March 5, 2014 Last Updated 10:06 am

Wednesday column: It’s time to reinvent the subscription

Each Wednesday, Talking New Media invites digital publishing leaders to discuss industry topics, or explain and demonstrate the latest solutions involving digital media. In our first column, Mike Haney of Mag+ discusses the need to rethink the magazine subscription.

The digital publishing industry on mobile devices is in many ways trapped—not technologically, but in conception—in its roots in the print industry. We talk about newsstands and issues and subscriptions as though we’re beholden to these constructs of a completely different medium. And yet when I watch Esquire’s new TV channel, I don’t tune into a feature story.

We talk a lot about breaking out of the issue construct, but not enough about challenging the notion of the subscription. At its core, of course, the subscription is nothing specific to print: I subscribe to Hulu and Spotify and Simplenote and Thrillist. And yet, when you look at the subscription offerings of nearly all publishers’ apps, you see exactly what you could get in print: 10 or 12 monthly issues, delivered at roughly the same time.

Shsep-AP-iPadOne of the core challenges all publishers are facing right now is engagement: Even among subscribers, not enough people are coming back month after month. I would bet my lunch that a big part of that is lack of value, relevancy and frequency. In the sea of options I have on my phone or tablet, a month is just too long and delivering only an issue is just not enough.

To increase engagement and renewals, content makers of all types—whether they come from a print legacy or not—need to start reconceiving subscriptions less as pre-purchases of bundles of issues and more as an opt-in to a community. Thrillist gives me daily emails, but also access to shopping sites for things it thinks I would like (it assumes I’m far hipper than I am). Think about all the content and value your brand has to bring, and then think about how those assets can be packaged into an offering. Stop thinking of these apps as issue delivery vehicles and start seeing them as content hubs.

Mike Haney was part of the original Mag+ concept team in 2009, when he was Executive Editor of Popular Science. In 2010, Haney became Deputy Director of Bonnier R&D, where he helped evolve Mag+ and launch more titles, and co-founded Mag+ as its US Director in 2011. Today he handles creative and editorial direction for the platform.

Adding more frequent content doesn’t have to be hard, technologically or time-wise. Use push notifications or built-in newsfeed or HTML windows in your app to deliver it. Pull the content from your web site or your archives and set it up in an RSS feed. It doesn’t matter that this content might have been seen before or is available elsewhere—the value is that you’re delivering it to me on my device now.

For example, a subscription to Discover magazine could give me the most important science news story of the day, as well as breaking news by push notification. American Photo could deliver me a photo of the day that collects in a large slideshow. Shape could offer a new workout every week pulled from its archives. Cooking Light could give me a recipe.

Take this one step farther, and you can start to let subscribers specify what they want. Popular Mechanics could offer three subscriptions: DIY, Auto or Engineering. Depending on which one I choose, I get content that’s specifically of interest to me. Saveur could create regional or cuisine specific subscriptions. All subscribers get the same base issues, so they all count toward your rate base.
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In addition to the small bits of content, you can add issues to the subscription. Create SIPs out of archival content or sell single-topic issues to sponsors, then bundle that issue in only for subscribers. With no print or distribution costs, these do not have to be resource-intensive to create and publish.

The good news is that we live in a subscription-based world, so the barrier to an annual or monthly fee is lower than ever. Put together a package that has value and people will opt-in with their checkbook.

Mike Haney is Chief Creative Officer at Mag+

  • Nick Martin 4 years ago

    Great article and good points! Yes we should be able to do a lot more with digital magazines then what’s currently being offered. The industry is still fairly new and by the looks of all the new publishing solutions out there it seems there will soon be a push towards focus on the content. Technology is pretty much supported now, and it’s getting much easier to get a magazine published. At one point in time publishers will also have to realize that it takes more then just a published magazine, but also awesome content. I’m thinking interactivity like on some of the most dynamic websites today. There is so much that’s possible with HTML5/CSS3 in order to engage users, and I think we will see a lot more options then just embedding video in issues.

    Thanks for a nice read! It gives some good ideas for how to deliver content better then just a monthly curation of topics and events 🙂

    • Iain Russell 4 years ago

      Clearly the key to increasing conversion is maintaining engagement levels and giving users a reason to keep coming back to your apps on a more regular basis like you say.

      Check out Photography Week and also Comic Heroes that recently includes a weekly edition as part of your subscription. The industry needs to keep trying new ideas in this space whilst also not losing sight of customer expectation – plenty of users are happy with basic page turners delivered every month still…