Subscription publishers (still) have platform problems


Platforms played integral roles in helping publishers scale audiences. Now, they’re helping with publishers’ subscription ambitions, with new product features and programs to educate publishers just starting to pursue consumer revenue.

While publishers are heartened by these steps, many are wary. Not only do platforms have a history of changing their minds about how their products work, they are also limited in their ability to help publishers’ subscription efforts. Here is a rundown of what the platforms have done and the gripes that publishers still have with them.

As the platform with the longest, most complicated history with publishers, Google also is the furthest along in helping them with subscriptions. On March 20, it announced Subscribe with Google to help publishers grow subscription revenue by letting users subscribe in two clicks, with publishers keeping 85 to 95 percent of the revenue. Subscribe with Google launched with 17 media outlets, including The New York Times and Le Figaro. Subscribe with Google is part of the Google News Initiative, which includes News Consumer Insights, a layer of analytics designed to help publishers sign up potential subscribers.

The issues: While Google provides publishers with subscribers’ names and email addresses, it holds on to the customer’s credit card information, making it harder for publishers to upsell people on other products like events or additional subscriptions. It also doesn’t support donations or memberships. A Google spokesperson said the company “is not looking to ‘own the customer,’ but rather to enable publishers to better drive engagement with their users and increase the likelihood of subscription renewal.”

Subscribe with Google also doesn’t yet integrate into some publishers’ existing paywall tools, which effectively forces publishers to choose between abandoning a current solution or trying to run two tests at the same time, which clouds the picture of their effectiveness. Google stressed that it’s working on integrating into third party tools.

While there’s an expectation that this will change, some publishers expect there to be a limit to how much Google will give up.

“They’re very rigid about breaking that data down beyond anything that’s global,” said Christian Hendricks, the president of the Local Media Consortium, a trade group that has members participating in Google’s and Facebook’s programs. “It isn’t as transparent as you’d like it to be, but that’s natural. How much would we be willing to give of the data that we have that’s proprietary to us?”

Facebook is about 10 months into a test with 13 publishers, including Bild, The Boston Globe and The Telegraph, that allows Facebook users to sign up for publisher subscriptions directly inside its platform; publishers keep all the revenue and reader data. About three months ago, Facebook also announced a Local News Subscriptions Accelerator, a three-month project to help publishers grow digital consumer revenue.

Other product tweaks have helped publishers forge the direct connections that may lead to more subscriptions. In April 2017, Facebook made it possible for publishers to solicit email addresses for newsletters via Instant Articles. As of May, publishers had gathered 10 million email addresses using the feature, according to Facebook. Over 1,900 publishers have used the Instant Articles email address feature in the last month, Facebook said. 

The issues: The subscription sales test requires publishers to use Instant Articles (though publishers’ existing mobile paywalls also work inside Facebook). Publishers that walked away from Instant Articles because of its limited monetization prospects might be unwilling to reinvest in the article format for an uncertain return. And there’s the question of whether Facebook users are valuable enough to target with subscriptions in the first place, or whether they are mostly flyby, low-value readers.

In April 2017, Amazon, a longtime driver of print subscriptions for magazine publishers, announced Subscribe with Amazon, which lets publishers sell digital subscriptions directly inside Amazon’s site; launch publishers included News Corp and (unsurprisingly) the Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Post. For video-focused publishers with OTT ambitions, Amazon has also become a crucial platform for attracting subscribers: By one estimate, Amazon accounts for 55 percent of the video subscriptions those publishers have claimed.

The issues: Like many other companies, publishers gripe about the lack of audience and customer data they can get from Amazon. “The only demand you can respond to is the demand of Amazon saying, ‘Send me more,’” said Jim Fosina, the founder of the subscription marketing consultancy Fosina Marketing Group. There also have been reader complaints about how well the product works, and issues that arise with the product are funneled to Amazon rather than the publisher, limiting the publisher’s ability to forge relationships with readers. An Amazon rep said the nature of the complaint determines whether Amazon or the publisher fields it.

News aggregation app Apple News has become a leading source of referral traffic for some publishers, and publishers can sell subscriptions directly inside it. As with products sold through its app store, Apple takes a 30 percent cut of subscriptions sold through Apple News. Apple lets publishers ask readers to provide personal information when they sign up for a subscription this way.

The issues: Apple doesn’t offer engagement data on its subscribers, making it difficult to anticipate who might be at risk of churning. Publishers trying to monitor the subscribers they get through the Apple App Store have to use separate data warehouses to watch their engagement. Apple declined to comment on the record, instead referring Digiday to privacy policies on its website.

And, in keeping with its strict privacy policy, Apple offers extremely limited opportunities to target ads to people that install its apps.

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