Why publishers that take an overly transactional approach to subscriptions are losing long-term audiences

By James Henderson, CEO and co-founder at Zephr

Transactional customer relationships, and the technology that enables it, have underpinned the digital publishing ecosystem for the past 20 years. The path starts with attracting a reader, showing them a headline, a few words or even a whole article, then throwing up a paywall to get them to buy a subscription package, and then moving on.

This path treats potential subscribers as though they are any other e-commerce customer, assuming every reader is the same and sending them down the same conversion funnel. And we built complex tech-stacks to support that approach. We solved immediate use-cases with a confusing mix of ad-focused tools and subscription products, at the expense of flexibility within the customer experience.

These tools are static, operating at specific parts of the digital customer journey. For a long time, this lack of flexibility wasn’t important. The journey was straightforward, simple and linear — deliver content, monetize at all costs and possibly retain engagement. But this transactional approach is no longer meeting commercial or audience needs.  

The growing subscription economy fundamentally altered the way consumers think about their products and services — even before COVID-19. People are accustomed to choosing what’s right for them, whether it’s buying products by frequency or features, opting into a premium package or a family-focused deal. 

Successful recurring relationships are built on personalization, where consumers can access a product or package that’s right for them and leave the rest. If they can’t do so, they walk away. As the great Jim Barksdale says: “There are only two ways to make money in business. One is to bundle, the other is to unbundle.” Which one to pick, and when, and how, is now the most important question business leaders can ask. 

To answer that question, at present, publishers are often forced to hack together existing transactional tools. Development teams are forced to invest effort into building and maintaining these complex systems instead of focusing on building new products to grow revenue. Marketing teams wanting to experiment with and fine-tune new customer journeys and packages are stymied by hard-to-use, inflexible technology.

The result is complexity, high costs and unsatisfactory outcomes. Consumers are still not offered the personalization they want while innovation remains low, and when shocks hit the system, such as ultra-low ad yields, publishers suffer badly.

Put simply, the industry’s technology is not fit for purpose. This is worrying, particularly as we’re heading into a future where dynamic products, packaged for each individual consumer, must be delivered efficiently through automation. By relying on transactional technology, with all its limitations, publishers are in danger of being entirely left behind in this new economy.

COVID-19 has done in six weeks what it would have taken the subscription economy six years to do in its own time. The UK’s largest subscription site, isubscribe, says its digital magazine subscriptions have jumped more than 400 percent in volume (as of 15 April 2020). The Financial Times reported that traffic to its website has grown 250 percent year-on-year over the past month, and we’re seeing an all-time high for industry conversion rates. But how many new acquisitions will stay once this crisis is over and audiences find themselves with a subscription that’s not right for their needs?

The recurring relationship economy needs technology made to support it. It must operate at speed, scale and be flexible enough for every team to use it and be suited to every customer’s journey. We should aspire to turn an audience experience of publisher-to-one-million into an audience experience that feels like one-to-one.

Commercially focused teams must be able to conceive and deploy highly personalized customer journeys without always going to their technology teams and asking for help. They need to be able to test, learn and change entire products, packages and revenue models in hours, not weeks.

This means publishers need tools that are intuitive to use and don’t require years of coding experience to handle. Most of all, it means they need tools that integrate across the whole customer journey — offering a wide range of personalized outcomes for every potential subscriber.

Tools to which publishers can turn include no-code platforms, which ensure that organizations can handle every client, prospect and visitor uniquely, putting 
the power to build and change outcomes at speed straight into the hands 
of specialists who 
understand the market. The world’s largest publishers are using these platforms to get ahead of the curve, making them better fit for the new normal and ready to steal a march on those who are waiting for the market to settle — and haven’t yet realized that it might not for a long time to come.


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