Are we looking at the return of a subscription model for publishers?

Written by on October 20, 2017 in Opinion with 1 Comment

By ra2studio /

The digital advertising model is broken. And finally publishers are accepting this fact. It is not before time, the rest of the world, digital or otherwise, spends much of its time saying that we now live in a subscription economy. The irony, of course, is that while reading this message on our favourite sites, we have to block, mentally or physically, the ads that still bombard us.

Advertising as a revenue stream makes little sense. As Jack Conte, CEO of Patreon says of current advertising rates, “it’s like a stadium full of people reading your blog, and you get $150 for the pleasure”. The only way it makes sense is if you have the scale and reach of Facebook and Google, whose audiences would fill every stadium on the planet.

There is a move (albeit not yet definite), even in the reactionary world of publishing, towards subscription based commercial models. The problem, as one commentator put it, is that the publishing industry is so slow to change that “it is like seeing someone having a heart attack and telling him to eat more vegetables”.

Yet the impetus is building. The combination of ad blockers, readers realising that the only people not making money out of their data is them, and the simple annoyance of the ‘in your face’ advertising model must begin to bite.

Even Facebook is dipping its large toes into subscription based models. It has signed up 10 large publishing companies to test a model where Facebook users can get 10 articles for free and then they are offered subscriptions – by the publishers themselves.

There are probably multiple reasons why Facebook is trialling this. Publishers watch in impotent horror as their articles are shared for free amongst Facebook’s vast audience. Publishers do not particularly like Facebook for that reason, and others. Fake news and the sheer dominance of Facebook as a news channel do not sit well. It is interesting, too, that some notable publishers are not joining this experiment. The Financial Times is one, and The Wall Street Journal is another.

Both have pay wall strategies in place.

Some years ago, commentators were happy to criticise Rupert Murdoch’s pay wall strategy. Why alienate your audience by forcing them to pay for content? And look, he has only converted 10% of his readers to his subscription model. Not many, until you figure out that 10% of a million readers now pay, say, $5.00 a month. Other publishers use these models as a premium product. Get customers to pay you to protect them from advertising.

How fast the industry will change – and to what extent – remains to be seen, but one thing is clear. A significant, and growing, percentage of online readers are prepared to pay for decent content.

And that must be good in a digital world where writing standards had dropped and it didn’t seem to matter because everything was free and therefore had little or no value.

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About the Author

About the Author: Alex was Founder and CEO of the Global Billing Association (GBA), a trade body focused on the communications sector. He is a sought after speaker and chairman at leading industry conferences, and is widely published in communications magazines around the world. Until it closed, he was Contributing Editor, OSS/BSS for Connected Planet. He is publisher of DisruptiveViews and previously BillingViews. .


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  1. In the Netherlands we see an interesting payment model in ‘Blendle’, a virtual newspaper stand where you can ‘pay per read’ for individual articles from almost all important online media. Of course this only works for media that are already behind a pay wall.

    Subscription, however, only works if you can offer very high quality content (expensive writers) without advertising. The Dutch ‘De Correspondent’, that before its startup managed to get thousands of pre-paying subscribers purely based on a ad-free independent journalism concept plus the names of its authors, is a good example.

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