Publishers can charge for access to online communities, but it’s hard

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Publishers can charge for access to online communities, but it’s hard

There are dozens of ways for publishers to generate revenue these days, but if a media outlet rolls out any kind of paid subscription product, chances are the company has placed some form of content behind a paywall. After all, content is the core offering of most publishers, so it makes sense to position it as the main benefit for paying subscribers. Name any successful subscription publisher -- The New York Times, Netflix, Spotify -- and it probably charges users for access to content.

But what if you can get people to turn over their credit card information without restricting access to your content? Many companies are testing out whether this is possible. The investor Hunter Walk recently described one such approach as “Coming for the Content, Staying for the Community.” Here’s how he described the model:

Over the last year I’ve started paying more indie creators directly for their work — heavily biased towards podcasts and newsletters/blogs. The other night I was wondering which ones I’d likely still be subscribing to a year or two from now. The “absolutely yes” category was dominated by creators who had branched beyond their initial piece of content and created some persistent space for the community to aggregate. Most typically in Slack, Facebook, WhatsApp or Discord. What they’ve done is use their content to assemble an audience and then create a space for that audience to create content with each other — aka community. In some cases the space is an extension of the content, talking about that week’s newsletter or podcast. But the most interesting ones broaden to envelop the general common interest areas of the group.

There’s a lot for a publisher to love about this approach. For one, if the core benefit you offer to subscribers is access to a community, then you can place a lot more of your content in front of the paywall. Journalists don’t actually love locking their work behind a paywall because it limits their reach and influence. Under the community access model, the free content merely draws the audience in so that readers can be converted into paying community members. 

The other benefit is that it reduces the burden on the publisher for producing value to subscribers. Members of the community generate the vast majority of the forum discussion, and the publisher only needs to moderate and jump in from time to time to contribute. So consider a hypothetical health policy community populated by various healthcare professionals. Each member brings a level of expertise to the discussion and thereby elevates it to the benefit of everyone else in the group. And because everyone is paying to be there, you’re less likely to encounter any trolls or abuse. 

I’ve interviewed a lot of publishers over the years who’ve integrated some kind of community offering into their subscriptions, with varying degrees of success. I think a lot of publishers,  however, underestimate how difficult it can be to prop up a self-sustaining community that provides the kind of value that’s worth paying for. There are two reasons for this. 

First, you need a minimum number of members in your online community before it starts actually producing any value. Back in 2017, I tried to monetize my content through Patreon, and one of my more expensive tiers granted subscribers access to an “exclusive” Facebook group I set up. There was just one problem: for my first several months I only had a few dozen subscribers, and as a result my Facebook group was a virtual ghost town. It ended up being rather embarrassing that I was charging extra money for access to a group that had no real engagement.

Most small to medium sized publishers will face this low-engagement purgatory when they launch their online communities. It can be incredibly difficult to jumpstart organic discussion even under the best conditions, but much more so when your subscriber count is low. If a new subscriber enters your forum once or twice and sees no high quality discussion, chances are low they’ll return in the future. It’s only a matter of time then before you lose them to churn.

Which leads me to the second reason online communities often don’t generate good engagement: it can be difficult to entice readers into incorporating a new forum into their media diet. The average internet user only visits a handful of homepages each day. Even if they’re subscribed to your publication, they’re still likely accessing most of your content through newsletters and social media (I’ve been a paying subscriber to The Washington Post, NYT, Bloomberg, and Wall Street Journal for years, and I can’t remember the last time I visited any of their homepages).

So let’s say you install white labeled forum software onto your website. What portion of your subscribers will build your message board into their daily web surfing routine? Probably not a large one.

A lot of publishers get around this dilemma by building their communities on an already-existing platform. The most obvious candidate for this is Facebook Groups, since Facebook is still a daily destination for billions of internet users, though I’ve seen plenty of publishers erecting forums on Slack and LinkedIn Groups. 

The problem here is that you’re afforded less control over your community. With Facebook Groups, you have to allow access to one user at a time, which means the person tasked with it must cross reference each new request to enter the group with a corresponding subscription. And if someone unsubscribes or their credit card bounces? Then you need to manually remove them from the group. It’s not a strategy that scales very well.

And of course you’re also subject to Facebook’s capricious Newsfeed algorithm. Right now, Mark Zuckerberg wants to promote groups because he thinks they foster a sense of community on the platform, but every media veteran has seen firsthand how quickly his priorities can change. Building a subscription business that relies heavily on an outside platform over which you exert very little control is a recipe for disaster.

Building a paid online community is difficult, but that’s not to say it can’t be done. Earlier this year, for instance, I interviewed the founder of a barbecue ribs blog that amassed 15,000 paying subscribers by granting them access to an online forum he set up. If you cover a niche topic with a passionate fan base, then it’s possible to erect an online community that provides plenty of value.

But most users are probably fine with the plethora of already-existing forums out there, most of which are free. While online communities can provide added value to any subscription product, most publishers will still need to lock at least some of their content behind paywalls if they want to succeed. 

Macmillan was an early podcast pioneer. Here’s what it’s up to next

These days, nearly every mainstream media company has some kind of podcast operation, but the book publisher Macmillan invested in the medium before most media executives had even heard of podcasting.

In 2007, it launched Quick and Dirty Tips, a network focused on producing evergreen self-help podcasts covering grammar, finance, parenting, and other niches. It adapted this content across podcasts, website articles, books, and online courses; this allowed for revenue diversification in an era when most podcasts were still struggling to sell host-read ads.

Later, Macmillan expanded into narrative podcasts, developing one of the first fiction properties to be simultaneously adapted into a teleplay, novel, audio book, and live event series. 

This year, Macmillan is pushing the envelope even further, developing a multiple-format show that’s integrated with both Apple Maps and Apple Music. I interviewed Vice President of Podcasting Kathy Doyle about the project and how diversifying into different formats helps Macmillan sell more books. 

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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.

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