How publishers grow paid subscriptions during a presidential election year

Ben Cohen isn’t the world’s biggest fan of Facebook. The founder of a political news website called The Daily Banter, Ben worked hard to build up his reach on Facebook, and for a few years he made a decent living selling advertising against his content.

But after the 2016 election, Facebook pivoted away from news, and virtually overnight The Daily Banter lost 90% of its traffic. Not only could he no longer pay his own salary, but he was also struggling to keep his stable of writers on board.

Out of desperation, he moved the Banter over to Substack and doubled down on paid subscriptions. That was in early 2019. I recently checked in with Ben to see how his efforts are going and how a presidential election year affects subscription growth for a political newsletter.

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

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This transcript has been edited for clarity.

How Ben learned to stop caring about web traffic analytics

Back when his site was advertising-dependent, Ben strove to publish multiple articles a day and he kept a tab with Google Analytics open at all times. Now that he’s eschewed advertising and is focused entirely on subscriptions, he hardly checks his web analytics. His content output has also changed. “We publish anywhere from four to six pieces a week, and those are significantly longer and more in depth. None of them are at all tailored to game social media algorithms. We don't fiddle with the headline. I'm not trying to frame the article so that it plays well on social, which you sort of have to do when you're dependent on ad money. It's just purely focused on quality.”

That doesn’t mean that his articles don’t still do well on social media. The Banter has about 40,000 followers on Facebook, and Bob Cesca, one of its writers, has a strong following on Twitter. “We do have a reasonably large social media presence that we can use to distribute our articles. Plus we built up a mailing list. When I realized that the subscriptions were going to be a key part of the business, I really started to focus on driving email collection. Thankfully that paid off.” 

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Separating the free from the paid content

Ben needs to produce enough paywalled content to keep his paying subscribers happy while also publishing enough free content to attract new users. How does he balance the two? “We usually publish maybe one or two pieces for free and the rest behind the paywall.” He has no specific criteria for what differentiates a paid from a free piece. “I change my mind about that all the time. If I feel that there's an important piece that needs sharing I'll put it out for free. Obviously I'm trying to get new email signups, but I spent so many years just worrying about what was going to take off on social media and what was going to drive traffic, and now I enjoy being able to write what I want to write and publishing other people who say what they want to say and not worrying too much about how it's going to play and what the statistics are.”

How Ben views the Substack platform

It’s been a little over a year since Ben moved The Banter over to Substack. I asked him how well he thought the platform meets his needs. “I think it's a really smart publishing system. They've really thought about it. It's very clever. I would like to see a little bit more control over how pricing works. I feel like you should have maybe three payment options or something other than the two payment options. They recently released a new feature where you can allow people to pay what they want. So that's been useful. I think the fees they take are quite high. It’s like 10%. It's a bit excessive, and you're paying fees to Stripe as well. I'm quite happy for them to have a certain amount obviously, but I think once it gets past a certain level each month, it doesn't make quite as much sense financially.”

The effects of a presidential election and Covid-19

Given that The Banter focuses on U.S. politics, I wondered how its numbers are impacted during a presidential election year. Does the increased interest lead to more subscriptions? And has the Covid-19 shutdown hurt his business? “I think that because people are home, they're obviously reading more stuff and they're bored and they want more content to digest. So I feel that that's been part of it. But you would expect to see more traffic during an election cycle as well. And we are seeing that. We've definitely seen an uptick in traffic and definitely seen an uptick in terms of paying subscribers.”

Ben explained that an election year can be crucial to a political publication’s longterm health. “I do recognize that this year is going to be very important to the future health of the company. Substack’s founders have said that when you start a newsletter, you need to give it about two years for it to become a viable entity. And we've been going for about a year and a couple of months, and I think that they were probably pretty much spot on that at the end of the second year on Substack, we will probably have a pretty solid business.”

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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.