We spent more than 400 hours analyzing subscription models—here’s what we’ve found

Chartbeat has immersed itself in research around reader revenue and subscription models this year. This work has taken various forms such as data analysis, comparing historical trends, and distilling insights from past use cases. However, we’ve found that the best way to create actionable reader revenue solutions has been going to the source—publishers.

In the last month, as part of our work to go from publisher revenue pain point to solution, we spent time with users across all sorts of roles. These include editorial, consumer marketing, audience development and membership management, data science and analytics, events marketing, user research, and product management, all as part of our work to go from publisher revenue pain point to solution.

Chartbeat subscription model takeaways

After more than 400 hours of subscriptions research, here are some of our early takeaways:

Current infrastructure doesn’t match paid model ambitions

We have found that the infrastructure for user segmentation is critical for publishers to effectively market their offers and content. Yet time and again, we’ve witnessed a core infrastructure built on growing advertising revenue. In this case, the customer relationship is less important than the reach across platforms and sites. On top of that, this customer data is still tied up in legacy systems.

Therefore, modernization, consolidation, and centralization across systems is crucial for publishers. With one structure to rule them all, greater cross-team alignment can be achieved.

No need to change the channel

It’s no surprise that email is one of the most effective ways to engage consumers. Yet the publishing industry still lags other sectors such as retail in wider adoption.

The energy behind email’s return is that it remains the most cost efficient way to test conversion and retention strategies. There’s little risk and plenty of reward for readers to opt-in to newsletters and other distribution lists. That’s why those numbers could be in the tens of thousands. However, segmenting these email lists is often a manual data pull, and the content is often painstakingly curated.

To make experimentation productive, publishers need to take a page from retail marketing by taking advantage of automated services and creating dynamic lists that reflect its diverse audiences.

Get time (and sanity) back with better alignment

Industries throw the concept of “better alignment” around frequently, but its applications are often lacking in clarity. The result is fragmentation, which leads to conversions being tracked in different ways by each team in organizations. A centralized reporting system is key for everyone to understand the role they play in reader revenue. Then they can join together towards a common strategy.

Time is a scarce resource, so spending less of it on tracking and interpreting conversions for multiple stakeholders also means publishers can focus more time on improving their core products.

Be the master of your domains

Technology companies care about (and invest vast resources in) data collection. Publishers, in contrast, have not devoted a great deal of attention to how their data is managed, integrated, secured, and made available. Suffice to say, this points to a major gap in the industry’s data governance practices.

Consistent and understandable data is foundational to a successful business strategy. Data governance hasn’t always been a core competency of publishers. However, it directly influences their ability to quickly prioritize company-impacting decisions. Better data governance makes it faster and easier for publishers to synthesize and act upon trends.

Lean in to content strategy

Content attribution is disconnected from a publisher’s CMS and other internal tools in their system. Developing a content strategy for conversions (or retention) is dependent on editorial intuition plus an understanding of what the data is telling you. As publishers shore up their brands and continue to build products that appeal to consumer interests, content marketing attribution is the missing link for proving ROI.

The time is now to build out the right attribution model will support investments across both editorial and marketing. Publishers can rely on the same resources as marketers across retail and other industries, which have been growing in sophistication around mapping content strategy to ROI. Attribution is crucial to support (and justify) the additional resources that have been devoted to editorial and marketing teams.

Editorial, meet product

As we mentioned earlier, there’s been a notable shift among large publishers that no longer see editorial strategy and product strategy as two separate functions.

Product strategy is most successful when you can pull from multiple teams to build towards an outcome that actually serves the needs of end users. However, this requires a cultural change that many publishers are still navigating. There’s a push and pull at play—collaborative decision-making requires balance between competing business needs and existing revenue goals. We’ve seen this theme consistently throughout our research. Understandably so—culture change is a challenge for all kinds of organizations.

Subscriptions: What we’ve learned so far

Our early subscriptions research findings point to a familiar tie that binds cross-functional organizations and revenue goals: data. Whether we’re talking about attribution or strategy, the common thread is the data that informs the intuition that has guided publishers for decades.

Yes, publishers will continue to navigate the cultural evolution taking place in the industry, but a composite metric might be the missing link. Unite everyone in the organization to tackle their respective roles in reader revenue and support those goals with actionable data. There’s a better chance to see positive results, or at the very least, build upon the findings.

Want to stay informed on future subscriptions insights? Join our subscriptions accelerator community.

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in Digital Content Next.


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