- Many publishers’ initial approaches to subscription products often involved throwing a range of features and benefits against the wall to see what stuck.
- This resulted in many products touting a familiar smorgasbord of features, regardless of whether or not publishers had the expertise, bandwidth or budgets to deliver them.
- As subscribers demand greater value, some publishers might benefit from paring their subscription features back and focusing on the those that provide the most value.
Publishers rushed to launch subscription products over the past few years as the potential benefits and advantages of reader revenue models became apparent. In many instances that involved cobbling together features and benefits, positioning them as coherent products, and hoping they resonated with audiences enough to drive purchases.
As a result, subscription products often sported a familiar range of (sometimes confusing and seemingly-disparate) benefits and features, informed largely by what publishers’ peers and competitors are promising rather than the needs of their specific audiences. “Unlimited” access to content, ad-free experiences, community features, subscriber-only events, exclusive newsletters, subscriber audio, guides and reports, conference calls, research, analysis and more.
But as publishers’ early subscription efforts mature, the era of throwing features against a wall in the hope that something might stick is reaching its end. Consumers are paying much closer attention to the specific value they derive from the subscription products they pay for and are increasingly wary of publishers making bold or vague product promises they appear unlikely to keep. Meanwhile, many consumers are seeking to more closely control their costs and reign in their spending — particularly on subscription products they may or may not use regularly.
Many publishers might now benefit from reassessing the value of their subscription products, with a view to slimming down their offerings and leaning more heavily into areas where they can add unique and differentiated value. Publishers that continue to overpromise and under-deliver increasingly risk undermining their own value propositions and alienating their subscriber bases.
It’s also a prime opportunity to reevaluate paywall approaches and consider if the models and systems they have in place are well-matched to their value propositions. Some publishers are reorienting around freemium approaches, for example, via which specific segments of content and audiences are monetized via subscription and the remainder is underwritten by advertising and sponsorship.
The motivation for publishers’ smorgasbord approach to subscriber benefits is understandable. They want their products to appear as varied and value-packed as possible, to appeal to a relatively large portion of their audiences, and to create the sense that subscribers are paying for more than just access to content. The majority also had little understanding of what their audiences might want or need from a paid subscription when launching, so hedging their bets and experimenting was an obvious move.
But unsurprisingly, many publishers are now finding they’re spreading their resources and attention too thin, and that some of their features and benefits are coming up short in the eyes of subscribers. Events are often few and far between, community features are lifeless, in-depth reports are rarely as relevant or as actionable as promised, and subscribers are ultimately left wondering where the value they paid for is.
As the demands and expectations of subscribers continue to evolve, publishers looking to build sustainable subscription businesses should consider whether trimming their feature sets might now be in their best interests.
When evaluating subscriber features and benefits, publishers should consider:
- Are they overpromising? Consumers are becoming increasingly savvy around subscription products, and at this point many have been burned by products that promised too much and failed to deliver on their expectations. If a prospective subscriber doubts a publisher’s ability to deliver each feature to a high standard, converting them will prove more difficult.
- Are specific features helping or hurting overall perceived value? If a feature isn’t adding clear value for a significant portion of subscribers, there’s a good chance it’s diminishing broader value perception of the product.
- Does a broader feature set distract from core value? For those publishers that provide the majority of their value through one or two features, emphasizing additional features can often distract from the underlying value being provided. At the very least, care should be taken to emphasize core features in any marketing initiatives to ensure the relative importance and value of different features is clearly communicated.
- Does a broader feature set actually help drive conversions or retention? Publishers might assume that subscribers gravitate towards products with broader features, but that isn’t always the case. Any assumptions that more features result in greater value perception or help to boost conversions or retention should be challenged with behavioural or survey-based research.
- Would fewer features help create more powerful positioning? Products with fewer features are often far easier to market than those with many, enabling publishers to sharpen up their product positioning around a more focused value proposition.
- Could more revenue be generated by selling access to individual features? Every publisher likes the idea of subscribers utilizing every part of a product, but in many cases they derive value from just one or two features. Publishers should consider if they’re leaving money on the table by forcing potential subscribers to pay for broad sets of features when their primary interest lies in one or two.
- Would resources for an underused feature be better allocated elsewhere? Publishers are constantly balancing quality against quantity across their businesses. When it comes to subscriber features, fewer features of higher quality is almost always preferable to the inverse.
Many publishers have enjoyed success with their initial pushes into subscriptions, in some instances regardless of the quality of their products.
But those looking to build long-term business and subscriber bases may need to focus their efforts more squarely on quality rather than quantity – or invest more meaningfully in delivering on the features and benefits they’ve promised – in order to drive sustainable growth.
For more practical guidance on building sustainable subscription and membership products and businesses, see the Subscription Publishing Toolkit.