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Subscription services have been beating magazine publishers at their own game — so let’s learn from them

Earlier today, I graduated from Edinburgh Napier’s Magazine Publishing postgraduate course. I figured that I should make my final dissertation available to anyone interested, but since it’s 16,000 words long I’ve done a quick summary.


Magazines and newspapers used to be the only ones really doing subscriptions. Regular cash flow and reliable information about core readership of a title made subscribers a tempting audience, though most consumer titles have relied upon advertising sales, rather than subscriptions, to provide their main source of income. There’s a great quote from Stam from 2014 that illustrates why subscribers were so helpful to publishers:

“No other industry can persuade the consumer to pay upfront, often for twelve 
months, for a product that has not even been produced yet! Other entertainment sectors are highly envious… it is a business model to cherish.”

Turns out, he’s out of touch. Netflix, Spotify and Hulu have nicked that business model, and they’re doing it better. Even more — there’s a whole sector of businesses, both start-ups and established players, offering subscription services for products ranging from razors to records. It’s been dubbed the ‘subscription economy’, and it seems reasonable to wonder how magazine publishers, the people who invented the subscription, missed the boat.

A whole series of studies from the PPA into the future of subscriptions found that people regard magazine subscriptions in the same way they view mobile phone providers or utilities companies — annoying gatekeepers of something expensive, yet essential (except magazines aren’t as important as heat or water, so readers are cancelling their subscriptions). In contrast, Netflix and Spotify are ideal service providers. Subscribers can cancel and later return, no hassle and no questions asked.

The comparison isn’t strictly fair, as Spotify and Netflix hawk records and television, respectively. But what struck me is that these are media services that people are willing to subscribe to indefinitely — and increasingly, they’re companies producing original content targeted at a whole range of different audiences. What part of that doesn’t sound like what a magazine does, at a fundamental level?

From in-depth interviews with some of the people behind subscription services based in the UK, like Craig Evans of Flying Vinyl and Steve Watson of Stack, and analysis of the studies into the subscription economy and the future of publishing, I came up with a few key observations that I thought were relevant. These aren’t analyses of what has made Stack, Netflix and Spotify successful, they’re points cherry picked from their business models that are applicable, in the right hands, to that of magazines.

  1. Loyalty has to be earned: 
    Loyalty might be an intangible quality, but if you’re planning on growing a subscriber base, it’s highly important. Subscriber loyalty can be bolstered by the promotion of a community of users, or a sense of membership among subscribers, either through regular engagement or a smartly managed social media brand. Furthermore, new subscription services are rapidly establishing standards of best practice for customer service in the subscription economy, and publishers have to meet consumers’ newly raised expectations concerning ease of cancellation, problem resolution and user control.
  2. Pricing should be simple and competitive: 
    Modest pricing amongst new subscription providers and changing consumer perceptions regarding the inherent value of printed or written media suggest that publishers must price subscriptions competitively. Moreover, the level of competition for subscribers’ attention, publishers should ensure that their tiers of service as concise and comprehensible as possible.
  3. Editorial is a unique asset:
    New subscription services offering curated selections of products or content have become successful by using a key aspect of magazine publishing — editing. Publishers can access subscription audiences by marketing their titles on the basis of original, high-quality editorial content and consistent taste. Netflix and Amazon Prime plan to spend a combined $10.5 billion on original content commissioning in 2017 — but magazines have always been totally original sources. They should market themselves on that basis.

At the end of the day, it’s fairly simple stuff. Some magazine publishers used to try to take subscribers for a ride, putting up prices for long-term readers in the knowledge that they’d pay or just not notice. Publishers have to be at least as nice to their customers as Netflix are. The fact that consumers are getting used to the idea of subscribing for more things means that there is probably a bigger market of potential magazine subscribers out there than previously realised — but it’s worth bearing in mind that they’ll expect the same standard of service from publishers as they get from streaming providers — and they’ll expect the same low prices, too.

The final point is both an observation and a rallying cry. Netflix has never looked stronger than when it’s been selling itself on the back of the shows it’s produced, like Stranger Things or Making A Murderer. They’ve made the whole thing seem essential when it’s basically a glorified DVD library. Magazines have always been able to produce exciting, unique editorial content, so the should sell themselves with that in mind.

Medium doesn’t host .pdfs, so if you want to read the whole thing, then just shoot me an email at samuel.m.bradley[at]