For our latest season of the Media Voices Podcast, kindly sponsored by Poool, we’ll be publishing ten episodes exploring the biggest trends of 2022 and how they affect publishers; from subscriptions and membership to advertising, platforms, emerging technology and more. Our fourth episode looks at how publishers with subscription and membership schemes are handling increasing pressure on consumer budgets, and subscription trends going into 2023 and beyond.

There has been a great deal of talk this year about reaching ‘peak subscription’. Subscriber numbers at Netflix, Amazon and Disney+ fell in the first quarter of 2022 as increasing economic pressures forced difficult choices on households. Publishers are beginning to see the effects of this too. The International News Media Association’s Subscription Benchmarking Service of 125 international news brands has noticed a recent spike in subscription cancellations, with the past few quarters seeing cancellations go up 34% compared to Q1 of 2021.

However, the year has not been all doom and gloom for those with reader revenue streams. The Times signed up an average of 1,000 new digital subscribers every day over the first two weeks of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, demonstrating the demand is still strong for authoritative news and analysis. Similarly, members of the AOP have collectively reported 14.9% growth in subscriptions revenue this year.

Crucially, the pressure is helping publishers innovate. Some are looking to smart paywalls or mixed revenue models, using registration data to both better convert readers as well as serve more valuable ads. Others are looking to more inclusive schemes to build relationships with those who aren’t ready or willing to pay for a subscription.

If the past two years has seen a rush to subscriptions, 2022 has seen the start of a shake-out, but one which we are confident the best publishers will emerge from with stronger, more resilient strategies. To discuss this year’s subscription trends, we’re joined by Anthony Ribeiro, Audience Conversion Consultant at Poool. He has a strong background in outbound acquisition, content marketing and SEO for both brands and media companies.

Here are some highlights:

What’s driving subscription trends

Anthony: There were two key revenue changes for publishers – not necessarily for digital subscriptions at large, but for media companies. There was clearly a rush to use a subscription model, because of the peak of the pandemic in terms of audience and so on. And also the urgency to develop a more predictable and sustainable revenue stream. Also a lot of competition from [Netflix, Amazon etc.], but subscriptions at large – music, entertainment, even food, many, many new things that weren’t there before.

Also, the advertising revenue has kind of fluctuated and it can be threatened. So that was to me those two things that were really important over the last couple of years.

To me, it’s really a matter of targeting the right audience and pushing the right offer. Someone who goes to your website once a day, once every two days that’s really engaged, you can present like a premium offer, or you can start with a simple offer, and then try to offer some more benefits. Let’s do another bit for someone who doesn’t come that often to websites, you still want to offer a cheap subscription, for example, and then you can push ads.

Where we should be looking for subscription inspiration

Peter: I think people need to be looking at some of the smaller players. We had Charlotte Cijffers on from Rolling Stone UK, and she said some really interesting stuff about niche archive content. Any good publisher has niche archive content, right? And if you can use that to drive and to differentiate… that’s something that everyone can learn from.

There was a guy that wrote for Editor and Publisher, and he was from The Daily Beast. And one of the things that he’s saying is that – I think this is such an important line – data is your bow, communication is your arrow. So that idea that you get all this data and you know who you’re talking to, but the only way you can actually ‘make hay’ is if you target these people really, really carefully with communication. And that’s where I think we can learn.

Moving beyond hard paywalls

Chris: I think that luckily, things are beginning to shift over the past couple years and that smarter people have begun experimenting with new membership and revenue models. I can think of a dozen off the top my head that recognise that approach was too blunt an instrument.

So there was a really, really good article from the Reuters Institute that pointed out that half of news leaders now think that journalism is only serving the super rich and more educated audiences, and that poorer audiences with fewer opportunities just have to take the chances, basically fend for themselves out there in the in the wide world of misinformation. So it’s great to see some of those experiments.

One that particularly stuck out to me was Dagens Netta, which is in Stockholm. It has opened access to some of its content around some of those particularly ‘hard news’ moments over the past couple years. So periods of breaking news or uncertainty like the Capitol Riots, which is interesting for Stockholm-based business, and during the COVID 19 pandemic.

And actually, as a result of the latter, they got 300,000, free registrations, of which 25% converted into paying subscribers later on. That’s demonstrating value in such a tangible way, isn’t it? What that means for publishers is that it’s demonstrably possible to serve your journalistic mandate to keep the public informed, but then use that as a hook to convert people into subscribing.

The distinction betwen subscribers and subscriptions

Esther: When I was researching [the NYT’s subscription history this year], I actually got quite confused because their most recent earnings report said that their subscriber numbers now stand at 9.17 million. That’s quite a way off 10 million [they claimed to have hit earlier in the year]. But actually, what they’re doing now is they’re distinguishing between subscribers and subscriptions. So you can have a subscription to their news product and a subscription to the cooking product, and that’s two subscriptions, but you are one subscriber.

Actually, that is quite an important distinction. If you’re offering multiple products, you can’t just inflate all the numbers to help you say you’ve reached a certain goal. It is important to distinguish between how many individual people do you have on your books, and it goes back to the revenue thing; if you’ve got somebody that’s taking out two or three subscriptions with you, they’re an incredibly valuable person to have on your books.

Anthony: I think having specific sections on your website that you know people are willing to subscribe to, for example, the politics section or sports section or some specific subsection if you are a specialist media. That’s very valuable to push them to a specific value proposition: what are the benefits of subscribing specifically for this kind of section and specific content?

This topic will be one of the chapters we explore in detail as part of our Media Moments 2022 report, launching on November 30th. Find out more and pre-register here to receive the report.

This season of Media Voices is sponsored by Poool, the Membership and Subscription Suite used by over 120 publishers from around the world. The team behind Poool are industry experts who have put everything they know into the product, ready to respond to your ‘how’ of launching & developing a reader revenue strategy. | @PooolTech

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