For many subscription publishers, the year ahead will be defined by a reorientation towards quality and value across their products, operations and businesses.
A confluence of factors is driving publishers to rethink their broader mindsets, priorities and expectations as they relate to subscriptions. Many are now reconsidering the strategies and tactics they’ve employed over the past few years, and are beginning to refocus on the fundamental drivers of long-term growth: offering high-quality, high-value products at sustainable price points.
A changing landscape
A new focus on quality and value is being driven by a range of factors and trends, some of which are more applicable to certain publishers than others. Most notably:
Competition is heating up: As publishers and independent creators flocked to subscription products in recent years, audiences now have no shortage of opportunities to spend their money. As supply increases, “good enough” is no longer good enough when it comes to subscriber content and features. Competition for subscription dollars will continue to increase, and those publishers delivering unique and differentiated content and value for their subscribers are increasingly standing out.
Audiences are more discerning: Consumers are now familiar and comfortable with paying for access to content on a subscription basis, but they’re also thinking more carefully about where they choose to spend their subscription dollars. After shopping around and sampling a range of products – often through widely available introductory offers and free trials – many are now paring down the services they subscribe to based on where they’re deriving the most value. Meanwhile, others have been burned by products that over-promised and under-delivered and are now wary of what they buy and who they buy from. This dynamic may differ for business-focused publishers vs. consumer ones, but audiences are making more careful choices about the services they intend to commit to on an ongoing basis.
Aggressive growth tactics are proving less effective: Growth hacks have a limited shelf-life, and publishers are increasingly finding many of the gimmicky tactics that have proved effective for converting new subscribers over the past few years now offer diminishing returns and are increasingly turning prospective subscribers off. Examples include free trials and heavily-discounted introductory offers, obtuse pricing structures, free gifts and one-time sign-up perks, and convoluted referral programs, to name a few.
Holding subscribers hostage is no longer a viable retention strategy: Consumers are now far more aware of the dubious retention practices that some publishers employ to effectively keep them trapped in subscriptions – including absurd requirements to cancel digital subscriptions via mail or by phone – and opaque cancellation policies increasingly risk costing publishers new subscribers. Meanwhile, the FTC is ramping up enforcement of new policies that effectively legally require most publishers to offer click to cancel functionality for their subscription products.
The news cycle is no longer a reliable driver of demand:News-driven publishers, particularly, should prepare for a challenging phase ahead in terms of both new subscriber acquisition and retention. The news cycle itself is no longer the reliable driver of ambient demand it has been over the past few years as interest in the coronavirus pandemic – and major politics and business stories such as the Trump presidency in the U.S. and Brexit in Europe – continues to wane.
How publishers are adjusting their strategies
In response to the factors above, many publishers are now reassessing nearly every part of their subscriptions operations including their content and features, product positioning and messaging, marketing and retention tactics, and even their definitions of success.
A few key themes are emerging:
Greater differentiation: As competition for subscriber dollars heats up and audiences become increasingly discerning with how they spend their subscription dollars, unique value and differentiation is essential. Publishers are investing more time, effort and money in truly understanding the needs, interests and demands of their specific audiences, rather than stamping out copycat products and relying on aggressive marketing tactics or paid acquisition to drive conversions with little real thought about product/market fit.
Quality over quantity: Part of the appeal of subscription models for publishers was the opportunity to move away from the volume-first mindsets that have historically underpinned digital media businesses. While they may claim to prioritise quality over quantity with subscriber content and features, many, in reality, have done little to adjust their mindsets and editorial operations to truly cater to subscription models. “Unlimited access to content” rarely tests well as a subscriber benefit in audience research, and publishers are now exploring ways to embed a quality over quantity approach more deeply into their editorial teams and broader organizations.
Simplicity: When it comes to subscriber features and benefits, more isn’t always more. Publishers are increasingly paring back their features and adjusting their product positioning to focus more squarely on the areas in which they deliver the most value. The “kitchen sink” approach to subscriber products and features is giving way to a more measured approach, with publishers doubling down on areas that resonate the most with subscribers, and pricing their products to better reflect it.
Transparency and clarity : Publishers looking to build sustainable long-term relationships with subscribers rather than optimizing to short-term conversions are rethinking their use of misleading marketing tactics and messaging. Dark patterns, convoluted pricing structures and opaque cancellation policies are giving way to greater clarity and transparency that can help promote subscriber confidence.
Better definitions of success: Many publishers have spent the past few years chasing subscriber volume for the sake of subscriber volume, often without clear strategies for how or when their subscriber numbers might translate to ongoing revenues. As they reorient their thinking around quality and value, publishers are moving towards “north star” metrics that more accurately reflect it. For many, that means deemphasizing subscriber volume to focus instead on goals that more directly relate to engaged subscriber bases and viable long-term businesses, such as revenue, lifetime value, subscriber engagement and value perception.