In the 1980s, Sports Illustrated landed on a surefire way to drive subscriptions to its magazine. A high-quality print product? Top-notch journalism? Yeah, yeah, sure — probably all of the above. But as a child sitting in front of my television every afternoon, what really sold me — and then by my constant pleading, sold my parents — was this:
The football phone.
SI bought countless hours of TV air time to sell the country on its magazine, and the special gift with purchase that came with it:
In the mid-1980s, people could be enticed to say yes based solely on the “premium” – what magazine folks call the freebie you got for signing up. It could be something as practical as a clock radio or a pair of cheap binoculars; the gift could also be something that was pure fun, like a VHS tape of wacky bloopers. Back then, there was no shortage of ways to sell someone a magazine.
According to Erik Malinowski’s terrific history of the phone, it became “one of the most successful marketing campaigns ever executed in American media.”
Sadly, those days seem to be gone. Today’s magazine subscriber might score a tote bag (or in SI’s case a team jacket), but very few digital companies are going to use their money to develop a plastic novelty and then blitz commercial TV air time in order to sell their service. As newspapers’ ad revenues continue to shrink, and traditional media companies continue to consolidate, companies (including Longreads) are embarking further into reader-funded subscription as the model that — we hope — will support high-quality journalism.
Media companies spent many years solely chasing digital advertising revenue, but many have become marginalized in the process — they don’t have a monopoly on inventory or eyeballs, their ad-serving technology and data is controlled by third parties, and their client relationships with marketers have been co-opted by media planners and platforms like Facebook and Google. Then they proceeded to frustrate readers with endless pop-ups, autoplaying videos, and pages that took forever to load. Even sponsored advertising is facing potential disruption by Facebook.
Reader funding is an important mechanism for the future, because it’s the closest, deepest relationship that media companies still have — their brands and their talent connecting with their audience. It only makes sense to have a funding mechanism that caters to giving readers a service that they want to pay for.
Selling subscriptions isn’t just tossing a PayPal button onto your page and expecting readers to pitch in. There are several ways to sell a subscription, and we’re seeing them play out now at places like The New York Times (metered paywall), Washington Post (metered paywall), the Guardian (optional membership), and smaller companies like The Information (hard paywall).
Longreads went the “optional membership” route, but I underestimated what it takes to make an optional membership work. As a publisher you may be happy that you’re not paywalling your content, and that you are maximizing the global reach for your stories. But we quickly learned what NPR and PBS learned many years ago: The stakes need to be high in order to compel readers to act, and your fundraising pitch needs to be aggressive. There is a reason member fundraising drives annoy all of us to tears — begging is a critical part of this model, so if you are not comfortable begging incessantly, you might be better off picking a different approach. As Monika Bauerlin at Mother Jones noted recently, member fundraising drives also often feel “crisis-driven,” whereas their work is about “putting reporters on the beat, day after day, month after month.”
There’s an additional pitfall with the optional membership, and I call it “death by a thousand perks.” (Kickstarters, beware.) If you do not price your membership correctly, you will spend all of your reader funding not on journalism, but on fulfillment and international shipping for that coffee mug that you promised everyone. (Oh by the way, coffee mugs break really easily in transit.) If you are a digital publisher whose life or death is hinging on your ability to mail physical goods to people, think very carefully about your model.
This is why I’m lobbying for Longreads to move to a metered paywall in the months to come. As we continue to ramp up our original stories — and increase our number of deeply reported pieces — the purest model is one in which we ask our readers to pay for the core service. Their money goes directly into the stories — not into a football phone.