Many publishers have billed “unlimited access” as a core feature of their paid subscription and membership products over the past few years. Now they’re waking up to the fact that it’s simply not an appealing prospect for the majority of their audiences, let alone one that’s deemed valuable enough to pay for.
In a world of ubiquitous information, never-ending feeds and “peak news”, the last thing many audiences crave is “unlimited” access to anything. Increasingly the opposite is true: They’re gravitating towards products that promise to navigate the maelstrom on their behalf rather than tossing them in the middle of it.
Many publishers are learning about this dynamic first-hand as they increasingly lean on audience research to help fuel their product development, rather than assumptions alone.
At Toolkits we’ve helped a range of clients conduct research into the needs and interests of their respective audiences, and the promise of “unlimited access” is rarely deemed anywhere near as valuable as publishers assume. “I don’t have time,” “I’m too busy trying to do my job,” “I’m not in a position to get my money’s worth” and “that sounds like a lot of effort” are responses we hear frequently.
Meanwhile, features oriented around analysis, insight, context and efficiency – however those are defined by individual publishers – are almost always deemed more valuable than those tied to volume of consumption.
Other publishers are reaching similar conclusions: The Atlantic spent two years conducting survey and interview-based audience research and recently concluded that its audience craved benefits such as “clarity and context” and having their assumptions challenged, rather than simply volume of content.
Some might argue these findings are common sense given the volume and nature of content that now proliferates the web. But regardless, the supporting evidence and data is available for those publishers willing to collect it. (What audiences say never mirrors their real-world actions directly, of course, so qualitative research should always be paired with behavioral data where possible.)
It’s understandable that many publishers have gravitated to “unlimited access” as a core feature over the past few years, particularly those publishing content tied to news or timely events.
It was quick and easy: Publishers could dip a toe in subscriptions relatively simply by throwing up a paywall on their existing content, setting a meter limit, and seeing what portion of their audience was interested. Charging subscribers based on volume was – for many – an attractive alternative to overhauling their operational approaches and mindsets and investing the time, effort and money required to build distinct premium offerings. While “unlimited access” is an easy product and value proposition to throw together, creating genuinely valuable and differentiated products requires a different set of muscles entirely.
Ambient demand for access to content was high: Whether they realized it or not, many publishers were capitalizing on what was probably abnormally high demand for news and information. Elections, a pandemic and other major global events meant audiences were consuming more content than ever, and in many cases had reduced personal overheads. A straightforward consumption tax drove conversions at a healthy clip as a result, even if it skewed publishers’ perception of their audiences’ long-term interests and needs in the process.
The world is now moving on from some of the upheaval of the past five years, and audiences are simultaneously beginning to expect greater value from the subscription products they pay for. Those conducting regular audience research are increasingly finding that more isn’t necessarily more, and that audiences often say they would rather pay for products that require them to consume less content where possible.
As a result, a growing number of publishers are now moving away from metered paywalls in favor of freemium models, and are altering their product positioning and messaging to focus on the quality and scarcity of their content rather than simple access limitations. As audience perceptions and needs change, publishers that continue to orient their products primarily around volume of consumption rather than differentiated and unique value increasingly risk getting left behind.
Metered and freemium paywall models each come with their own advantages and disadvantages, however. Some publishers might opt for a metered approach despite limited audience demand simply because they have other audience development priorities or revenue streams to consider.
A bigger opportunity
The good news for those publishers deprioritizing “unlimited access” features and metered paywalls is the market for their subscription products might well be larger than they expected.
Much of the perceived wisdom about “industry standard” subscriber conversion rates has to date been based on data from metered paywalls and back-of-the-envelope math. “X% of a publisher’s audience consumes Y articles per month, therefore they can expect to convert Z% of their audience to paying subscribers”, the thinking goes.
But for publishers building truly unique and differentiated subscription products, the calculation changes. They’re increasingly in a position to think of their products in terms of a total addressable market, rather than simply a subset of their existing audience. (This is also why publishers should think more strategically about the positioning of products, and why even simple elements such as product names can hinder subscription growth.)
There are, of course, exceptions. Some publishers will continue to find success placing unlimited access at the center of their value propositions – especially those catering to audiences where access to volume of information gives them a competitive business advantage, or similar.
But for many publishers with bigger ambitions than simply monetizing existing “superfans” through a consumption tax, it may be time to reconsider the “unlimited access” approach entirely.