This week we spoke to Jack Marshall, Co-Founder of Toolkits, a business information and consulting company focused on subscription publishing. We talked about his past life as a media reporter at Digiday and the WSJ, what opportunity he and co-founder Shareen Pathak spotted in the market, and whether he thinks the subscriptions wave has crested. He also shared some advice for publishers considering developing a subscription product.

In the news roundup, we discuss what lessons we learned from listening to 150+ podcasts, ask what the Twitter chaos means for publishers (and Peter’s stock), and touch upon the Guardian’s evolving newsletter strategy. Music and sound effects via Chris’ home office.

The full transcript will be live here shortly, but for now, here are some highlights:

Identifying a need for Toolkits

So what we saw through that consulting work was a lot of the clients we were working with just face very similar challenges, had very similar questions, in many cases, very similar needs. So with our background on the editorial and content side, I think we realised there was an opportunity to probably serve a lot of those needs via content, first and foremost, and to use our advisory and consulting work to inform that to some degree.

And then I think the other thing as well is, we realised there was a need to help clients and readers understand the best sort of tools and services suited to their needs, and where appropriate, make those connections. That goes beyond the traditional advertising model to a degree. We decided to found toolkits around that concept.

The goal is really to provide highly actionable and practical content for professionals in very targeted job functions. So that means intelligence guidance, best practices, basically anything we can provide to help them do their jobs better.

The relationships between ads and subscriptions

For the majority of publishers, and as their first pushes into subscriptions start to mature, I think most people are realising that the combination of [ads and subscriptions] is a really nice and powerful model. You can grow your audience nicely, monetise a big chunk of it with advertising, and ultimately, I think the goal for everybody is to form strong direct relationships – ideally, paying relationships – with a portion of their audience.

I don’t really see it as an either/or. I think if you can convert a portion of your audience to paid, then why wouldn’t you do it? There’s all sorts of advantages that come with that. Even if subscriptions isn’t profitable in and of itself, just having access to a highly engaged user base, even to inform other areas of your business is hugely powerful.

So I would urge people to think of it as less binary and more think about what’s in the best interest of their overall business. Often publishers are arriving at the conclusion that both is a nice mix.

On the subscription slowdown

To some degree, it was somewhat inevitable that we would see a correction in the market post pandemic. People had a lot of expendable income, they had a lot of time to consume content. And this was at the same time when everyone was launching, brand plus, or whatever their streaming service or subscription service was.

I think a lot of publishers rushed subscription products to market because they decided that they needed to be in on subscriptions. Everyone else was doing it, they threw their hat in the ring, but didn’t really give a tonne of consideration to whether it was the best model for their content, or for for their audience, frankly. So you ended up with people trying to tax their most loyal audiences with metred models that they just kind of slapped on one day.

There’s a lot of talk of peak subscription. And I think to some degree that’s probably true, especially with the the economy the way it is, and belt tightening on the horizon. But I don’t think that really speaks to the viability of subscription models at all. More than anything, publishers just need to be honest with themselves about whether they really have the content and products to support subscription models sustainably in the long term.

The next iteration of subscriptions

Superfans is one way to look at it, but so are audience segments – what are the ways that you can serve different segments of your audience? That may ultimately lead to publishers having multiple subscription products. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see that at all.

So saying, ‘Look, we’ll slice this little portion of content off for people who work in finance, this piece for people who work in media, and just slice the pie a little bit thinner,’ which ultimately benefits everyone, because the product that you’re buying is way more targeted. There’s less wastage, you’re not paying for content that you’re not interested in. But it still enables you to grow your top of funnel audience and leave some content out beyond the paywall and grow your brand and all that good stuff.

Main story:

What I’ve learned from listening to 150+ publisher podcasts.

  • High quality is now non-negotiable. Audiences have generally been forgiving of less-than-perfect audio quality, as long as the podcast itself isn’t unlistenable. But this year’s cohort showed that those days are well past us. In our first year of running the Awards, flawless audio quality made a podcast stand out. Now, it’s the standard. The podcasts that are leading the pack are ones which are enhancing the production with background music and sound effects to create a more immersive listening experience.
  • Interviews aren’t a tired format. Interviews were the most common type of podcast out of the 150+ entries, and if done well, they’re still incredibly powerful. Even just plain old one-to-one chats between a host and a guest were fascinating if the questions and discussion were carefully crafted.
  • There’s no such thing as too long…but some publishers really need to learn the value of a good edit. It’s worth approaching podcasts in the same way you do written content. Some episodes are designed to be feature-length, with guests that can hold listeners enraptured for hours in the same way a multi-thousand-word feature could in a magazine. Others are stronger for focusing on just the best bits; having the podcast equivalent of a couple of killer quotes to hang a story from.
  • But there is such a thing as too many ads. Three-quarters of the podcasts had some form of advertising in them. For the most part, these ads were fairly balanced and actually quite relevant to the podcasts in question. But one point to note was that the quantity of adverts had really started to creep up against some podcasts compared to previous years. A couple even had 2 mins+ worth of ads before starting the actual show, in addition to mid-roll. Listeners are generally tolerant – even welcoming – of a few relevant ads. But this isn’t an area to start pushing, or audiences will simply drop off and find something else to listen to.

News in brief:

  • Elon Musk tweeted early Friday that his $44 billion bid to buy Twitter was temporarily on hold, opening up a potential door for renegotiation and raising uncertainty about his push to take the social media site private. His declaration cast fresh doubt on the seriousness of his offer just as he was scrambling to find new investors to help him fund the deal. It also played into his hand by sending Twitter’s stock price tumbling, though the tweet had the potential to draw regulatory scrutiny.
  • The Guardian is betting big on newsletters and ignoring click-throughs. A week after the launch new flagship daily current affairs newsletter First Edition, Press Gazette spoke to The Guardian newsletter team about their strategy.
  • Meta is thinking about reducing the money it gives news organisations less than a week after posting its slowest revenue growth since going public in 2012. The Information is reporting that ‘people familiar with the matter’ say the company formerly known as Facebook is reevaluating the news partnerships it struck over the past few years. Why? Because it needs to cut costs and fewer people are clicking on news articles since Trump’s outrage engine pulled out of town.
  • A new study finds that NewsGuard’s credibility ratings for news sites helped steer the most frequent consumers of misinformation towards more reliable outlets. We’re pleased with the confirmation — as we’ve seen in a lot of other research — that if individuals have access to ratings, that they will value those ratings and will appreciate the added information about the source of news,” said Gordon Crovitz, co-CEO of NewsGuard.
  • Popbitch: With £4 million spunked on launch advertising for TalkTV, and Piers Morgan’s flagship show drawing its lowest audience yet on Wednesday (44,000) some frantic buck-passing is going on at News UK.

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