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By Thomas Baekdal - May 2022

It is possible to mix subscriptions and advertising? And how do we define relevance?

This is an archived version of a Baekdal Plus newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as unique insights written specifically for the newsletter. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.

I'm not quite sure how this happened, but welcome to May. Yes, we are now already 1/3 into 2022. How crazy is that?

Today, I have three exciting stories for you.

Plus: Why advertising and subscriptions are so hard to mix, but not impossible

Ever since the trends around subscriptions have taken off, many have asked about how or if they can mix advertising and subscriptions together.

This has long been a very contentious debate. Not least because the goals for the advertising team and the subscription team are often at odds with each other. This has led to many internal problems at publishers.

So, can you mix advertising and subscriptions? Well, it depends. If your strategy for advertising is to make people as annoyed as possible to maximize your exposure metrics, then... no. You can't mix it. Doing that will cause a low subscription rate and a very high churn rate.

But, if you start to think about advertising from a brand perspective, you realize that most of the things that brands value are also what subscribers value.

In my latest Plus report, I wrote all of this in far more detail. I show you what it is that brands really want (but aren't getting today), and how that actually fits well with a subscription model.

So take a look at: "Why advertising and subscriptions are so hard to mix, but not impossible".

What really is relevancy?

One of the biggest problems we continue to face in the media industry is relevancy. When we see tons of people coming to publishers' sites but very few ever engage, it's a sign that the value that we had to offer didn't resonate with people. In other words, it wasn't relevant for people.

I have talked about this many times in the past. In 2019, I wrote a Plus report called: "Redefining Relevance: The Circles of Media", which many have said helped them define this better. And this year, I wrote "Transactional vs community-based vs societal publishing", where I talk about the same thing but from a slightly different perspective.

Mind you, relevancy, of course, is not the only reason people don't engage. The simple fact that we have so many choices and how easy it is to click on links makes website visitors akin to window shoppers, rather than actual visitors.

One way I have defined this in the past is to think about it like with the newsstand.

Take this example of a person going to a newsstand to buy something. How many of those magazines in front of him do you think he bought?

Well, the answer might be zero (he was actually just buying a Snickers bar), it might be one, but, at the most, it's highly unlikely that it's more than two.

The online world is the same way. Every single day, you are likely to come across tons of links to publisher's sites, and you might click on some of them as you are just browsing around. But, until you actually specifically decide to dive into it, all you are doing is similar to you quickly glancing over the magazines at a newsstand.

It's not real traffic. It's passers-by.

Relevancy in relation to passers-by is really tricky because most of these people have no need for what you do. They are having what we call a low-intent micro-moment.

Converting these people into subscribers (which is a high-intent macro-moment), requires quite a bit of focus. And what type of focus that is depends on your subscription model. If you are selling something cheaply, your focus is discounts and quick impulse choices ... but if you are selling something that is very expensive (like a newspaper subscription, which often costs more than Netflix, you need to be really good at demonstrating that value.

Sadly, most are not doing this.

Of course, the second element of relevance is when people directly choose to engage. If people come to your site, and they then read your article in full and still don't act in a way that may lead to a conversion ... well... then your relevancy is not what it should be.

So what is relevancy? Well, if you ask me for a very quick answer (you can read the much longer answer in the articles above), I would say publishers should do this.

First, ask: "How can this be used?". And here, generally speaking, we have three options.

Just think about these options for a second. What effect does this have on people's willingness to become more than just passers-by?

To put this into perspective, imagine if on your daily commute to work you walk by a store that sells something that neither you nor anyone else you know can do anything with? How likely is it that you will then walk into that store to buy something?

It's the same with publishing. This might seem like an extreme example, but try to do an audit of what you are publishing and segment your articles into these three categories.

This is one of the first things I do when I look at a publisher. When I look at a magazine or a newspaper, I simply ask myself: "What can people actually do with this?"

The second element is this:

These three often lead to wildly different things.

This is another test that you can do. Look at what is on the front page, and ask yourself: does this really represent what you aim to provide if people subscribe ... and if so, can it stand on its own?

Then look at what kind of articles get the most traffic (what people see), and again, compare that to the value that you really want to bring.

For most publishers, there is a disconnect. The articles that get the most views are also often the articles that people are least likely to subscribe to. You can have a food magazine where the most viewed articles are about something shallow and stupid, but where the real value of the magazine is from the much more useful insightful articles about recipes, food prep, and food understanding.

Same thing for news. Newspapers, as a whole, provide a pretty wide and useful coverage, but the front pages, or worse, the most clicked on articles, represent such a tiny and often antagonistic part of that.

Why would people then subscribe to that? So, look for this disconnect.

Finally, another very important element of relevance is you have to find something people need. In the old days, publishers could make money just by giving people something to read. But today, nothing works like that anymore. Even big channels like Netflix saw a drop in subscribers because people had been spending so much time during the pandemic watching things, that they had run out of shows that they liked.

It's the same with every other kind of publisher. Unless you have something people find useful, you are not really relevant to them.

This is such an important element. So when we talk about relevance, think about these three things.

The subscription scam

To wrap up this newsletter, I want to talk about a subscription scam that reminds me of something we do in the media.

So, here in Denmark, we have had a problem for many years of web shops selling what appears to be a product, but once you pay, you are actually signing up for a hugely expensive subscription that sometimes even increases in price month after month.

The website owners say that they are not doing anything wrong because they have listed the terms in the fine print, but the Danish Consumer Protection agency is saying that it isn't made clear enough and these 'dark-patterns' are a deliberate attempt to scam people.

The Danish courts generally agree. Just recently, a web shop was sentenced, had their entire profit confiscated (millions of Danish Kroner), and was given a hefty fine.

As I said, this has been going for almost a decade, and normally, I wouldn't pay much attention to it. It's just another one of the many scams online, and they are usually stopped a short while after they are started.

But then last week, I was doing some analysis of how different publishers presented their subscription offers (for another project), and I noticed the same dark patterns on so many newspaper sites.

Let me give you an example.

Here is the subscription page from a newspaper. It doesn't matter which one it is. But this is the offer. Get one year for $24.

Then, when you get to the account page, at the very bottom of the page is this. An itty-bitty terms and conditions that says: "By accepting this offer you are agreeing to a continuous subscription, which will automatically renew until you cancel."

Cool... I mean, it is a subscription, so this is fine... right?

Well, not really, because if you then expand these terms and conditions, you are suddenly presented with another message, hidden at the very end after a lot of other mostly non-important information that ... wait... "After the 1 year for $24 introductory rate, you will be automatically charged $15.96 every 4 weeks."

This is exactly what a dark-pattern looks like, and it's the same thing that the scammers in my country are being punished for.

First of all, by changing the pricing range, they are making it really hard for people to actually calculate the true cost. $24/year is pretty easy to understand. But how does that compare to $15.96 per four weeks?

First you have to calculate how many weeks are in a year. It sounds like it's about a month, but it isn't. It's actually 13 payments in a year. So that is another way to create deceptive pricing.

Then you have to multiply 13 by $15.96 ... uhm... hmmm... I need a calculator for that. Again, they are making it deliberately difficult to calculate and compare to other things. The result is $207.48 ... which means that they are tricking people into accepting a 766% price increase after one year.

I mean, seriously. This has so many dark-patterns that it's not even funny, and it's exactly the same tactics as the web shop scammers use.

I'm pointing this out because, as a media analyst, it shouldn't be like this. Again, I'm not just seeing this with one bad publisher. This is something I see across so many newspapers. It's just wrong.

Journalism, as an industry, is supposed to stand for something. We are supposed to be trusted, to promote transparency, and we work to hold others to account for bad behavior ... We even write articles when other people do things like this. And yet, we don't hold ourselves to these standards.

I don't think writing this will change anything. But think about this. How can we solve the problems we face if we don't live to our own journalistic standards?

Just be transparent about your prices, and also don't give people a bad experience at the exact moment when churn is at its highest.

And, BTW: The same publisher who is doing the above is also using the 'Call us if you want to cancel' trick. So not only are they tricking people into paying $184 more than they expect, they are also making it as difficult as possible to stop this from happening once people discover their credit card bills.

I mean... 😬

Want to know more?

Just like relevance, there are many other aspects that publishers need to optimize. Previously, I talked about how publishers should think about the welcome experience, which is another important element of getting new readers to become satisfied subscribers.

Support this focus

Also, remember that while this newsletter is free for anyone to read, it's paid for by my subscribers to Baekdal Plus. So if you want to support this type of analysis and advice, subscribe to Baekdal Plus, which will also give you access to all my Plus reports (more than 300), and all the new ones (about 25 reports per year).

This is an archived version of a Baekdal Plus newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as unique insights written specifically for the newsletter. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.


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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé


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