‘This conversation is personal’: Inc.’s columnists are now available through text for readers willing to pay
Starting this month, Inc. is testing a new reader engagement avenue to make their editorial talent even more accessible to readers.
Paid newsletters, exclusive conference calls and live or virtual events have been the hot tickets for bringing in the incremental subscription revenue that’s separate from traditional magazine and digital subscriptions.
But the business publisher is taking is a step further by opening up two-way communication between its top columnists and their readers and fans via their phones.
Using subscription text message platform Subtext, Inc. is charging its audience about $5 per month to get daily short-form texts from their favorite columnists, to which they are able to respond. The columnists then select certain subscribers to have a one-on-one text exchange.
“We’re reaching peak newsletter saturation at this point and there has to be a unique way to bring subscribers into the fold,” said Mike Donoghue, CEO of Subtext.
Last year, Esquire built a micro-subscription around its political writer Charles Pierce. Meanwhile, freelance writers and journalists from various publications are setting out to monetize their loyal readerships on their own using paid subscription newsletter platform Substack.
Inc. editor-in-chief Scott Omelianuk said that the publisher’s columnists, who have created a strong reputation for covering niche topics, were the best choice for creating its initial set of Subtext campaigns. And with 68% of its audience coming to the site from mobile, it made sense to build a product that is mobile-first as well.
“We have specialized columnists that drive hundreds of thousands or millions of views on any given day,” said Omelianuk. “This is not an expensive experience, but when you think about it, we’ve conditioned people to not spend on websites and not spend a lot on magazines. But we know people are willing to pay for communication opportunities” with their favorite writers and experts.
The first six text campaigns that Inc. is launching this fall feature one columnist each, all of whom will likely spend only 20 to 30 minutes on the platform per day. The average price for each premium subscription is around $5 per month. Two of them — Career Self-Care with Minda Zetlin and Tech Inc. with Jason Aten — launched earlier this month and send out daily tips, insights and opinions on new updates. Readers are encouraged to text back and on occasion, the columnist will respond and have a one-on-one conversation with the individual to lift engagement with Inc.
Omelianuk would not disclose the number of sign-ups that the first two campaigns have received so far in the first couple weeks of being live, but said that it was surpassing estimated totals.
“These are the journalists and the hosts that you subscribe to on the other ends of the texts,” said Donoghue. “Texting is a good medium because it is accessible, familiar, friendlier and free flowing in that it allows two-way conversations.”
And, unlike social media interactions, texting is out of public view and therefore is free from trolling and online criticisms. It’s also the medium that people are most used to when it comes to communicating with friends and family, so conversations that they have with hosts are more comfortable, he said.
A micro-subscription like this is “not a new idea, but a more exclusive way of executing the idea that is fitting of the 21st century,” said John Wilpers, the senior director in the U.S. at Innovation International Media Consulting. “Go back to newspaper days when people would buy a paper just for the columnist,” he added.
Subtext, which officially launched in March 2019, gives media companies and content creators three options to use the platform: paid subscriptions, subscriptions that are an add-on to existing membership models and free subscriptions that are open to the public. For paid campaigns, Subtext and its users operate on a revenue-share model and the other two options operate via a licensing fee.
The platform now has over 450,000 total subscribers across the 500 publishers and content creators that use the company. The largest campaign on the platform, which was a coronavirus-specific campaign operated by NJ.com, brought in over 70,000 subscribers, according to Donoghue, however, he said that the average number of subscribers for paid campaigns that are between $4 to $5 per month is closer to 1,000.
On its own, a single paid campaign won’t make or break a publication, but Donoghue said that repeating the model across several journalists eventually adds up.
But even despite the additional revenue, Omelianuk said there is “no reason for us to not do this even if we ultimately don’t make a ton of money from it.” That’s because the conversations that are happening in those texts are “windows into issues that are more broadly felt and, ultimately, it could become a really great way for us to program content for the rest of our website” by getting direct lines into new issues and burgeoning topics that readers want to learn more about.
Donoghue said the average open rate for Subtext is 92%, 85% of which happens within the first hour of the text being sent. Engagement rates — as in response rate to the text — is more than 20%, he said.
Platform-wide, the service has an average churn rate that is below 1.5%, but for its paid campaigns specifically, that number is slightly higher at about 2%. For publishers that have added Subtext to their other subscription products as a retention and engagement tool, Donoghue said that users were 65% less likely to unsubscribe than subscribers who did not use Subtext.
Wilpers said he thinks this micro-subscription makes the most sense as an add-on to a larger subscription product because on its own, the revenue stream might not be worth the effort. But its engagement and retention value makes it an appealing way to up-sell people to the larger dollar subscription products.
CNET is using the platform as an extension of its e-commerce business, according to Donoghue. The publisher sends out product links that recipients can shop and, he said, that that list consists of more than 7,000 people. Additionally, BuzzFeed News created a text campaign at the beginning of the pandemic that asked its audience what questions they had about the coronavirus then used responses to create a series of advice columns for its website.
At this time, Omelianuk said his team won’t pursue sponsorships or commerce integrations on the platform because “this conversation is personal enough that we don’t want to ruin that purity.”
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