Why Most Online Readers Will Never Subscribe

Aug 26, 2016 · 6 min read

Growing up, I loved magazines. I loved the way the layouts and the copy worked together to tell a story, and how the editor’s note at the beginning felt more like a stamp of approval than an introduction. Even the feel of a magazine was unique. It let you know you were holding something more substantial than a newspaper, yet less permanent than a novel.

I remember having subscriptions to four or five different magazines growing up. Each of which I would read front to back within the first two days of it arriving at my doorstep. Then, I’d tear out all of my favorite full page ads and post them on my wall like mini posters until I eventually ran out of wall space. At the time, there was nothing that inspired me more to want to create than a new short-form publication showing up in my mailbox.

And then, the internet happened.

Slowly, I went from waiting on magazines full of articles that had been written two months before they arrived at my door to searching the web for editorials that were written on the spot by some of the same writers that I knew and loved from my magazine collection. Even better, I didn’t have to pay a single dime for any of these articles. All it took was a question and a minimal understanding of Google to find just about anything I could think up in my head.

As it had done with so many other pillars of social communication, the internet began the process of turning my monthly magazine subscription into something of ancient folklore.

But as the web began to mature and the stack of unread magazines in my room continued to grow taller, major online publishers quickly started to realize that quantity was more important than quality when it came to getting discovered on the web. Over time, thoughtful interviews and editorials gave way to a form of communication that centered around cat memes and listicles. Soon, I found myself being baited into clicking on articles that the internet somehow knew I couldn’t resist, only to realize I’d been tricked into losing two minutes (at best) of my life that I could never get back.

Now, with those same major content publishers searching for a way to once again generate revenue from their articles, there’s been a push to reinstate the standard of journalistic integrity that was once the standard. The only problem is that the last time I paid to read an article, I didn’t even know what a listicle was. At this point, consumers no longer trust premium content publishers the way we once did, and while I can’t tell you exactly how to win that trust back, I can say with certainty that it’s NOT by hitting me over the head with monthly subscription fees.

One of the main reasons I can’t bring myself to pay for online content, even from some of my favorite publishers, is that I don’t trust that I’ll consume enough content for it to make sense financially. In order for me to pay for a subscription, that would mean that I’d need to get the majority of my content from one source, which is rarely, if ever the case. I don’t want the digital equivalent of a stack of unread magazines sitting at my front door.

I decided to run a survey on some of the top news websites and blogs to find out if people actually consume enough “premium” content from the same publisher for a monthly subscription to work.

Based on the small yet targeted feedback I got, less than 20% of users surveyed read over 15 news articles per month from the same publisher. The basic monthly subscription to the New York Times cost $15 every 4 weeks. At this rate, the majority of users would be paying at least $1 per article.

In a world where it’s hard to get people to pay 99 cents for a song that is played over and over, it’s hard to imagine suddenly paying $1 for a news article that’s read one good time at best. Especially not with so many available alternatives.

It’s no wonder, then, that my other survey question asking whether people preferred to pay for single articles versus start a subscription plan resulted in 73% of the respondents choosing the one-time payment option.

Unsurprisingly, this choice for single payments correlated directly with reading only a few articles per month on a single website. The graph here is a bit tricky to read, so I’ve first highlighted the respondents who read only 1–5 articles per month on a single website. You can see that the large majority of these respondents wanted a pay-per-article option.

Here’s the full graph:

You see, the reason I stopped subscribing to magazines wasn’t just because of the internet, more so it was the fact that my interests change much faster than the content in those magazines could keep up with. With prevalent aggregators like Flipboard, Feedly, and Apple News that scour the web to send me the latest content that’s been tailored to my liking, my loyalty has shifted from the content publishers to the ones organizing that content.

So with trust and loyalty waning, what does this mean for those looking to monetize their online content? Is there a way to prove to readers that your content truly is worth a premium without the commitment of a subscription?

In the same way that I still buy individual magazines off the newsstand from time to time, online publishers need to offer a try-before-you-buy option that can still drive revenue. Currently the best way to do this is through something called micropayments.

Micropayments are when you charge a one-time fee for individual news articles or videos. While I may not be willing to pay $15 or even $5 a month to read a set of articles, I wouldn’t think twice about paying 35 cents for a well thought out editorial on a topic I found particularly interesting. This could be big a big step for publishers towards repairing the damaged relationship with readers. If you can show me that you can consistently deliver value at a small, one-time price, it opens the door for more small, one-time sales and eventually, if you add enough value, a potential subscription.

In the current subscription or bust landscape, content providers are leaving a huge amount of money on the table from consumers that just don’t read enough for monthly fees to prove worthwhile. Rather than push to move them into a recurring revenue model, there may be the opportunity to make a much smaller amount from the 80% of blog readers who consume less than 15 pieces of content per month.

While it’s clear that we don’t value well written content the way that we used to, that doesn’t mean that we have to give up on generating revenue from the majority of readers. Using tools like micropayments to regain trust and drive loyalty, publishers may be able to discover the next generation of what premium content really looks like.

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