From circulation to subscribe to donate, a media story

The circle's getting smaller all the time

At the beginning of last decade, as legacy magazines inched towards a digital environment, you could always tell which publications were embracing the 1s and 0s and which ones were paying lip service. And it was usually exemplified by the one department that carried the most weight.

Editorial? Nah. 

Ad sales? Lol.

The most powerful department inside of magazines for much of the print-world’s existence has been the circulation department. And as the transition from an analog world to a digital one, the circ department tried to plant its flag. On homepages and article pages, you’d see their power through a funky subscribe button.

Here’s Fortune’s homepage from May 5, 2010 (via the Wayback Machine). Notice the top right subscribe button. Give the gift of Fortune. Ok!

And for comparison, here’s Wired from the same date. While not as prominent, there’s still a call out to subscribe underneath the nav bar. And give AND get a gift. (Via Wayback Machine)

The point is this: not too long ago, subscriptions ruled the roost and UX designers got bullied by circulation departments to slap the “subscribe” button on the right side of the page.

Mario Andrade, a front end developer, wrote about the Gutenberg Diagram in 2013, and you can imagine this discussion about where to place the call-to-action inside media organizations:

Strong Fallow Area

The second stage of the reading habit is moving to the higher right portion of the page, you can think of it as a follow up from the left portion but less important. It’s not a good idea to break the reader’s experience created from the starting point. Meaning that if you have a call to action the user will stop at this point and act.

(Image via Mario Andrade)

And all this tracks (get it?) with research from Nielsen Norman Group that showed how readers look at websites in an F-Shape pattern. While NNG focuses on how we read text, it’s not a big leap to guess that some marketing person in the circulation department  read it and thought, “Ah, yes, let’s do the same for the subscribe button.” 

So let’s fast forward to 2020, where the world is on fire and media companies find themselves once again putting subscriptions front and center. 

As legacy publications transitioned to digital they got caught in the whirlwind of the “disruption model” of the whizbang websites that, backed by venture capital money, didn’t have a circulation department because they didn’t have a print product to circulate.

Instead, they ballooned web traffic as a proxy for paying eyeballs and tried to get an industry to build up ad rates to coincide with that rise. Look at all this potential money we could charge advertisers by saying “scale” and “reach” over and over. This was a fool’s errand, as we now know. Higher traffic doesn’t equate to more money. 

And with VCs who come knocking on a publisher’s door to recoup their investment, the pendulum swings back to this antiquated model, asking people to pay for content. It’s also a good balance at a time when advertising dollars dry up.

Digiday writes today that the new thing for news publishers is to “test” subscription pages:

News publishers have added their subscribe pages to the long list of things they constantly tinker with in an attempt to drive revenue during challenging times.

As subscription revenue has grown into a strategic priority, many have turned their pages into laboratories where batteries of tests around prices, offer placement and marketing messages are run continuously.

This is a twist on the original. Instead of circ departments slapping up subscribe buttons, dedicated audience teams are testing messaging and placement to get people to pay. This is a good thing. Let the experts work on this instead of design-by-committee, led by a department that didn’t understand the medium, which was how it used to be. 

And for some publishers, they’ve moved beyond subscriptions and are now focused on contributions, leaning on squishier, more emotionally laden language. One contributes to nonprofits and organizations that align with your values. Publications like Vox have banners like this:

Vox claims 20,000 people have contributed to its contribution program it introduced in April. 

In his newsletter A Media Operator, Jacob Cohen Donnelly writes this week

As I said above, whether it’s subscriptions, memberships or just asking for donations, you have to be explicit about the ask. It needs to be in the readers face. They may not want to do it; that’s okay. It still needs to be in their face explicitly. With subscriptions, we call this the stoppage rate, which describes the number of articles a reader sees before the paywall appears. If a publisher has the stoppage rate set to 10 articles and then cuts it to 5, I guarantee the conversion rate will improve.

In the case of Vox, there appears to have been no strategy around how they were going to get people to sign up other than an article and a couple of emails announcing it. It feels as if Vox was embarrassed to ask for money.

The American Press Institute, in May, did a good roundup of news organizations that have gone down this ‘contribution’ road and offered up this advice:

If your newsroom is considering doing so, remember that clarity and transparency are of the utmost importance. For example, if you are a for-profit organization, make sure to explain to readers that their donations are not tax deductible. It’s also a good time to explain to your audience (if you haven’t already) how your newsroom is funded, and how that impacts your coverage.

Keep the focus on your audiences — while your ask is inherently focused on the needs of your newsroom, remember that you are there solely to serve your audience. Remember that many of your readers may be experiencing the same financial hardships, salary reductions, and layoffs. Focus on their needs and what they are getting from you as much as possible, and build that awareness into your messaging.

The future of media is, as always, uncertain. What is clear: anything and everything is worth trying. Let’s just hope the media business model doesn’t go the way of the American healthcare system: relying on GoFundMe to survive.

Trey Anastasio, “I Never Needed You Like This Before”

Some interesting links:

  • Sumner Redstone Dies at 97 (Variety)

  • Meet the Woman Who Got Joe Rogan and Michelle Obama to Spotify (Wall Street Journal)

  • A Bible Burning, a Russian News Agency and a Story Too Good to Check Out (New York Times)

  • QAnon supporter, with Georgia primary victory, is poised to bring far-right conspiracy theory to Congress (Washington Post)

  • GaryVee Is Still Preaching the Hustle Gospel in the Middle of a Pandemic (Marker)