This week in Subscription Publishing:
- Rebundling is underway: Publishers and media companies are stepping up their efforts to acqui-hire newsletters and publications written by prominent independent writers and creators, largely to add breadth and help drive retention for their own subscription products.
- The FTC is continuing its crackdown on “dark patterns” and other tactics used by some publishers to mislead users around product pricing, subscription terms and cancellation policies. The heightened scrutiny should ultimately benefit publishers with strong, viable products by weeding out others whose businesses rely on nefarious practices and growth hacks.
- Bloomberg falls short of its subscription target as interest in news content slumps, but NYT continues to add subscribers at a healthy clip.
- Facebook is testing ways for creators to charge for access to groups.
- How to institute powerful subscriber onboarding processes that promote early product engagement, minimize churn and maximize revenue.
Media companies are acqui-hiring independent newsletter writers, creators and publishers
A slew of high-profile journalists and content creators left roles at major media companies over the past few years to go it alone with independent newsletters, podcasts and micro media entities of their own.
Now, media companies are “acqui-hiring” many of those writers back, scooping up collections of newsletters to offer their paid subscribers access to bundles of analysis and opinion from prominent voices on a range of vertical topics. (Once upon a time, these writers may have been referred to as “columnists”.) As many subscription publishers shift their primary focus from all-out subscriber acquisition to place more emphasis on retention, offering subscribers access to a broader set of content and features — or a “network” of writers — could help drive engagement and mitigate churn, the thinking goes.
Last week The Atlantic announced it will now offer its subscribers newsletters from nine individual writers, including Charlie Warzel — who had left The New York Times in April to launch his own technology-focused newsletter. Elsewhere, Andrew Rosen announced he is moving “Parqor” — his newsletter focused on the streaming media industry — to The Information’s newsletter network.
We expect more newsletter writers and independent publishers to join — or rejoin — established media companies in the coming months.
Much has been written over the past few years about the rise of the creator economy, and how platforms such as Substack, Revue, Ghost and numerous others would enable writers and journalists to build audiences and businesses completely independently from legacy brands and major media companies. The reality — as noted by myself and various others — is we’ve seen this movie in media before. A period of unbundling is typically followed by rapid rebundling, as media companies piece together and package up products at price points that are both attractive to consumers and economically sustainable. The pendulum swings.
Covid has helped accelerate the recent independent publishing trend, of course. Both the unbundling phase — as writers had more time to write and fewer personal overheads to worry about, and and now the rebundling phase — as the world reopens and the advantages of things like steady paychecks, paid vacation time and working with teammates and colleagues become more apparent.
In many instances, writers and creators who went independent will now have far greater leverage with media companies and publishers. They may find themselves in much stronger positions than they were previously to get fairly compensated for the value they create, and to dictate terms and arrangements that suit their interests and needs. For some savvy writers and journalists, gaining greater leverage from media companies may have been the intent of going independent in the first place.
That’s not to say that some independent newsletter writers and micro-media operators can’t or won’t make it alone, of course. The latest unbundling phase has already helped spawn fascinating new breeds and models for independent media companies, many of which we have had the pleasure of working with at Toolkits over the past 18 months. (Toolkits itself is — to some extent — a product of the same trend.)
But for those writers, journalists and creators who would rather focus on how to produce their best work — rather than the ins and outs of growth hacking, marketing, managing subscriber churn, negotiating sponsorship deals and contracts, fixing technology issues, invoicing and accounting, insurance, dealing with lawyers, and all the other elements that go into running a media company — embracing the rebundling could be the best path forward. — Jack Marshall
Crackdown on deceptive subscription marketing tactics
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission has been stepping up its scrutiny of subscription marketing practices over the past year, and has now drawn a firmer line in the sand with a recently issued enforcement policy statement warning companies against “tricking” or “trapping” consumers into subscription services.
Though not aimed at them specifically, the statement directly applies to products and services offered by publishers and media companies.
The new requirements should ultimately benefit publishers building sustainable, long-term businesses by helping to weed out some of the nefarious practices and “growth hacks” employed by others. Companies investing in high-quality content and products should not be forced into growth hacks and tricks simply to stay competitive in the marketplace, and the FTC’s recent interest in subscriptions promises to help level the playing field in that regard.
“Today’s enforcement policy statement makes clear that tricking consumers into signing up for subscription programs or trapping them when they try to cancel is against the law… Firms that deploy dark patterns and other dirty tricks should take notice,” said Samuel Levine, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection in a press release.
As a result of the enforcement policy, publishers must now meet three key requirements or be subject to law enforcement action:
- Clearly disclose subscription terms upfront, including how much a product or service costs, how often customers will be charged for it, when they have to act to avoid further charges, and how to cancel.
- Obtain the consumer’s express informed consent before charging them for a product or services.
- Provide easy and simple cancellation mechanisms that are at least as easy to use as the method the consumer used to buy the product or service in the first placee.
Bloomberg misses subscription growth targets, NYT sees promising growth
Bloomberg media expected to hit 400,000 paying subscribers this year but now predicts that number will be closer to 350,000, according to CEO Justin Smith.
Smith told Press Gazette that subscriber conversions have been hurt by a slowdown in news interest this year and, as I noted last week, a dip in traffic for news publishers across the board in 2021.
Despite that broder trend, NYT said it saw its best quarter ever for digital subscriptions in the third quarter, outside of 2020. The publisher said it now has nearly 8.4 million paying accounts subscribed to either its news product, Games, Cooking, Wirecutter, or a combination of the above. — JM
Facebook is allowing creators to charge for access to subgroups
Community access and features are now a key benefit offered as part of many publishers’ subscription products. While some rely on Slack and other chat platforms or white-label community technologies to power those efforts, others have instead gravitated to Facebook groups.
Recognizing this, Facebook said last week it’s testing the ability for creators to charge for access to content and conversations within subgroups on its platform. The intent is for creators to monetize their communities directly within Facebook, rather than driving them off-platform to their own sites or to third-party community and payment platforms.
The battle for creator attention from major platforms such as Facebook and Twitter is ramping up quickly, but it remains to be seen if prominent creators and writers will trust big tech middlemen. While those platforms can help with distribution and audience growth, they inevitably mean jeopardizing direct access to their audiences and — to some degree — control over their own destinies. — JM
For more practical guidance on building sustainable subscription and membership products and businesses, see the Subscription Publishing Toolkit.