Publishers are increasingly exploring ways to incentivize editorial departments to help drive subscription conversions, including handing out targets and quotas they’re expected to meet, and offering performance-related bonuses and other perks.
These approaches can prove highly effective at encouraging (or forcing) editorial staffers to adopt more marketing-centric mindsets and to perpetually consider the commercial impact of their output during the course of their day-to-day work. But at the same time, orienting editorial team output around subscriber conversions comes with inherent risks, and any publisher doing so should remain cognizant of the long-term (and often unforeseen) impact it may have on their content, products, subscriber bases, brands and editorial operations.
For publishers, part of the appeal of subscription models is the opportunity to more closely align their interests with those of their audiences by reducing their reliance on revenue from third-parties, such as advertisers and sponsors. However, that advantage can only be realized if publishers are disciplined about optimizing to the needs of their audiences first and foremost.
Publishers that institute systems tying editorial output to sales often find they begin to dictate their trajectories. Editorial missions and strategies can be cast aside surprisingly quickly, with audiences’ willingness to hand over credit card details ultimately dictating the nature of their content and their overarching identities and brands.
Over time, optimizing editorial output to subscriber conversions often results in:
Confused definitions of success: The rationale that conversions are evidence of high-quality and high-value content is understandable, but flawed. In practice, optimizing to conversions often means quality, value and brand are forced to take a backseat, and publishers paying close attention to subscriber behavior and churn frequently find that conversion-oriented content does little to help with long-term subscriber retention and value perception. Publishers should think carefully before orienting their editorial operations heavily around short-term goals.
Reliance on gimmicks and subscription bait packaging: Just as ad-supported online publishing models gave rise to clickbait, optimizing content creation to subscription conversions often forces editorial teams to focus on formats and approaches that perform most efficiently in terms of converting subscribers. This can result in sensationalist or “curiosity-gap” headlines that oversell or misrepresent the content beyond the paywall; over-reliance on formats that drive conversions consistently (such as lists of “top” people or companies to know in specific areas) and a general impulse to package and “sell” content to readers as aggressively as possible.
Marketing teams vs. editorial teams: Conversion incentives might encourage editorial staffers to think more about the commercial value of their output, but over time they can morph editorial teams into marketing teams. High-quality, differentiated content remains a fundamental prerequisite for any successful subscription product and business, and editorial teams that over-optimize to subscription conversions often find over time that the skill sets required to create and deliver genuine ongoing value to subscribers have withered entirely. They’ve mastered the art of selling the sizzle, but there’s very little steak.
Narrowing of coverage areas: Some topics, themes, and issues inevitably drive more conversions than others, even if they aren’t the topics, themes and issues that subscribers derive the most value from over time. As a result, conversion-oriented editorial staffers inevitably gravitate towards areas that reward them the most, whether they sit in their core coverage areas and “beats” or not. This dynamic can quickly skew overall editorial output and lead to less “lucrative” areas being largely ignored, even if they’re ostensibly central to a publisher’s editorial mission and brand.
Perverse incentives: Editorial staffers with conversion-related goals inevitably manage their work and output around them, which can lead to situations where they’re incentivized to act against the best interests of their publications or audiences. For example, if a reporter hits their monthly conversion target a few days into a month, they may have little motivation to publish again for the rest of the month. This can also lead to situations where editors “sit” on stories and ration them carefully to meet quotas and goals, particularly if they believe they’ll be impactful in terms of driving subscriptions.
Challenges attracting and retaining editorial talent: Publishers that orient their editorial operations around conversions are increasingly finding it impacts their ability to attract and retain editorial talent. Staffers that operate with specific goals and incentives often say it adds significant stress to their day-to-day lives, and that it drastically alters the type of work they’re realistically able to accomplish. Some staffers that have previously worked within such systems say they have no desire to do so again, while other reporters and editors have cited such systems as reasons they’ve turned down jobs at subscription-focused publishers.
Shrinking audiences: Optimizing content for subscription conversions can often result in publishers backing themselves into a corner from an audience perspective. Super-serving the needs of a specific audience segment is one thing, but tailoring content exclusively to “low hanging fruit” readers who quickly reach for their credit cards risks alienating audiences who don’t fit that specific profile, and limiting opportunities to grow audiences and subscriber bases beyond an increasingly specific market.