Housty, is there such a thing as the perfect subscriptions model?

Each month we pose a question to the brilliant Peter Houston, co-host of the Media Voices podcast, who will answer in his fabulously inimitable way. This month’s question comes from print, production, logistics and circulation manager Greg Frost.

Housty, we have a problem

Is there such a thing as the perfect subscriptions model?

No: perfect doesn’t exist, at least not in magazine publishing.

As part of a publishing strategies session I run, I ask the group to describe a unicorn. Invariably, the descriptions conjure everything from My Little Pony to something one of the Four Riders of the Apocalypse would ride. Just like unicorns, perfect strategies don’t exist and, when we try to imagine them, we all have a different vision of what perfect looks like.

Of course we can talk our different ideas through and compromise on a strategy that keeps everyone happy, but that’s not perfect. That’s pragmatic.

Maybe I’m splitting hairs, but the distinction between perfect and good enough is important. Perfect models get handed down, overlaid, and the business has to change to fit the plan. Good enough develops out of an understanding of how the business works (or doesn’t work). The best business models are specific to a unique set of circumstances.

Effective subscriptions strategies consider a wide mix of factors:

  • Audience
    Not every reader is the same and, unfortunately, some will never subscribe to your publication. They might have an interest in just one story in one issue. They might only be visiting the city you cover. Where a hard sell will convert one group of readers, it will turn off another. Think about how you monetise different audience groups, some will support your subscription ambitions, others your advertising income. Don’t neglect any of them. 
  • Value
    The more common the content published, the harder it is to sell straight subscriptions. That’s why so many consumer publishers have developed membership schemes that let them bolt on unique value to their core titles. There are dozens of movie magazines out there, but only Club Little White Lies subscribers get Little White Lies movie recommendations. Highlight the value in your content and make it a key plank of your subscription strategy; that’s how the Financial Times can charge £55 a month for just their core content.
  • Distribution
    For some audiences, digital is more convenient and they will pay extra for regular email updates, to be able to access information on the go or to get personalised content. For other audiences, print is more convenient and they will pay more to lean back, to be able to look at pictures properly, to not have to rely on Wi-Fi. Some people want the best of both worlds and bundles become attractive. Figure out what formats your audience will sign up for.
  • Competition
    If there’s someone else in your niche charging big bucks for a monthly print subscription, maybe there’s an opportunity to steal market share by offering more for less. Set a competitive price for your monthly print subscription, but offer regular digital email updates, a podcast or exclusive webinars to subscribers. You can even make a bit extra on sponsorship. Alternatively, put your prices up and offer heavier stock and better design than your competition. 

The list of elements that should be considered in the development of an effective subscription model runs on and on: acquisition, pricing, onboarding, renewals, even cancellations. The subscription model implemented will be unique depending on the magazine’s niche, audience and the resources the publisher has. Perfect? No. Pragmatic? 100%.

Constant change

There is one other reason why the perfect subscription model doesn’t exist in magazines: Change.

Change is the only constant in magazines, from the technology used to create and distribute content, to the trends and tastes that shape what readers want and can afford. A subscription model, however perfect at the start, needs to evolve to suit market conditions or it will quickly fall short of perfection.

The quest for reader revenue is a numbers game and a subscription model that improves over time will serve you way better than one that looks perfect but stays stuck in its own inflexibility.

Peter Houston is one third of the Media Voices podcast, a magazine publishing consultant and trainer, freelance writer, and co-publisher of The Grub Street Journal, a magazine for people who make magazines.

Follow him on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.

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