September 4, 2020

Subscriptions Are Perfectly Fine; But Community Can Give You More

Subscriptions or memberships. What should you be building?

You’d think as media professionals, we’d be happy just knowing that there are companies out there generating direct revenue from readers. But I’ve noticed this narrative that we need to think about more than just the subscription. We need to think about memberships.

Specifically, the argument for these memberships is that the transactional nature of paying for content is not good enough. Instead, your readers have to be supporting you for some bigger reason. If they support you, you don’t even need to paywall your content because they’re going to want to give you money. You don’t have to ask.

I want to set the record straight because this topic has been irritating me. There is nothing wrong with running a subscription business. There is nothing wrong with looking at your content and saying that it is worth being paid for.

When I wrote about Vox’s contribution program, I had a few people reach out to me with a similar message. It seemed as if Vox was embarrassed to be asking for money for its content.

And this is true. For a lot of media, there’s this discomfort in looking at the content as a business. With no other business in the world, do operators have to justify wanting to charge for their product. With media, we have to come up with fancy names like “membership” to justify trying to monetize our businesses.

Take, for example, this explanation of membership at The Membership Puzzle Project:

Membership isn’t just “subscription by another name” (though it’s often referenced that way), or about giving consumers access to a product. It’s participation in a larger cause that reflects what they want to see in civil society. In membership, there’s a different social contract or value proposition between the site and its members. At the basic level of: What do you give? What do you get?  Subscribers pay their money and get access to a product. But members join the cause and participate because they believe in it. [Emphasis theirs.]

[Update]: Membership Puzzle Project reached out after publication to say that it doesn’t think membership is the best model across-the-board. For many organizations, they said, subscription models work really well and have helped these organizations think through ways to create “memberful routines.” Ariel Zirulnick, Membership Puzzle Project’s fund director said:

MPP doesn’t shy away from the fact that membership is a way to generate audience revenue  – we just think there is more to membership than the money it can provide. Membership opens up opportunities for all kinds of other contributions that can expand the scope and impact of the journalism

Transactional businesses are good. Subscriptions are a recurring revenue stream where users decide that they want your product—in this case, content—and then continue to pay for it so long as the content is providing them with the information and/or entertainment that they want.

I pay for Netflix, Disney+, Hulu and Amazon Prime and who knows what other video subscriptions. You know what never happens in those companies? A conversation that suggests it is bad to charge money for the content. No one at Disney says that they should create a membership to support Baby Yoda’s mission versus just having people pay for great content.

Why do publishers feel the need to hide the fact that we are trying to generate revenue?

Maybe no one needs to read this because we are operators after all, but I wanted to just set that record straight. The transactional, subscription business is perfectly fine and I look forward to more companies attempting to achieve that recurring revenue.

But community is a great way to keep subscribers

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I do want to dig into the benefits of looking at your subscribers as members. It can become a self regulating community that inadvertently becomes more loyal to the brand.

At the core, though, is the content. It’s the nucleus to a healthy community. The reason for this is because people need to determine whether they want to participate.

There are two layers that build from that nucleus.

The first is the access layer. As a writer with paying members, you have access to me. Many of you reply to my essays and share your thoughts. I get on calls with you, we discuss random topics and it’s a great thing.

As I wrote back in May, there are things publishers can learn about community from OnlyFans creators:

On OnlyFans, which is currently photos and VOD, users can leave comments on each piece of content. The most successful models reply. Recall the quote above: people are paying to feel acknowledged. There are plenty of places to get this sort of content online for free. Yet, this is the only place that a user can go to interact with that specific individual. And often times, a single reply can keep a user engaged for a long time.

This is one of the big reasons that newsletters have become such a successful business. It’s not just me pushing information to you, but there is an opportunity for you to reply. Suddenly, we have a separate email thread going. But that’s easy when the medium of distribution is a primary communication channel. Email is built for discourse, so I fully expect people to reply when I send them a newsletter.

Media companies have never been good about this. They stay away from really engaging with readers. In their minds, they push content and readers consume it and that’s the end. Which, look, is perfectly fine. Like I said above, that transactional relationship is perfectly acceptable.

However, the difference between a passive and active reader could be as simple as replying to people. One of my favorite journalists is my colleague Leigh. Not only is she fearless in her reporting, but she engages with the community that reads her. As a female journalist, she certainly receives her fair share of vitriolic comments. But she also has legit conversations on Twitter about her stories. I would wager her readers are more active and engaged in her reporting.

The Athletic is another company that has done a good job creating this community despite selling a very straight forward subscription. Their journalists do Q&As with hardcore fans of the sport. They last about an hour, but that is enough to get people excited.

At the end of the day, people just want to feel as if they have access to the expert.

The second layer is the network layer. This layer is what you think about when you think of super popular internet forums or twitter threads that just continue splintering as new people pop up with their own perspectives.

I was having a conversation with a member yesterday and he commented on NYT Cooking, to which his wife is a subscriber. He said, “every time my wife finds a recipe she wants to make, the very first thing she does is read the comments.” Other people that have made the recipe leave comments on what they do differently or if the recipe is a success.

With layer one, the point is for people to feel as if they have access to the publisher. You have a lot of control over the format and the conversation here because people are looking for access to you.

With layer two, the point is for people to feel as if they have access to each other. You have less control over this other than providing the format by which the community forms. Whether that’s forums, Facebook groups or Slack channels, your control only goes so far.

One way to help incubate the network layer is to make the access layer also dependent on the same format as the network. Said another way, if your network layer is built on a forum, your access layer should be built the same way.

A good example that I’ve found is The Hustle’s Trend product. While I’m a passive member, I sometimes go into the Facebook group and see people chatting up a storm with each other. But when it was first getting started, Sam Parr, the CEO, was posting constantly in there. Why? He was incubating the community he wanted to see grow.

This is the hardest part. If you can figure it out and actually reach layer two, you’ll have the stickiest form of community-based membership. Not only is the paying subscriber benefiting from their access to the publisher, but they are also benefiting from access to each other.

When that happens, the reader is even less inclined to unsubscribe from the media company. Their relationships are by being part of that community. Why would they want to leave?

Let me sum this up…

  • Nucleus: The content that you create. At A Media Operator, that’s the essays that I write about media businesses. I really don’t think non-media people are reading this.
  • Layer One: The access readers have to me. People reply to my essays all the time and I try to reply to every single email. That access has built a stronger relationship.
  • Layer Two: The access readers have to each other. A Media Operator doesn’t really have this yet. I offer comments, but by and large, people don’t feel inclined to participate here. I’ll have to continue figuring out the right way to build this.

Most media companies do a great job with having a strong nucleus. And as I said earlier, there is nothing wrong with your business being built on great content. Exchanging dollars for content is an amazing business model.

However, I would encourage publishers to think about how they can introduce these two layers of community to that content. It’s additional work, but I believe it can contribute significantly to increased subscriptions and decreased churn.