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This is how to make your subscription more valuable

August 4 · Issue #6 · View online
Newspackr: For Media Makers
The results of our 2020 Email Revenue Survey. And: We’re all here to add value. Here’s how to do it.

Last month we asked newsletter publishers and proprietors in the Newspackr audience to let us know a little bit about how they’re making money on email.
Thirty-two newsletter publishers participated in this anonymous survey.
You can look through the full results of the survey here. But, for now, 3 quick takeaways:
1) Reader revenue is powerful
Of the publishers making $50K+ a year on email, all of them have some type of direct reader revenue component to their operations — whether that’s memberships, subscriptions, or donations.
2) List size isn’t everything
While list size is obviously important, plenty of newsletters in the 1,000-50,000 subscriber range are making between $10K and $50K in revenue annually.
3) Sales is understaffed
For those making money through direct-selling ads on their email newsletters, 54% said they either don’t have a sales team or that their sales team is understaffed. Often, an owner-operator is handling this alone, or one person has been tasked with sales (usually along with other responsibilities).
If you’re working on monetizing email, please feel free to reach out!
5 ways to add value to a subscription
In media, when someone pays for a subscription, it’s rare that they’re just paying for access to journalism. When it comes to reporting, writing, and what we broadly call “content” (yes: yuck), virtually everything we do in media risks being commoditized.
A scoop lasts exactly an instant, and then that information is free for anyone to re-write, consume, and repackage. A deeply reported feature is quickly turned into a tl;dr that may get more eyeballs than the original work. A great piece of service journalism is easily adapted and rewritten by anyone else serving the same audience.
So, how do you make a subscription or paid membership worthwhile to your readers/users/community members?
Add value — well beyond content.
Here are some ways.
1) Give members access to a community
Perhaps the most powerful thing you can give people in this day and age is community.
Of course, theoretically, social media is supposed to have made us all one big community on Facebook and Twitter and… yeah… that didn’t work out.
Sara Wilson wrote a piece in Harvard Business Review earlier this year about an idea I’ve been thinking a lot about since then: Digital Campfires. Social media as we know it has failed, whether or not Mark Zuckerberg knows it yet. The things people are migrating toward now are ways to connect online that are more private, more focused, and more interest-based — what she calls ‘digital campfires.’
How can you provide your readers/subscribers/members a digital campfire around which to huddle?
Various services have sprung up, offering different flavors of out-of-the-box community software. For starters, you can look at Mighty Networks, Tribe, Disciple, and Discord.
And, while not purpose-built for community, there are a ton of communities using Slack as either a free or paid meeting place.
(Some communities, of course, use Facebook Groups for this… don’t build anything on Facebook.)
In short: News is a commodity; community is premium.
2) Make comments a paid feature
Standing perhaps one step to the side of a full-fledged community is charging users for the privilege of commenting.
Take a look at the new media venture from the former writers of (not just) sports website Deadspin: Defector. Charging for something that used to be free may sound like a tough sell, but they’re banking on a loyal user base being willing to pay.
Basic membership (as a lowly “Reader”) costs $69 a year. For $99 a year, you also get to comment and “participate in live Q&As with the staff.” The live Q&As may sound more premium, but given the bloggy roots of Defector, my guess is almost anyone paying extra for the “Pal” tier is there for the comments, where people will presumably hang out a lot during the day.
Comments across much of the Web are trash. Entire software platforms have been built — and have failed — to get over the “troll” problem. When people have to pay for membership in a comment section, the quality will inevitably go up.
Charging for commenting privileges isn’t new by any means. Stratechery has its paid Member Forum. And major newspapers have moved toward limiting comments to paying (or at least registered) users for a while now.
Expect the trend to continue; comments, like community, are worth paying for — at least when the experience of writing and reading them is raised out of the gutter of the open Web.
3) Open up a conference call
Would your users value a direct line to reporters, editors, and other experts?
Places like The Information, The Atlantic, and Quartz have experimented with using conference calls as a subscriber benefit.
In our current pandemic, there’s all the more need for ways to gather and connect.
4) Provide special content & early content
One of my favorite new newsletters, Exploding Topics, has recently rolled out a cool program in this space.
Exploding Topics just launched Exploding Topics Pro, promising to “discover exploding topics 6+ months before they take off.” The price is $35 a month, or $147 a month to add “Instant Trend Alerts.”
Of course, this is hardly a unique model — plenty of Substack newsletters have free and paid tiers (not to mention Stratechery).
But it’s effective. And if you can create a paid tier on top of your free audience, it may be a great idea for you, too. (This is also, incidentally, a nice way to balance advertising revenue on the free content with reader revenue on the paid content.)
5) Get creative!
There’s really no end to what you can do to delight subscribers…
Swag. A custom avatar. Calendars. A subscriber-only text.
Build your campfire.
In July, on the Digital Campfire Download (a series Sara Wilson has developed since her HBR article), guest Greg Isenberg presented an interesting theory about how to think about where the opportunity is in communities & subscriptions right now.
In short: reddit is being unbundled.
What that means is, if you see an active or hot community on reddit — or, really, on Facebook or any other legacy platform — chances are there’s an opportunity to serve that community in a better, more innovative, freestanding way.
What would serving these communities better mean? Well, it would mean allowing them to connect in ways that just aren’t possible in their existing habitat.
What could reddit never do? What could Facebook never do?
When you look through these ideas for how to add value for your subscribers, I think you’ll find most of them fall into these categories of ‘things the big tech companies could never do.’
So figure out your membership. Figure out your community. Add value.
The rewards will be worth it — for you and your readers.
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