What's the relationship status with your subscriptions?

By: Rob Corbidge, 09 November 2023

Content is gold

Cost remains the concern of most consumers when thinking about subscriptions. Do they need to understand the costs of producing quality content?

Cost is the primary concern of most publishers' subscribers, new and broadly optimistic research from Toolkits indicates.

These are straitened times, yet the price of quality published content hasn't really come down. Even those publishers who have corralled the significant numbers of subscribers required to feed a good content machine aren't operating with vast amounts of journalistic fat on the resource bone.

The case for paying needs to be made to subscribers on a daily basis, and content forms almost the entirety of that case.

It's a fact of modern life that almost all of us purge our various content subs from time to time by some criteria of cost and use, or switch them to gain access to certain things and stay cost neutral, as is the case with streaming services particularly. 

With publishers, it's often a case of incumbency wins, and the site you've always subbed to will remain subbed to unless it starts to become unloved, the price changes enough to promote an internal conversation about value, or something obviously superior appears. Indeed, the lack of new competitors in many markets is an indication of how high the subs wall is to climb without significant long-term initial funding.

There's also the fact that attitudes towards subscriptions vary widely from country to country, as this data shows, with 21% of US consumers paying for some form of news content, against Australia with 22%, the Netherlands with 17%, or my own United Kingdom weighting more lightly at just 9%, the same as Japan. The reasons behind these differences are no doubt ones of baffling cultural complexity.

As an insider on the content production side of our industry, and latterly an insider on the tech side of our industry, my awareness of what it actually costs to produce content is well-informed, by practice and not just theory. By quickly consulting a couple of spreadsheets and running some outrageous rounding-down calculations I can reliably inform you that the cost is "a lot".*

*(Note: the amount "a lot" in publishing terms is always to be set against the "gigabucks" common among the tech giants. A lot is approximately one one hundredth of a gigabuck.)

To use self-examination as the basis for an example is a tricky exercise with almost zero chance of objectivity. Yet, with each subscriber the pattern of criteria for their subscriptions is different, so I'll use me as an example.

My subscription to one prominent US-based financial news media site costs near enough $200 a year. Then there's $125 or so a year for one news and comment site plus a print edition, and £118 for a UK news and satire site, again with a printed edition. Notably, the printed editions go largely unread but the sites are accessed frequently.

Altogether the grand total subscription cost for personal consumption content is 402 of my British pounds a year, or £33.50 a month. Set against what I'd have to endure if I wasn't paying for information, I'd say it's a cost well-justified on mental health grounds alone.

How do we make the case to potential subscribers? Should we consider breaking down the cost of a piece of content so that subscribers can see how the money is spent?

We of all people, working in the industry as we do, know the cost of producing consistent quality content. With every blow struck against the financial lifeline of those who rely on advertising to survive, forcing a small cut here and a small cut there, that ability to produce consistent quality content is diminished a little more, a situation that can at present really only be answered by scale.

If we return to the Toolkits study, we can see a relatively low number of respondents who were prompted to complain about the quality of content once they were subscribed. This indicates that the promise of the subscription is largely being met by publishers, the promise being quality content.

The last and most interesting ingredient in my own subscription world is character. Each of the publications subscribed to has an understandable nature, and even if I find some things in them disagreeable, I can nevertheless recognise why they are there. My US-based financial news media site only cares about money, yet such single-mindedness produces a lupine clarity in their reporting. 

Be for something, and others will be for you.