Bringing Paid Subscription Growth Out of the Dark Ages

Adjustable seats.

Dean Horowitz writing in Folio: uses this unlikely analogy to help us understand a critical problem in the magazine subscription model of late.

“One size fits all just doesn’t work,” Horowitz writes. “Warplanes were once designed to fit the average-sized pilot. The result was lower pilot performance. Why? There’s no such thing as an average-sized pilot. What was the solution? Adjustable seats.”

Taken in the context of the magazine industry, Horowitz believes publishers must look to metered paywalls and scrap the escalating subscription model that too many publishers are clinging to.

“Under this model, for example, the first subscription is purchased for $89.99, the next year it becomes $122.99, the year after that it becomes $140.99, and so on. I’ve been in meetings during which I’ve challenged this approach and was told that it was ‘common practice’ and ‘this is the only way to keep any circulation revenue.’

“This practice began pre-web when there was little to no transparency in pricing,” Horowitz continues, “when there were limited ways for an audience to gain its information. It’s an approach that should have ended years ago, and probably never should have begun. The same people who engage in this practice would scream foul if it was used on them.”

It’s worth noting this is the same approach used by telecoms and cable companies, two of the least trusted kinds of companies out there. Ouch.

Let them fall in love with you

Instead of creating a situation that breeds mistrust – even if it is somewhat successful in keeping circulation figures up – try letting your audience fall in love with you by giving them choices and showing you understand them and what they need.

“Today, customers expect communication and not to be sold to on a transactional basis,” Horowitz explains. “Storytelling is what media companies do so well. Taking a similar approach to your subscription strategy creates a bond, a sense of belonging and alignment with the media brand. It’s how you get married and stay married, and is one of the reasons metered paywalls are so successful.

“Bring together the editorial and circulation/audience development teams and workshop assumptions, or personas, about who four or five typical subscribers are on a human level,” he continues. “If your brand is serving B2B retail, for example, there are levels of management, sales, marketing, purchasing, suppliers, associations, etc. If your brand is serving B2C, there are different levels of interest, knowledge and sense of belonging.”

Publishers are painfully aware that the age of mass has swung to niche. Any marketer worth their salt will tell you nobody markets to “everybody” anymore. Rather, it’s the age of self-selection and relevance, and a careful understanding of who you need to reach and why.

Horowitz outlines the steps beautifully, from developing buyer personas to aligning your strategy in marketing and creating the products they will love.

“Audience development today means aligning subscribers with the messaging that resonates the loudest with them,” he writes. “It means increasing trust, not escalating rates because there is a belief no one will look at the subscription web page or the universal “tote bag” offering—which, amazingly, is still widespread. The more you know about your audience, their personas and their habits, the easier it will be to retain them.”

Horowitz is on to something. This is the age of the enlightened consumer, and trust is paramount to building a loyal customer. Don’t risk it all by playing fast and loose with their commitment, but give them what you know they want.