Publishers go to great lengths to position their editorial output as trustworthy, transparent, accurate, and accountable. But when it comes to their subscription practices and policies, those sentiments are often left at the door.
Complicated subscription offers and terms, obfuscated pricing, dark patterns, and convoluted cancellation mechanisms can all help publishers maximize short-term subscription revenue. But as consumers become more familiar with subscription models and their dynamics, the use of aggressive and misleading subscriber acquisition and retention approaches increasingly risks damaging publishers’ editorial credibility.
The same applies to “vaporware” features and benefits that might be promised to subscribers at the point of purchase, but are subsequently delivered with inconsistent regularity and/or quality.
The risk is particularly pronounced for news publishers, whose subscription offerings are frequently oriented around access to trustworthy reporting, unbiased journalism, and greater accountability to their subscriber bases. It’s perhaps more difficult for audiences to take editorial integrity seriously in instances where they’re presented with billing terms that don’t make mathematical sense, or they’re forced to wait upwards of an hour to speak with a representative to make changes to their subscription plans.
The motivation for aggressive subscription approaches is understandable: Monetizing legitimate journalism in a sustainable fashion is becoming increasingly difficult, and publishers are doing what they can to make ends meet. Margins are often thin, and every additional dollar helps keep the lights on – particularly during difficult economic periods.
Meanwhile, the editorial staffers tasked with building audience trust can’t be held responsible for the tactics employed by marketing, product and revenue teams. Many publishers maintain a degree of “church and state” separation between their editorial and business operations, even when audiences are monetized via reader revenue.
But as far as audiences are concerned they interact and engage with publications and brands, not specific groups within publishers’ walls. Paying readers aren’t privy to the incentives and priorities of different parts of publishers’ organizations when they purchase subscriptions, nor should they need to be.
The Lenfest Institute’s Charles Jun summed this up nicely after canceling 22 digital newspaper subscriptions to see what he could learn about publishers’ retention strategies.
“Journalists talk all the time about building trust with their audiences and ensuring that their coverage is representative. That should extend to business practices as well. In many cases, dealing with their subscription is the only direct interaction [audiences] have with a publication, and as a result, outlets should treat their audience members with respect,” Jun wrote.
Some publishers are employing increasingly aggressive tactics to attract and retain subscribers as subscriber monetization becomes a priority. But elsewhere, others say they’re using transparency and clarity in an attempt to distance themselves from competitors.
Speaking on a recent episode of Toolkits’ Subscription Publishing Show, The Dispatch’s CEO, Steve Hayes said the company has attempted to avoid many of the “tricks” that have become commonplace among subscription publishers in recent years. “One of the things we wanted to do from the beginning was show people we’re honest on the business side the same way we’re honest on the editorial side,” he said.
That mindset informed the publication’s approach to its pricing and marketing, for example, including the decision to charge $10 per month instead of the conventional $9.99. “I love the appeal from a marketing standpoint of telling people ‘Hey, this is how we do business. We’re straightforward. There aren’t tricks, and you don’t have to try to figure out how to get the best price,” Hayes added.
That approach isn’t typically the one subscription optimization experts or technology providers would advise, but as consumer understanding of subscription models and practices becomes more sophisticated, simplicity and clarity could become a powerful differentiator.
Publishers that actively position their subscription products around concepts such as trust, transparency and integrity might increasingly find audiences holding them to that promise across their broader operations.