How Publishers Can Create a Successful Paid Subscription Model

These days, it seems that nearly every publisher is considering some form of paid subscription model. Companies want to diversify from reliance on advertising. Some want to adapt their print subscription model to the digital realm while others want to launch a new paid subscription offering online.

It Starts with Commitment

Unfortunately, most publishers aren’t setting themselves up to succeed. They underestimate the commitment it takes to make paid subscriptions successful online. They’re hesitant to make the necessary changes with their systems and tactics. Or they want they want paid subscriptions but aren’t willing to give up any online traffic or ad revenue to get it.

When you boil it all down, the big question isn’t about technology or advertising or metered versus hard paywalls. It’s about commitment. Are you committed to do what it takes to make a paid subscription model successful online?

You Must Have Great Content

Can I save you some time and trouble? Don’t even bother with a paid subscription model online unless you first have great content that is unique and truly hits the core needs or passions of your target audience. This is a non-negotiable. You must have content that people are actually willing to pay for.

Your subscriber-only content could be text and/or video, or it could be some sort of database, knowledge base, or tool that helps people with their job or personal passion. It could even be a private discussion forum with unique access to market experts (consumer or B2B). Or maybe you organize content or data in a way that is better than anyone else…people are willing to pay for convenience.

Whatever your subscriber value proposition is, it cannot be a commodity that your audience could get somewhere else for free. There is no tolerance for fluff content when people are paying for it. And while quality is more important than quantity, you must also add to, or update, your subscriber-only content weekly and preferably daily.

Lock Down Your Subscriber Content

This sounds like a no-brainer, but I still can’t believe how many publishers with paid subscriptions give away all of their content completely free on their website, app, or through a publicly-accessible digital flipbook. People won’t buy what you give away for free. You must lock down subscriber-only content on all platforms.

“People won’t buy what you give away for free.”

Publishers are often hesitant to lock down subscriber content for fear their website traffic will decline. But an analysis usually shows that their fears are unfounded.

First, most publishers don’t sell out their inventory. Or if they do, it’s because they’re selling a bargain-basement rates or backfilling with extremely low revenue programmatic ads. With a few adjustments, most publishers could easily manage a reduction in website traffic without negatively impacting ad revenue.

Second, it is often more profitable to convert people into paid subscribers instead of monetizing them through website advertising. Think about it…an average website visitor comes to your site 1.5 times per month and sees 2 pages per visit. That’s 3 pageviews per month per person.

Now, let’s say you monetize your site at a very generous $100 RPM (revenue per thousand page views). That means you make 30 cents per month per person or $3.60 per year in advertising revenue. If you can monetize a subscription at even $1 per month, you’ll make more money from that individual than you will through advertising.

And remember…paid subscribers still look at ads on your site or in your print magazine.

This doesn’t mean that all content needs to be locked down for subscribers. You still need three tiers of content:

  1. Open content to attract new people and build your remarketing lists
  2. Lead magnets to build your email list
  3. Subscriber-only content locked behind a paywall

In fact, your subscriber-only content may wind up being a small percentage of your total content, but it must be your absolute best content and what people would be willing to pay for.

Address Your Paid Subscription Platform Issues

Many publishers have platform issues with their CMS, fulfillment provider or email/CRM/marketing automation system. These must be addressed if you want to be successful with paid subscriptions online.

There are CMS providers – especially in the regional publisher market – that don’t even support locking down subscriber content or managing paid subscriptions. Other CMS providers manage paid subscriptions and subscriber content lockdown themselves but have a difficult time integrating with the subscription fulfillment providers that publishers already use.

As for subscription fulfillment providers…most do a poor job integrating with CMS systems for subscriber login and authentication. Payment processing and user account creation isn’t always real-time. Their form designers are usually very difficult to use, lack good visual form-building tools (like what you see with Leadpages or Unbounce), have limited or no A/B testing capabilities, and don’t easily integrate the publisher’s analytics and tagging systems.

Your subscription fulfillment provider must be able to get subscriber information into your email/CRM/marketing automation system. It’s preferable that this happen real-time, but even a once-per-month update via a CSV file can suffice if needed.

Why? Because to be successful with paid subscriptions online, you must have the ability to successfully market your subscription and better communicate with paid subscribers. You need to create marketing automation sequences and show conditional content to subscribers and non-subscribers both in email and on your website. We’ll dive deeper into this in my next article, “How to Market a Successful Paid Subscription Online”

You can overcome these platform limitations. It will take time, effort, and some investment to get them working well. In some cases, you may need to change your CMS, fulfillment provider, or email/CRM/marketing automation system.

But don’t be discouraged. It can be done … and must be if you want to be successful with paid subscriptions online.

Marketing Your Paid Subscription Model

Once you’ve addressed these foundational issues, now it’s time to start marketing your paid subscription. Successful publishers realize that marketing is much more than just getting people to pay. They look at the entire audience development conversion funnel:

Paid Subscription Conversion Funnel
Paid Subscription Audience Conversion Funnel

All parts of the funnel must be working properly and working together to sustain and grow a successful paid subscription online.

You need to be continually attracting new people to your brand, continually engaging those people into becoming email subscribers, continually converting email subscribers into paid subscribers, and continually working to retain existing subscribers.

They can’t exist in silos within an organization. Marketing, audience development, editorial and even ad sales must work together and be in agreement that the primary role of each stage is to move people into the next stage.

And the best way to do this is to start from the bottom and work our way back up.

Delight and Retain Your Paid Subscribers

It does no good to acquire new subscribers if you’re losing them just as fast out the back door. The old adage that it costs 5x more to acquire a new customer than to retain one is absolutely true for publishers as well.

As I mentioned in my previous article, you must have content that is unique and truly hits the core needs or passions of your target audience. If not, your subscribers will not stay for long.

The subscriber online experience must be amazing. Digital flipbooks simply won’t cut it. Your website itself must be a great subscriber experience. It must be secure, fast and a great mobile experience. It must clearly show subscribers the unique content only they have access to and the login process must be clear and simple.

Native iOS and Android apps are another way to get your brand … and value proposition … in front of your paid subscribers in a way that they’ll love. It’s not that hard to do especially if you use WordPress as your CMS.

Consider removing ads for logged in visitors. Yes, I can hear the collective gasp from publishers across the country even as I write this. But remember from my previous article that a paid subscriber is worth much more than the ads they would otherwise see.

Finally, continually communicate with your subscriber. It’s not enough to send them an email once a month with a link to their digital flipbook. Tell them weekly or even daily about new content that only they have access to. Guide them to previous subscriber-only content that is valuable. Make them feel special for being a subscriber!

Make It Easy for People to Convert to Paid Subscribers

One of the biggest problems I see with many publishers is that their subscription process is terrible. I talked about this at length in an article I wrote last year, but here’s a quick recap.

Your subscription pages must be fast, secure, and mobile-responsive. You must demand this from whoever is managing your fulfillment … whether your own website or a 3rd party fulfillment provider. If you don’t, you will lose subscribers.

Subscription pages must sell a potential subscriber. Most publisher subscription pages are just order forms with lousy conversion rates. Instead, show people the benefits of subscribing. Use a video sales letter (VSL), subscriber testimonials, time-limited pricing … all the features of a good sales landing page.

The entire process must be contained on a single page. Don’t use a multi-step process as every step loses people and lowers your overall conversion rate. People don’t mind scrolling down a page, but they hate multi-step processes. Also, limit the info you collect about a subscriber to only what you absolutely need for the transaction.

Finally, as soon as someone subscribes, they must be able to immediately access the subscriber-only content on your website or app. You must ensure that your fulfillment system and CMS are properly integrated to allow this.

Sell a Paid Subscription to Your Engaged Audiences

The best audience to convert into paid subscribers are the people who are already on your email list. They like your brand enough that they were willing subscribe to your newsletter, now you need to help them take the next step.

Have a compelling subscription offer at the bottom of every email newsletter that you send out. Once a month, send a dedicated email to non-paid subscribers encouraging them to subscribe.

As I wrote in my previous article, you hopefully have your fulfillment system integrated so that your email / CRM / marketing automation system knows who is and isn’t a subscriber. This way you can conditionalize your subscription offers at the bottom of your emails. No need to promote subscriptions to people who are already subscribers.

Consider running a special, week-long sale twice per year to help get borderline subscribers off the fence. I’ve worked with three different publishers on campaigns like this over the past year. Each generated 10s of thousands of dollars in subscription revenue.

Again, if your fulfillment system is properly integrated with your email / CRM / marketing automation system, you can target these week-long campaigns only to people who are not yet subscribers.

BTW, I consider website visitors and social media followers to be “semi-engaged” audiences. You may convert some of them directly into paid subscribers, but conversion rates are much lower. It’s far better to convert web traffic and social media followers into email subscribers first using lead magnets and other techniques, and then covert them to paid subscribers.

Make Your Website Sell Paid Subscriptions for You

Other than your email list, your website is the biggest sales tool that you have. The #1 job of your site should still be to convert visitors into email subscribers, but you still want the site to make it very clear that you have a paid subscription level.

Every paid subscription website needs three layers of content. 1) Free content to attract the right audience, build your remarketing audiences, and give people a feel for your brand. 2) Registered content … usually lead magnets strong enough that people are willing to give you their email address. 3) Paid, subscriber-only content … your absolute best content.

Make sure your website shows subscriber-only content everywhere. Intermix paid content with your free content. Promote both free and subscriber-only content in your email newsletters and social media properties. You want people to see what they’re missing! And it’s a good reminder to your paid subscribers of the unique content and access that they have.

Finally, use your actual locked-down content as a way to sell subscribers. You can see this in action on sites like Wall Street Journal, America’s Test Kitchen, and Providence Business News.

Use Programmatic Advertising Wisely

I am a big fan of programmatic advertising for audience development and typically recommend a three-tier program:

  1. Ads to attract new people to your website and build your remarketing lists.
  2. Ads to convert website visitors and social media followers into email subscribers.
  3. Ads to convert email subscribers into paid subscribers.

You’ll notice that I usually don’t recommend ads to drive a “new” audience directly into a paid subscription. It’s incredibly difficult to ask someone new to your brand to fork out money on a subscription. They need to get familiar with your brand and content value first.

Similarly, we’ve found that remarketing ads to website visitor and social media followers is better spent driving email subscriptions than paid subscriptions. The goal is to move people down the conversion funnel. When you try to skip steps it usually does not work well.

Track Everything That You Do

Launching a paid subscription program online without tracking your efforts is like driving down a freeway at night with your lights off. You must track all of your efforts and learn what really works and what doesn’t at every step of the conversion funnel.

First, make sure that you properly tag not only your website, but your subscription pages as well. Use Google Tag Manager and include the following tags on all pages of your site:

  • Google Analytics — This will be your primary dashboard to see how your marketing efforts are doing, what’s driving email capture, and what’s driving paid subscriptions.
  • CRM Site Tracking — Special code from your email / CRM / marketing automation system so that you can see what pages specific people visit, when, and how often.
  • Google Ads Remarketing Tag — Used to build out your website programmatic remarketing audience for the Google Ads network and to track ad conversion rates.
  • Facebook Pixel — Used to build out your website programmatic remarketing audience for the Facebook ad network and to track ad conversion rates.
  • Other Remarketing Tags — After you have Google and Facebook ads working well, consider other networks like Bing, LinkedIn, AdRoll,, Taboola, etc.

Be sure to setup goals within Google Analytics to track email acquisition and paid subscriptions. For paid subscriptions, I typically recommend goals over ecommerce tracking for most publishers. However, if you have a lot of products and an ecommerce storefront, you might want to use ecommerce tracking instead.

Next, use Google Analytics UTM variables (source, medium, campaign, content) to track which emails, on-site promotions (popups, top bar ads, etc.), house backfill ads, and paid programmatic advertising drive the most email signups and paid subscriptions.

Finally, look at this data regularly. Learn from it and adjust your tactics. I know many publishers that have a ton of data, but never take the time to actually look at and analyze it. This is the only way you can know if your efforts are on track and take steps to improve your subscription marketing.

It Goes Back to Commitment

As I said at the beginning of this series, successful paid subscriptions online are all about commitment. Are you and your organization committed to doing what it takes to make a paid subscription model successful? And are you willing to take the time to get it right?

Very few publishers get it right out of the gate. It may take significant effort to get your content in shape for paid subscriptions. It takes time, effort and disruption to get your technical infrastructure correct. And it takes time and constant testing / adjustment to get your subscription marketing working efficiently.

It also takes time and effort to get your organization aligned behind paid online subscriptions. It must come from the top … the CEO … or it will not happen.

But if you do make the commitment and stick with it through the long-term, it can completely transform your business and open up new opportunities to serve the market and people you are passionate about.

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