How Taegan Goddard built a thriving paid membership for Political Wire

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Most publishers that launch some kind of paid subscription product do so out of economic necessity. Subscription models are born out of a media company’s recognition that the online advertising market, as it currently stands, is not sufficient in its ability to fund quality journalism, thereby requiring the company to rely directly on its readers to close the revenue gap.

Taegan Goddard, however, contends that Political Wire, the aggregation and analysis site he founded and runs, was perfectly sustainable when he rolled out his paid membership program a half decade ago, and that he only did so to provide a way for his most loyal readers to bypass the site’s ads. “I found with programmatic ads that the incentives that exist between the publisher, the reader, and the advertiser are broken,” he told me. “The great thing about print newspapers was that the publisher would have to make sure that they were servicing both the advertiser as well as the reader in order to keep the business intact. And what happened with programmatic advertising was all of a sudden the advertisers had no idea that their ads were even being placed on your website.”

By launching a membership program, Goddard was able to forge a more direct connection with a readership that he’d spent the better part of two decades growing. I recently spoke to him about his early monetization strategies and how he expanded into paid memberships.

Establishing an initial business model

We take the ease of web publishing for granted today. If you want to post your writing to the internet, it takes only a few minutes to launch an account on Medium or Substack. If you require a certain level of design customization and your own domain, then you can turn to services like Squarespace or Wordpress and pay just a few bucks a month for the privilege. 

In 1999, Goddard didn’t have that luxury. Even though that was the year Ev Williams launched the first iteration of Blogger, most writers who wanted to publish their words to the internet still used basic website-building tools that were distinctly Web 1.0 in their publishing functionality. “I was using Microsoft FrontPage to actually publish,” he said. Then in 2000 he discovered Greymatter, an early blogging software. “You had to install it on your server yourself, and essentially what it did was create reverse chronological posts. As soon as I saw Greymatter, I was like, boom, this is exactly what Political Wire should be.”

Blogging back then was still novel, and so was the concept of a website entirely focused on politics. “Most newspapers didn't even have a political section,” he said. “When they put their stuff online, they pretty much followed the way the paper was laid out.” This meant the political content was spread out all over the place, and Political Wire’s singular focus spurred politics junkies from all over the country to congregate at his site. During every two-year election season his web traffic would surge and then stabilize at a much higher level after the November election.

It was the 2006 midterm elections that finally brought Goddard the mainstream attention that would transform Political Wire into a real business. That was the year the Democrats recaptured the House and Senate, and three well-known political analysts -- Chuck Todd, Stuart Rothenberg, and Charlie Cook -- approached him and asked if he would publish their election forecasts. “That's when I kind of realized that I had broken through,” he said. Shortly after that, a DC media company approached him with an offer to sell advertising on his site, and he accepted.

This was prior to the modern era of programmatic advertising, back when ad buys were still website-specific. Goddard’s early advertisers consisted of companies trying to reach government decision makers. “I called it the Meet the Press model,” Goddard said. “The commercials on Meet the Press weren’t advertising to consumers, because Lockheed Martin doesn't sell anything a consumer could buy, but they were advertising to political influentials who were watching the show.” 

Once Goddard outsourced his advertising sales, he started generating serious revenue. “When I signed that deal, I actually also quit my day job.”

The evolution of programmatic advertising

Of course, those days of website-targeted advertising are now mostly over. Today, the overwhelming majority of digital display ads target the individual user, regardless of which website they happen to be visiting. The Lockheed Martins and Northrop Grummans no longer need to advertise on Political Wire if they want to reach DC residents who work on Capitol Hill. 

Goddard told me he jumped on the programmatic bandwagon early on, educating himself on various kinds of ad tech so he could maximize earnings. And while there were some fluctuations in revenue from month to month, the site still flourished. 

Political Wire was aided by the fact that a higher-than-average portion of its web traffic came in through its homepage; that’s because it mainly served as a news aggregator, with people landing on it to get a snapshot of that day’s political news. Part of the reason publishers have suffered so much during the programmatic era is that they were largely dependent on surges in Facebook traffic, which became harder to come by as Facebook tweaked its Newsfeed algorithm. “Political Wire is not designed to exploit social network traffic,” he said. “I have very few images on the site. It's mainly text. I created an experience on the front page that’s extremely clear, simple, easy to understand. And so because of that, I never really got much traction on Facebook.”

Launching the paid membership model

Though Political Wire had a devoted, passionate audience, Goddard couldn’t just flip a switch and expect people to pay up. In fact, his initial experiment was a complete failure. “I tried to do something where paying subscribers would receive this supplementary, ad free version of Political Wire sent as an email newsletter, and it was not as good an experience,” he said. “The vast majority of readers reload the homepage six, seven, eight times a day, and they leave it open in a browser tab. They just thought the newsletter cluttered up their inbox. It wasn't useful to them, and so it wasn't a very enjoyable experience.” Goddard eventually shuttered the experiment completely.

It was a few years later that Goddard discovered Memberful, a third-party platform designed to help publishers charge readers for content and other features. “I realized this is literally the perfect system,” he recalled. “This is exactly what I've been seeking.” One day he was on a long, four-hour drive. “I turned off all music, all podcasts, and I just thought about how I was going to do this. I had convinced myself by the end of the drive that it was absolutely going to work. And so I checked into the hotel and that night I spent about two hours setting it up. I pressed publish, launched the whole thing, and said, ‘okay, let's see how this goes.’”

There are a few core elements to Political Wire’s membership. First and foremost, it renders the website ad-free for logged-in users. Goddard recognized that ads created a subpar user experience, especially the low-quality remainder ads that would often show up in programmatic networks. “There was a certain portion of readers who don't want to be bothered by those ads and would like to have a direct connection with the publisher, like back in the old days.”

For years leading up to the launch of his membership program, Goddard had regularly written columns for outlets like The Week and Daily Beast. Though the publishers paid him, the revenue was negligible compared to what he was making for Political Wire. “I did it mainly for the exposure.” He decided to take all his outside writing and bring it onto Political Wire, placing it behind the paywall. He also brought on additional guest writers and licensed some content from outside publishers.

Finally, Goddard added a member-only discussion forum -- called The Cloakroom -- and a trending news page. Essentially, when a logged-in user visits Political Wire, they’re met with an entirely different version of the site than what non-paying users see. Members get all these benefits for $60 a year.

That night in his hotel room, Goddard pushed publish on a post announcing the new membership model and then went to bed. “I woke up the next morning and had several dozen subscribers. And from there, I haven't really looked back.”

It only took about a month before membership revenue comprised a significant portion of the earnings generated by Political Wire. I asked Goddard what his most effective method is for converting free readers into subscribers. “It was really just taking existing readers and telling them what they would receive if they become members. I've never really had that hard of a sales pitch.” Whenever he writes a members-only column, for instance, the headline appears within the main Political Wire feed alongside his aggregation posts. If a user clicks on a headline, they’re immediately met with a message telling them “this piece is only available to Political Wire members” with a link included for where they can sign up.

Though the membership program allowed Goddard to diversify his revenue sources, it didn’t make his job any easier. “I work all the time,” he said. “I literally work seven days a week. That's partly due to the fact that our politics in this country is nuts right now, but it never really ends.” On the day I’m writing this article, Goddard has already published 41 posts, with the first one time stamped at 5:55 a.m. He also published one members-only column. “I average at least one exclusive piece for members every day. Some days it's two or three in a single day.”

I think it’s safe to say that Taegan Goddard is a pioneering member of what we now call the “creator economy.” He started blogging before the word “blog” existed. He turned Political Wire into a full-time gig in an era when there were few professional, solo-author blogs. He launched a successful membership program before the invention of Substack. 

I asked him what he thought about the current explosion of solopreneurs who are launching writing careers without the aid of mainstream media benefactors. “I would've thought we'd be much farther along at this time, that there'd be a lot more independent writers making a living with their own websites,” he said. “I'm surprised it's actually taken us 20 years to get to where we are.” That being said, he considered it better late than never. “The fact that Substack exists and allows pretty much anybody, even those with no technical technical skill or the ability to hire anybody -- to start their own publication -- I think it's fantastic.”

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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.