Overcoming Boundaries to Subscription and Revenue Growth
Written by Joy Beachy
Creating the best subscription plan for any content provider is a tall order: publishers have to juggle offering the content readers want on the devices and channels readers want to use, in the format readers prefer, at a price readers are willing to pay. This process is further complicated by readers’ expectation of convenience and their awareness of the additional free content available to them online.
As a result, growing revenues through subscriptions has transformed from a simple product/service trade-off to requiring a long-term commitment to cultivating reader relationships, nurturing current customers, and making the process as seamless as possible for end-users. On the plus side, subscriptions for digital content are experiencing new heights as a revenue model, including content forms such as music, news, and entertainment. Subscriptions are a known entity among digital users, and they create a predictable revenue stream for publishers. On the negative side, the digital publishing subscriptions business remains in flux, and some significant barriers between publishers and profitable subscriptions persist.
Pricing is always a hot topic for subscriptions, so that’s the first thing to consider here.
At first blush, publishers might think the barrier to subscription or revenue growth is that their pricing is too high – decreasing subscriptions – or too low – decreasing revenue opportunity. This is likely vestigial of the early days of subscriptions, when publishers started with a simple recurring pricing model, similar to what was offered in print. (ie: Monthly subscriptions for monthly printed magazines) With digital content, the real barrier might not be the dollar amount at all, but the pricing options available. Customer needs are constantly evolving, and markets change quickly. Subscription offers need to evolve to match.
As with everything, it’s important to keep on top of trends in your particular marketplace, but also to experiment with different offerings to see which spikes an interest with your readers, such as some of the following:
- discount levels
- promotion offers
- customer-specific discounts
- channel-specific pricing
- optimized content or pricing to reward loyalty
- term-based pricing
- bundled content types
- growing subscriptions (growing content options and cost)
- tiered pricing according to functionality
- discounts for bulk purchases
- incentivized purchases
- metered according to usage levels
Just be sure not to change too many variables at once in your testing phase or your results will be muddied. The key is to offer more with your subscriptions than your ad-based or “freemium” model. As you test, get as much customer feedback as possible to help adjust what you offer. Maybe it will reveal offering two or three subscription levels with a few loyal reader discounts is enough. Maybe it will uncover new upsell opportunities. Or maybe it will affirm your readers want the convenience of subscribing once and remaining subscribed until they terminate it. (That is how a lot of gyms operate, after all.)
Subscription pricing is complex, which is what makes it such a strategic weapon. If you can devise a differentiated offering that is flexible and obsessed with reader feedback, you could have an edge on your competition, just by pricing things smarter.
Walking hand-in-hand with pricing is the factor of advertising. Looking outside the digital publishing realm, you’ll see digital content providers such as Spotify, Pandora, and Hulu offering “ad free” content as an incentive for subscriptions. Often publishers shy from a completely ad-free environment as that cuts off a major revenue stream. However, Spotify has proven people are willing to pay for ad-free content consumption.
The more common barrier here, however, comes when publishers are worried about limiting their audiences with tiers of subscriptions due to advertising. They fear how packing higher value and premium content into more expensive tiers of subscriptions will shift what they can promise advertisers. Overcoming the barrier will necessitate a level of experimenting with the tiers and a strong commitment to promoting their subscription content.
On the flip side, publishers on a “freemium” model are at risk for overcompensating with ads on their free platform. This risks alienating readers, reducing the reader’s trust in the value of your content, which is a troubling barrier to gaining new subscriptions. Overcome this barrier by moderating the use of advertisements; adding sponsorships or sponsored content could help defray the cost of the content without overwhelming readers with too many ads.
Your audience is diverse and empowered by accessibility: they have a plethora of platforms and devices for consuming content, and the expectation is that your content, support, and subscription options will be just as flexible.
Don’t let a single channel solution be a barrier to gaining new subscriptions: make your acquisition process a seamless experience across multiple channels, including web, mobile web, or apps. The process should be fast, simple to understand, and automated as much as possible.
Taking the pricing conversation to the next step, your subscription service will also need to be complex enough to support your strategy. Whether that includes varied term lengths, multiple channel offerings, bundled content types or other complexities, your acquisition service needs to be two steps ahead of the subscription strategy implementation.
Predictable revenue is dependent upon long-term customer relationships, and these relationships are the core of sustainable subscription strategies. According to FastCompany, a 10% increase in customer retention translates into an 80% increase in profitability. It is more profitable – and less taxing on resources – to build on the relationships you already have with your subscribers than to seek out new subscribers. The barrier, then, is whether publishers can nurture their current subscribers into loyal fans of the brand who are willing to pay for high quality content.
Overcoming the boundary here involves a highly monitored stream of content marketing. This might look like delivering extra content in their subscription area as an added value. It might involve cross-promoting some related content from another source. It might look like additional deals or promotional events reserved for loyal subscribers. The point is to deliver additional value that leaves subscribers feeling you provide more than just what you promised so they trust and admire your brand. A brand with a strong relationship with the customer increases their ability to cross-promote additional content as they’ve built a foundation of trust. A brand that doesn’t meet their readers expectations risks losing the subscription altogether.
A part of customer retention is providing an intuitive process for subscribers to change their subscription options, and for their invoices to quickly and accurately adjust to match. Here publishers struggle: every change to a subscription cases a domino effect on billings, cash and revenue, and deliverables. The best way to overcome this barrier is to develop a streamlined process to the accounting and billing side of the business, even as you offer flexibility in your subscription offers.
A large number of current subscriber transactions revolve around renewals, suspensions, add-ons, up-sells, upgrades, transfers and expiries. How a publisher handles these natural evolutions can mean the difference between encouraging readers to continue with the brand, expand on their current subscription, or to abandon the subscription. Optimally, you would have a dashboard that tracks and monitors the renewal status, upgrade opportunities, and any changes for customers that expire in the month. This would give you an advantage in connecting with those customers to either ensure a smooth renewal, increase the subscription or re-engage subscribers considering abandonment.
At the most basic level, your bills should be accurate and easy to understand. Your billing statements should be considered branded collateral and part of establishing a long-lasting customer relationship.
The key to overcoming any barrier to growth is in analyzing what you are doing now, and what you can do to improve the process. For publishers, looking at ALL the numbers is critical. Along with annual recurring revenues, retention rates and growth efficiencies, it’s important to watch your content consumption metrics as well. The best processes can’t replace the value of your content being opened, read, saved, or shared. Invest heavily in a platform that can provide the metrics you need to see what types of content keeps readers returning for more. That will help you establish a basis for developing content that readers will pay premium to have delivered to their inbox regularly.