4 steps that will destroy your digital subscription dreams


During a business development seminar with a group of managers from the retail business in Helsinki some weeks ago, one woman in the audience told me a story about her 8-year-old niece. 

The family was on a car holiday and, as they crossed the border, the girl’s iPad suddenly lost connection (since the family subscribed to a Finland-only 3G supplier).

She was disconnected. And shocked. It had never happened to her before. She started inquiring into “why.” Her mother told her the Internet was “in the air” and now that they were abroad, they could not reach it.

The girl listened carefully. But she could not understand why Youtube didn’t work; “the air” is everywhere, isn’t it?

Why am I referring to this family scene? Because this girl is the future media consumer. A part of your future market. She doesn’t perceive media as something you “get” or “have.” She lives “in” it. It is part of her existence. Or at least should be.

To her, it’s fire, earth, water, wind – and Internet. She will turn her back on any company that will remove or even disturb that most crucial of basic elements.

Now, we are right in the middle of the Great Paywall Era. A wave of traditional media companies all across the Western Hemisphere is testing just how ready their respective markets are for digital subscriptions. 

According to the World Press Trends 2013, released in Bangkok during the 65th World Newspaper Congress, nearly half of U.S. publishers now adopt some kind of paid content model.

If you are one of them – or planning to become one – contemplate if you are abruptly cutting away something basic that your customers are used to getting. Ask yourself how this new offer of yours will impact the relationship you have.

A clue: A proposition should be positive in order to get the users to join.

If you don’t want that little girl and the rest of the digital generation to associate your brand with the “cutting-me-off-from-what-I-need” feeling, here are four errors to not commit:

  1. Serving “more.” Before you launch your digital subscriptions, think carefully about what you are serving behind this new entrance. Since we are in information-overload times, delivering “more” (longer texts, greater selection of pictures or clips) is not an optimal business model.

    The value proposition of “you get more (of what you don’t want) and, guess what, we are charging you for it!” is not going to be successful. We all have stacks of print, unwatched films, and TV shows (in the save-now, watch-later queue), as well as downloaded (and unread) e-magazines, reports, blogs, and so forth.

    Adding to this is just adding to people’s guilty conscience. And that’s a bad association for any brand.

  2. Treating everyone the same way. We live in new individualist times, when everyone is unique and wants to be treated as such. Sharp companies capitalise on this by creating semi-closed clubs and VIP events – all aimed at giving the customer the sense of being part of something exclusive, “just for you.”

    If you have launched a one-size-fits-all premium offer, while your audience wants tailor-made, think again!

  3. Making it hard to join. While visiting clients’ companies, I sometimes conduct a “live” test: You put someone – preferably from the sales department – in front of their own platform (and in front of the entire department as audience). Then you measure how long time it takes her or him to find something to buy.

    Try it. You will be surprised.

    Are you still wondering why digital revenues aren’t soaring? I say: Decrease the difficulties and you will increase your conversion rates.

  4. Selling the wrong thing. You have already gathered from point No. 1 that I don’t think you should merely sell more content. You should actually stop identifying yourselves mainly as content providers.

    As marketers, you know your brand proposition. But what would happen if you altered it from “providing top quality news” (slower and less relevant than on Twitter) to “building community?”

    Well, that’s a community I would like to be part of. And think of what that offer does to pricing. Which one would you be likely to buy at a high price: “more content” or “a better world?”

The above remarks, which refer to rather different aspects, all have one thing in common: relationship building.

For certain, the one way of going astray in this tricky stretch of news media history is to forget about the customers. This potentially terminal disease has an array of symptoms:

  • Staff comfort is more important than client satisfaction.

  • The coding is done in order to satisfy the CTO.

  • Products are being offered out of “tradition” – or at times that suit the internal vacation plan.

  • Trying (and failing) to innovate in-house rather than finding innovative partners, which was the topic for my speech at the World Editors Forum in Bangkok.  

We sometimes claim that credibility is our core asset. But just how credible is a company that claims to be society’s watchdog, protecting the backs of the citizens, but parades a blatant egocentrism?

Legacy media still survive on the relationship we have built with our audiences for more than 100 years. Our readers, listeners, viewers, and users have a long tradition of sharing the most important moments of history with us: crying in sympathy, shivering in disgust, laughing with joy, and exhibiting all the other strong feelings our brands convey.

They do not want to be reduced to “paying customers” who suddenly have to register, as if they were newcomers. (Thanks, sharp Zack Beatty at SeeClickFix for phrasing that so neatly during our Skype conversation some weeks ago.)

They have hearts. And if we light a fire in them, they will follow us into any reasonable business model.

We are not dealing in content.

We are – and will always be – in the relationship business.