“Can I give you more?”: How Politico, Motor Trend and The Young Turks make subscriptions work

Publishers aren’t making enough money on ads alone. So far this year, Medium announced that it will get rid of its native ad sales team to focus on subscribers. Meanwhile, the New York Times in its 2020 report calls itself “a subscription-first business,” saying it stays away from “trying to maximize clicks and sell low-margin advertising against them.”

With programmatic vendors and inventory challenging direct-to-publisher dollars as well as advertiser metrics that demand publishers write stories that scale—aka clickbait and sensational content—in order to make ends meet, publishers are recognizing the power of consumer-funded models. For those still building that paywall, here are some subscription models to look to for inspiration.

Grant unique access

The Young Turks knew it was leaving money on the table the day one of its readers offered to take staffers on a white water rafting trip. The man, a doctor, felt like a lone Democrat in California’s deeply Republican Central Valley. The left-leaning video publisher became a lifeline. Soon after, a subscription service was born.

“We came up with a tiered structure because some of our members asked, ‘Hey, can I give you guys more?’” said Steve Oh, chief business officer. “Our answer was, ‘Of course.’” By creating a membership community, TYT allows its top-paying subscribers entry into the inner-circle, a special perk that sets it aside from media outlets with a one-way broadcast mentality.

Members of The Young Turks’ “chairman” circle—which costs a cool $1,000 a month—get a monthly, one-on-one call with its founder, Cenk Uygur, to pitch improvements and ideas. Subscribers to the less costly “executive producer” level get a quarterly call with staff, while other levels offer benefits like discounts, t-shirts and full access to content.

The Information, a technology industry trade with an elite audience, takes a similar community building tack. Subscribers who pay $399 each month are conferred “contributor” access, featured on that page with a headshot and blurb and granted access to a special community Slack channel, where they can discuss industry challenges. That’s no small perk, considering The Information’s “contributors” include Snapchat Founder Evan Spiegel and Quora CEO Dustin D’Angelo.

Bolster intelligence

Perhaps the most established subscription practice, gating a selection of premium content behind a paywall is the favored tack of Politico and Business Insider.

Politico launched policy-focused Politico Pro in the US in 2011, when it found its morning tip sheets to be wildly popular. It followed with a European launch in September 2015. “People were clamoring for even more policy stories, so it seemed there was really a need in the market,” said Dari Gessner, executive director at Politico Pro.

Rather than sell to individuals, Politico Pro’s team sells journalistic content and access to live Politico events around 16 major policy areas to companies and organizations. Lower-cost packages, which start at “a few thousand euros” in the EU, are shared among five or so employees, while top-tier memberships that serve 100 plus readers go for “the low six-figures,” Gessner said. To successfully sell throughout all of Europe, Politico Pro’s dedicated sales team collectively speaks close to 10 different languages.

Business Insider has leaned on a combination of sales to large organizations and individuals to grow its subscriptions business, which launched in 2013 and offers research reports in six verticals for $2,495 a year. When it comes to BII’s price point, Andrew Sollinger, evp of subscriptions said, “We’ve found there’s relatively inelastic demand for high-quality content.”

The new focus on enterprise sales has worked. BI’s subscriber business has “more than doubled in the past year,” Sollinger said. BI’s revenue is up 70 percent over last year, and BII’s team has grown to 40 members. He credits an investment in marketing tactics like lead generation campaigns, conversion series and SEO.

Stoke fans’ fire

Publishers with passionate, niche audiences can build community around them, as The Enthusiast Network has for Motor Trend On Demand. CMO Jonathan Anastas described the service’s audience as “a passionate crowd who will disproportionately spend around their passions.” That crowd then attracts big brands like Dodge, who can connect with them through Motor Trend’s content by sponsoring events, running ads and integrating into shows.

Motor Trend already had a successful revenue model in its YouTube channel. It was one of YouTube’s charter content creators way back in 2012. Building an audience over four plus years put them in an enviable place, with more than four million subscribers, well over a billion views and, according to Tubular Labs, the number one car, truck and racing video platform in the US.

According to Anastas, the internal elevator pitch for a subscription model was simple: “What if we can get just 10 percent of four million subscribers…to become paid subscribers to Motor Trend On Demand? That’s a real business.”

So in 2016 Motor Trend strategically reorganized its content both in front of and behind a paywall, giving subscribers a 30-day sneak peak at video that would later air on YouTube as well as other platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. It also began offering exclusive shows, live racing and other motor sports content not available to non-paying viewers, using PR and paid and earned social along with digital, TV and print ads to promote the service. The gambit worked.

Enough Motor Trend YouTube subscribers were the kind of people who would “prioritize buying a carburetor, a set of wheels or an exhaust system over their rent,” Anastas described. This made $4.99 a month to watch exclusive content about their favorite hobby an easy sell. The subscriber audience is also of value for partners like Dodge, which have the ability to integrate into editorial video and feature prominently in this otherwise ad-free environment.

In turn, the paid subscription model allows Motor Trend to be “hyper focused on getting the consumer exactly what they want.”

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