How Subtext enables creators to send text messages to their fans

The platform charges a creator's audience a monthly subscription fee and allows for back-and-forth discussion.

Most subscription strategies have a pretty straightforward value proposition: in exchange for a monthly payment, the subscriber gains access to premium content that’s locked behind some kind of paywall.

But what if you want to keep all your best content in front of the paywall? What could you still offer to your audience to make a monthly subscription payment worth the price of admission?

Thousands of content creators have turned to a platform called Subtext, which allows them to exchange text messages with their fans. Creators can either send mass texts out to their entire audience or get into individual conversations with subscribers.

I’ve tried out the tool myself, and it’s truly innovative. For this interview, I spoke to Subtext CEO Mike Donoghue. We talked about how his team developed the application and the different ways creators use it to generate revenue.

To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player. If you scroll down you’ll also find some transcribed highlights from the interview.

iTunesStitcher/  OvercastSpotifyGoogleYouTubeAudible

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

The original idea behind Subtext

Mike got hired to Advance, a major media conglomerate, back in 2011. For the first few years he worked on revenue strategy, but in 2015 he transitioned to the Alpha Group, an internal startup incubator within Advance.  “Advance does a really good job of operating the existing media companies that it owns. They're doing a lot of innovative things, but they're focused on their core business. With Alpha Group, we formed a unit that was a small, autonomous, nimble team that could go out and identify areas of opportunity, build MVPs to address those areas of opportunity, and then start to spin up businesses and intellectual property that would be owned by the company.” Alpha Group usually starts with a hypothesis and then creates a minimum viable product in order to test the hypothesis. If the test proves successful, then the product is spun off into its own company.

The idea for Subtext came out of a conversation for how content creators could establish unfiltered access to their fans. Alpha Group settled on SMS text messages because their distribution is decentralized. “In the original implementation of the product, we wanted to test if we could generate engagement between a journalist and their audience. So we built a splash page where someone could enter a phone number. We found an amazing journalist named Joe Eskenazi, who covered the intersection tech and politics in San Francisco, and we said, ‘Hey, Joe, we've got this crazy idea. Do you want to pilot it with us?’ And he was like, ‘yep, sounds crazy, but let's give it a shot.’”

The team directed Joe’s audience to a splash page that told readers they could enter their phone numbers and exchange text messages with the journalist throughout the day. “We had a ton of people sign up really quickly, and their phone numbers would just go into a spreadsheet. We added Joe to our Slack channel, and Joe would Slack us the messages that he wanted to send to all of the subscribers that day. We bought a burner phone with a San Francisco area code, and we’d literally send out these messages one by one from the phone every day. And then as people started getting back to us with questions, we would Slack Joe and say, ‘Hey, Joe, the subscriber has a question about this particular policy, what should we tell them?’ And people loved it. As soon as we saw that it had really early traction, we knew that not only would we have to build a platform, but we would have to go ahead and build all the monetization and analytics tools and everything else that come along with doing this as a real business.”

Launching a product to market

Alpha Group eventually built out a publishing platform that more easily facilitated back and forth text messaging. “I think the easiest way to picture it is probably as a sort of hybrid between a lightweight CMS and an email client. We try to make it super straightforward where our hosts can share whatever media that they'd like as a broadcast to their subscribers, and then give those subscribers the very simple ability to send a message back and theoretically strike up a dialogue with the host.”

When content creators go to sign up to use Subtext, they can choose between two versions — one that allows people to sign up for free and one that charges a subscription fee. “The difference is really predicated on your goals as a content creator. For the free option, the goal is to facilitate a broad engagement with the general public. Anybody can sign up to receive the text messages. We have a lot of clients that are using this as sort of a supplement to their existing digital subscription products, as a means of activating subscribers.” In other words, it’s an extra perk for paid subscribers. For the free option, the content creator will pay Subtext a monthly fee based on the number of users who have signed up. 

For the second version, people who sign up pay a monthly subscription fee, and Subtext takes a small cut from each subscription. “In those cases, the creator actually monetizes their content by offering paying subscribers the ability to send and receive text messages with the host.” For this version, the audience will send a text message to a specific phone number, and then Subtext will send them a prompt that allows them to enter their payment information.  

How creators use Subtext

Subtext has attracted thousands of hosts that range from mainstream news reporters to independent creators. Some hosts use it to mainly broadcast to their audience, while others regularly interact with subscribers. “It can be as intimate or it can be as scalable as you'd like to make it. For the most part, there's no expectation that every single individual message be responded to one-on-one. What we always tell our hosts is that it's important to give the audience the understanding that you are, in fact, listening to them, that you're reading the responses that are coming in, even if you're not getting back to each person individually. If you're getting a lot of the same question, we find that it's a really effective use case to send a broadcast out to the audience and say, ‘Hey, I'm hearing from a ton of you that you have questions around X, Y, and Z, so let me go ahead and address this.’”

Several creators use Subtext to crowdsource questions and comments that they incorporate into their content. Last year I interviewed a sports podcaster who ran a weekly Q&A segment that was fielded entirely from his paid Subtext subscribers. Mike said this sort of use case is fairly common among hosts. “Vanity Fair runs a Hollywood award show podcast that has this hugely passionate, dedicated listener base, and they're constantly sending in questions with Subtext, and it's just so encouraging to see the health of these conversations, the candor of these conversations, the tenor of them, they’re using the platform in a really exemplary way to humanize the media company and hosts, but also to make the content come to life for listeners in a way that would be difficult in any other medium.”

Do you like this newsletter?

Then you should subscribe here:

Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.