple steps to actually accomplish the task of canceling. Consumers had to first locate the cancellation flow, which Amazon made difficult to do. They were subsequently directed to multiple pages that presented several offers to continue the subscription at a discounted price, to simply turn off the auto-renew feature, or to decide not to cancel. Only after clicking through these pages could consumers finally cancel the service.
Subscription businesses in the U.S. are facing growing scrutiny from the FTC around their cancellation practices, including publishers and media companies. The commission proposed a formal provision earlier this year that would require companies to offer more straightforward self-service cancellation mechanisms. “If you can sign up online, you must be able to cancel on the same website, in the same number of steps,” the commission said.
User-experience experts say large technology companies have become particularly adept at making it easy to sign up for recurring payments while intentionally making them challenging to cancel, but publishers are no strangers to aggressive convoluted practices, often forcing consumers to call or chat with representatives to disable auto-renewing payments.
While aggressive cancellation practices may help subscription businesses retain revenue in the short term, they increasingly risk alienating potential subscribers as consumers become increasingly familiar with them.
Navigating a patchwork of subscription renewal laws at the state level is becoming increasingly challenging for U.S. publishers, and companies such as The New York Times are increasingly finding themselves on the receiving end of class action suits. But as the FTC steps up its focus on subscription practices, lawsuits against high-profile companies such as Amazon will increasingly set precedents and will prompt more publishers to reevaluate their cancellation processes.
Promotional subscription prices nearly halved in the past year
The average promotional price for major publishers’ subscription products has nearly halved in the past 12 months, according to Toolkits research.
Toolkits reviewed the 100 most popular subscription sites among U.S. audiences and found that the average price available to new subscribers was $0.043 per day in June 2023, down 43.4% from an average of $0.076 per day in June 2022. (The length of access offered at promotional prices varied between publishers.)
Also worth noting:
- Benchmark your subscription performance against other publishers and digital media companies with Recurly’s latest Media Benchmarks. Download the data here. [Sponsored]
- Our database of leading publishers’ subscription landing pages was just updated for June. We’re now tracking the subscription page approaches of 100 top U.S. publishers, but please let us know if there are specific publisher sites you’d like us to add to our sample.
- We shared a little additional data with Nieman Lab on promotional pricing trends for publishers’ subscription offerings. Among the top 10 newspapers that offer promotional digital subscription prices in the U.S., the average promotional price decreased by 16% from June 2022 ($0.074 per day) to June 2023 ($0.062 per day).
- Nieman also explored why news subscriptions feel like a burden to young people.
- The New York Times is experimenting with text messaging in an attempt to hook new subscribers for its Cooking product. For the next six weeks, people in the U.S. can text a fruit or vegetable emoji to “361-COOK-NYT” and receive a link to a recipe for free featuring that food item.
- At least 23% of the $88 billion spent annually by marketers on web-based programmatic advertising is a waste,according to a new report from the Association of National Advertisers, the release of which coincided with the Cannes Lions festival in France last week. The report said advertisers often focus more on the cost of advertising than value, leading to poor ad placements and costing legitimate publishers revenue as a result.
- Publishers are increasingly attempting to reinvigorate dormant email subscribers in an attempt to boost engagement and revenue.
- Canada’s parliament on Thursday passed the Online News Act, which will seek to force Google and Facebook to pay publishers for news. In response, Meta said it will follow through with threats to block “news availability” on Facebook and Instagram in Canada before the bill takes effect.
- A change to Facebook’s algorithm in May caused a dramatic drop in traffic to news and media websites, according to publishers and data from social media management company Echobox.