Will Blog Readers Accept A Paid Subscription Magazine Model?

by Robb Sutton

An interesting article by David Risley titled, “Is Blogging Broken? Is The Future Of Blogging Paid Access?” stirred up some ideas I have had for a long time and generated some conversation sparked by DR and I on Twitter and Facebook. The reality is that this is not a new idea by any means. Several large bloggers including Gary Vaynerchuk have already said it is coming and there are premium, paid sections of many popular sites that produce exclusive content for a price.

The question becomes…can the blogger use this same model and apply it to blog content?

The Blurred Line: Magazines and Blogs

As we move forward with online publishing, the line between blog and online magazine is continuing to get blurred even more than in the past. Magazines are starting to look towards digital delivery and online publishing as their only way to expand business and bloggers are looking outside of traditional blogging to add more value for their readers. I wouldn’t consider Bike198 a blog in the truest definition of the word…it has really become a free online magazine.

Even my favorite magazine, Bike, is delivered to my iPad via Zinio…so where does the line cross between magazines and blogs these days anyway? One side is getting a fee for their content while the other is giving away everything for free.

Bloggers And The Free Concept

Bloggers learned a long time ago that by giving away the farm for free, you are able to grow your audience faster. With more traffic, pageviews and subscribers…you were able to command more money via direct advertising and generate more money with affiliate sales. It is the simple law of numbers…with more targeted eyes you get more money.

However, this has created one big problem within blogging…everything is free.

With the over saturation of bloggers all trying to compete for the same eyes and the readers looking for quality content but hit with an extreme amount of free content, eBooks and other free online hooks…readers have very little in the way of distinction between quality and quantity in their search for online content. In my opinion, bloggers take the “give away the farm” mentality a little bit too much to heart, so with more bloggers entering the market on a daily basis…there is a massive over saturation of content.

What does this do to the blogger?

You become a hamster in a wheel generating massive amount of content and products for free without seeing any real return. You are told it takes a lot of work and to be patient, but the competition out there is so much harder these days that you could literally spend years giving away everything for nothing. Eventually, you give up and look to other forms of income generation as that one obviously didn’t pan out.

So when do you draw the line and jump ship to a paid content model?

Reactions In and Outside of Blogging

Before we jump straight into what I think…lets take a look at a couple of reactions on the web yesterday when I posted the question to Facebook and David and I hit up Twitter.

My Facebook Comment to People Outside of Blogging:

“There have been some interesting rumblings around the blogging world about going to more “magazine style” formats. ie. subscription models. What do you think about monthly, paid subscription models to online content?”

Some of the better responses:

I’ve been wondering when blogs are going to take on a more magazine look/feel as well. I’d be more than happy to pay for content, if its good and does one of two things. Entertains me or makes me some money! Just my two cents.

Nothing personal, but I don’t think I’d pay for blog content. While many (including yours) are very informative for some things, a lot of the content may not apply to me. I think blogs are less viable as a subscription service, as now they are competing with magazines, books, etc, that have a lot more resources to provide content.

Of course, that’s just my opinion, and I’m not a huge blog reader (only 5-10 that I routinely read).

I’ve never been able to get into blogs- either reading or following. This is just a random thought, but I wonder if that applies to a great percentage of people who went through most of their formative years without internet/email. I was a senior in college before I had an email acct, and it was infrequently used at best. (Maybe we were behind the times, but we’re talking early 90’s.) I still prefer a hard copy, old-school magazine for lots of things. Okay, I’m definitely old. 🙂 More randomness: I subscribe to two photography websites that have everything from forums to mini-blogs. I use them mostly for the interaction with other photogs from all over the world. I doubt I’d continue to pay for them if they went to a strictly blog format with no forums and classifieds and stuff. Maybe future generations will pay for blogs without giving it a second thought…?

if they incorporated rich media and it was well organized and flashy like the magazines I would pay for specific ones

I think there’s already a ton of this out there that is similar. For example ESPN has the Insider and many newspapers have online content that is subscriber only. Almost all major magazines deliver substantial free content and many of them put their printed content online for free after awhile.

I think for it to work, the user would have to feel like they are getting some very exclusive, well developed content. It would have to go far beyond the “expert with an opinion” content that most blogs deliver. Even then, I am skeptical that it would work well. I know that I wouldn’t do it. There is too much free content to choose from and that’s not going to change any time soon.

The magazines don’t seem to be doing a terribly good job at it with falling subscriptions and struggles with finding an online model that works. I don’t see loan bloggers who typically put out less than a magazines worth of content a month can take a broken model and find success with it. Where there is a will there is a way I suppose.

Mine and David’s line on Twitter (inside the blogging world):

“Question: What would your reaction be to a high quality blog that switched from free to paid content? (2 to 3 bucks a month)”

@gracejudson: It completely depend on the *relevance* of the content – not just the quality. If I was consistently using the content – maybe.

@ericabiz: You’re way undervaluing it at $2-3/month. I wouldn’t subscribe because I would assume the info isn’t valuable…(when asked if 9-10 dollars would be enough) At least. I pay $30/mo for Doberman Dan’s. And he stopped blogging to do that, too 🙂

@Murlu: I think when people quite literally tell you they’d pay for what you just publish – you’re on to something 😀

@nhangen: they would be a goner.

@christiantjr: my initial question would be “can I get the same quality elsewhere for free?”

As you can see by the responses, they vary all over the map from basically a “hell no” to you are not even charging enough.

The Law of Numbers and Blogging Income

For a long time, the law of numbers has played a drastic affect on blog income. The more numbers you have, the more money you made. However, what if I were to tell you that you could cut your traffic and subscribers down to a 1/4 of what they are now and you will make 5 times the income? My bet…99% of you would not do it because you are conditioned to the free/high traffic model.

When you are looking at going to a paid subscription model, you are basically doing just that. As much as you would like to think that all of your readers are grasping onto your words like the gospel…that just isn’t the truth. If you were to hit the switch to a paid content model today, my guess is that 10 – 25% of your readership would participate and you would lose the rest, but if your income went up 5 fold…it would be worth it. That is when bloggers think like bloggers and not business owners. They would rather keep the large numbers at lower income than lower numbers at higher income.

The scary part…you have to hit the switch on the whole idea before you will know if it will work or not. It takes that leap of faith and testing.

Your Readers Are Already Paying For Content…Why Not Your Blog?

The reality of your situation when you are looking at moving to a paid subscription format is that you are going to have to compete with bloggers that are still giving away quality content for free. That is not going to change, so how do you battle this fierce competition?

It all comes down to the perceived value of the deliverable.

Readers are already paying for content on a daily basis. From eBooks to members only sections of websites, readers are not only paying for content…but they are paying more than you would charge as a subscription! Why is this? The perceived value of eBook content is higher than that of a blog. Every day, I sell eBooks that contain content not found on my blog that helps my readers achieve their goals. Whether it is becoming a better mountain biker or getting in free stuff to review on your blog, that content sells consistently and provides value to my customers.

Switching to a paid subscription model would be no different…except…you would have to change the delivery method. I do not think…at this time…just access to your blog can be a paid for commodity. You would have to change the deliverable of your content to something that is email driven or a PDF magazine that contains your content plus a better design that online publishing can not provide. Tools like SodaPDF let you convert almost any PDF file, have outlined a list of the best free PDF converter programs. This way you are giving more value to your customers outside of just hitting the publish button several times a week.

Just like with ESPN and other newspaper websites, you would still need to provide regular, free content on your blog to attract new readers, but the meat and potatoes would be delivered off site to your paid subscribers.

Blogging for free…even if you enjoy the hell out of it…can not live for forever. Eventually life gets in the way and you will have to cut down on your online time unless it is providing a specific value (in this case…money). As blogging continues to grow and adapt, it will have to find a way to generate income outside of the law of numbers game.

Paid subscription models might be the answer, but we will not know until the switch is hit. At that time, will the paid models be able to withstand the competition of free? My personal opinion is that question really comes down to the quality of branding, content and perceived value.

What do you think?

29 comments

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29 comments

Entrepinoybank February 22, 2011 - 2:08 pm

As of this time, many are hesitant to subscribe for paid content. But when time came that all bloggers, especially the big one, going into this model, subscribers will understand and they will follow.

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Murray Lunn February 22, 2011 - 2:27 pm

For the longest time I’ve always loved the model that the Tuts+ network has taken where really valuable content is delivered on the front end while premium content is there on the back. So, if you’re a user, you can view a great tutorial that’s in text and pictures but for access to a full video + additional resources (to hundreds of these posts) than it’s about $12 a month.

I still stand strong with giving away free content because that’s the purpose of the web – to share but you make a great point that people DO go elsewhere to buy content – why not have support so you CAN create the content.

Hell, if I could do my blogging full time than I’d be able to create a ton of videos series. Right now, I can do them from time to time but balancing a full-time job and blogging + a side-business is stressful. The extra time that we could unlock during the say from having a membership style system would be powerful because, in the end, the user is still going to get amazing content.

Plus, over time, you can release the premium content to the blog. You often see Yaro and other probloggers doing this where they will hold a workshop and then push it to their members and eventually the blog.

Just wanted to elaborate a bit on that 🙂

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Robb Sutton February 22, 2011 - 3:11 pm

Colis does a lot of things right over at Tuts+ and is a great example of providing free content in conjunction with paid membership.

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Brett February 22, 2011 - 2:36 pm

No doubt basic market principles will run the show: If people intend to make a full living blogging, then they best be good and will have to experiment with everything from the paid content/subscription idea to ancillary services. Bloggers don’t have some inherent right to make money off of it anymore than a restaurant has a right to have diners. If its good and there’s a market, then it’ll work. And we readers of blogs can bitch all we want if content goes premium, but we don’t have a right to free stuff, either. Unfortunately, so many of us blog addicts can be slackers that can’t afford to pay for it anyway. Right now, I should be making sales calls. (Speaking of sales calls, your point that you’d only retain 10-25% of your readership if you went full premium is a great one. (a) you could tailor your craft more to the folks who find value and (b) develop those relationships with people who are truly fans and referrers… good biz development stuff).

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Robb Sutton February 22, 2011 - 3:10 pm

Brett, you are referring to the “tire kickers” mentality that David referred to in his article. Most of your blog traffic makes you zero income. So you are paying for the hosting, design and other elements of blogging without receiving a return from a vast majority of your readers. That is just how the system is setup under a free model.

Under a paid model, that gets negated but there is an expectation of expertise, quality and return that is not there under the free model. Just as you said…the targeted approach to the 10-25% can be a very strong medium.

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Brett February 22, 2011 - 3:19 pm

Exactly. I’m a bad tire-kicker and sense that I better get as much as I can now before all the good stuff goes premium. I’m not wanting to be a tire kicker, but between diapers and Third Tribe, I pick diapers at the moment. Still, I totally want to climb the wall and look over and completely know that premium value should come with a price tag. I hope the services I provide merit payment, and I don’t believe there’s some weird blogger ethic that requires bloggers to just hand over their stuff. Like Randy Elrod said in a post (paraphrased): Asking me for free advice, advice that’s taken me years and experience to develop, is like asking me to just hand over my MacBook for free. We need to value our value.

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Nathan Hangen February 22, 2011 - 2:59 pm

A paid model would force content providers to amp up their value proposition and provide very specific and timely value worth paying for.

1. 99% of “bloggers” would fail at this because a) they lack the experience necessary to provide the value or b) the value they could provide was found where everyone else finds it – which is other free blogs.

2. I don’t really think there are many stories left to be told. Much of blogging is repetitive and theoretical.

3. When you ask me to pay, you’re also demanding my attention. I can offer a few minutes from time to time to read a blog, because it’s free and it only cost me in the form of attention. With a payment model, you’re asking for both attention and money. If I’m giving both, I need to know that I’m going to become more valuable almost instantly.

A great example of #3 is my membership at http://thinkvitamin.com – where I’m learning ruby, HTML5, CSS3, and PHP. These are skills that increase my technical worth because it teaches me how to problem solve and think on my own.

The problem with many Internet Marketing products is that they give the answer without much thought into the problem. They aren’t teaching skills so much as they are teaching solutions.

Teach marketing, human psychology, product development, business 101, etc, and I think you’ll be making a much greater impact.

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Robb Sutton February 22, 2011 - 3:08 pm

Your #1 is dead on. It would require an extreme consistency and quality that most bloggers can not keep to under the free model. Once they broke that trust…it would be over.

On your example, I think you are hitting the nail on the head. Just like with any paid product, the realized value needs to be more than the cost for the customer. Even if the product is entertainment, the customer needs to be entertained more than they paid.

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Gregory Heil February 24, 2011 - 12:47 pm

Piggy backing off of this, I would add that even many good bloggers don’t have a real mastery of the English language. Most bloggers are writing about their field of choice… and it isn’t English! I find that I gravitate towards whatever content has the best quality of writing. This holds true for the blogs that I read… and it holds true with blogs VS magazines. I personally find most magazines generally (but not always) have better-quality writing than what you’ll find online.

Of course it may not be the writers, it may be that magazine writers don’t have to produce nearly as high of a quantity of information as we bloggers.

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Natsuki Elly February 22, 2011 - 3:02 pm

I’m not surprise that one day, most blogs will offer paid subscriptions. But my question is, if your blog is new and you don’t have much traffic, is it okay to offer paid subscription as well?

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Robb Sutton February 22, 2011 - 3:06 pm

I think so. However, there is more immediate success with an established audience to sell to. You will have to work a lot harder at proving yourself and marketing your product than established brand.

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Cosmin Stefan February 22, 2011 - 3:27 pm

Don’t think it would work. People are used to reading blogs for free. Even if you’re one of the big guys in blogging, most of your audience will simply migrate somewhere else.
If however, you were to market your product as something else then a blog, then that’s another story.

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Greg February 22, 2011 - 4:22 pm

I don’t see it working out too well for most. I know Ryan Deiss went off about not giving his knowledge away. That’s fine if he also doesn’t mind not building subscribers at the rate he did. If the adage the money is in the list is true, then there goes some money. I know buyers are better than tire kickers, I just don’t see there being a whole lot of buyers, for the majority of bloggers. But hey, good luck if you choose to go the paid route.

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Anonymous February 22, 2011 - 4:30 pm

In addition to the “subscription” model, I think a pay-per-post model would work great too.

That way, the visitor is only paying for content they want. And the blogger who actually researches what their audience wants/needs would come out better off in the end, thus providing much more relevant content.

Think of Blog Tyrant… In a matter of weeks, he was receiving ~11k uniques. He did this researching what he knew his intended audience would want to know (among other things). He didn’t just write “whatever came to mind”.

I believe a paid-for subscription model would be a good thing for the blogosphere.

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Christian February 22, 2011 - 5:07 pm

I think packaging matters more than anything else. You make a very solid point that people are already paying for content, and I agree that anyone in business should do what they need to do to pay their rent. That’s just how it works. It’s just that your need to eat, candidly, doesn’t concern your customers. If you want to sell stuff, then sell stuff…it’s just really a tough proposition to sell blog posts.

Take the extra time to compile them into a book or some other product, and you’ve got something you can sell no problem. The reason blogging is tough to monetize is because it was designed as a loss leader platform from the beginning. You can monetize anything to a certain extent, but blogging at it’s core is online journaling. There are enough blogs now that only the truly exceptional ones could charge, and by exceptional, I mean the whole package. Great ideas, great writing, great design, great community, great consistency, etc.

I think it’s important that the blogging I love to do is highly valuable, but it doesn’t lead directly to income. I have no plans to stop blogging. My current blog generates a pseudo-full-time income indirectly, but it’s up and down and I don’t consider it an actual business model in and of itself. It’s a great way to stress test ideas, develop your own voice, meet people and much more.

We make this stuff too complicated. It’s not hard to sell stuff. If you want to make lots of money, blogging is a horrible way to do it. This isn’t news. It’s also not news that charging for something that has always been free in the past is really hard to pull off, if not down right silly. Look at the bloggers who make a great income. They take their content and create offers from it. Books, videos, courses, coaching, etc. The same information can be packaged in many different ways and sold at many different price points.

We really need to get to the core of this issue, and the core is that the pricing is not determined by value, it’s determined by perception. The perception is that blog posts are free, so if you want to make money, don’t make blog posts, make stuff that people are comfortable paying for.

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Christian February 22, 2011 - 5:10 pm

Wow I’ve been in total rant-mode lately. Sorry, yo 🙂

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Robb Sutton February 22, 2011 - 5:12 pm

ha! It’s all good. You make a lot of great points…so that isn’t ranting.

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bondChristian February 22, 2011 - 8:37 pm

I think bloggers could take advantage of their archives better. First time visitors might find the content via Google and then read a couple other backlogged posts. Otherwise, though, most regular readers only read the home page, the latest stuff.

So bloggers could leave the home page content available for free, keeping those posts open to social media (people can still tweet about those posts and share them on Facebook, etc.). But then bloggers could close off the archives, maybe repackage them into PDFs (ebooks) or just useful series instead of random blog posts, and sell those pay per view.

As a blog reader, I know I don’t dig too far into most blog archives simply because it’s too hard to sift through all the seemingly unrelated posts. I want content that’s specifically relevant to my needs… especially if it helps me solve a technical problem instead of just giving a theoretical answer.

The problem with this model of course is that once you close your archives, you lose all the Google traffic from those past posts, which makes it harder to get new readers. And if you don’t get new readers, then everyone’s going to stay on the front page, mooching off the free stuff.

It’s an interesting dilemma, but I’m sure we’ll find a workaround soon. I’m looking forward to that.

-Marshall Jones Jr.

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evanhadkins February 22, 2011 - 11:30 pm

As you say it does come down to perceived value.

Magazines and newspapers make their money from advertising not subscriptions. It is people moving to online advertising that is killing them. I don’t know anyone who sees their content as particularly high value.

Blogs and other online content has a dilemma I think about the numbers. The interactivity leads to deeper exchanges but the money requires huge numbers. But you can’t interact with 50,000 subscribers. This leads us back to broadcast rather than blogging.

Perhaps blogging works best as market research – getting to know a particular audience in depth so that you can then provide product that will be seen as relevant.

I do think expert comment is hugely valuable. All those academics and others providing insight for free is excellent. And I do think that those who blog about health and other essentials should provide free stuff – restricting important information by money seems wrong to me.

So, I’m not sure that we will have people subscribing for blogs. I think it is likely it will be for related content.

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Bradley February 23, 2011 - 4:33 pm

I think a sole blogger would have a hard time creating enough great content to justify a subscription fee. However, there are blogs out there with multiple authors that almost always create absolutely fantastic content that I wouldn’t mind paying for. One that comes to my mind is Six Revisions.

Having more that one writing style helps to keep the content more interesting and the value of the information high. More like a magazine, in my opinion. I have never read a magazine where all the articles were written by the same person.

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Bradley February 23, 2011 - 4:33 pm

I think a sole blogger would have a hard time creating enough great content to justify a subscription fee. However, there are blogs out there with multiple authors that almost always create absolutely fantastic content that I wouldn’t mind paying for. One that comes to my mind is Six Revisions.

Having more that one writing style helps to keep the content more interesting and the value of the information high. More like a magazine, in my opinion. I have never read a magazine where all the articles were written by the same person.

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Robb Sutton February 24, 2011 - 12:50 pm

Bradley,

This is where I see bloggers thinking more like bloggers than business owners. The reason that magazines and large blogs have numerous writers is because they have more resources. What if a subscription model (even if it is just part of the site and not the whole) opened up the resources to bring on more writers?

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Bradley February 25, 2011 - 9:54 pm

To be honest, I almost wish more bloggers charged for reading their posts.
It would be easier to cull out some and spend less time reading! 😀

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Bradley February 25, 2011 - 9:54 pm

To be honest, I almost wish more bloggers charged for reading their posts.
It would be easier to cull out some and spend less time reading! 😀

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Gregory Heil February 24, 2011 - 12:43 pm

Honestly Robb, I think the comparison to magazines isn’t really a good one. How much do you pay for a magazine? $5 off of the rack at the store, which is a convenience? If you subscribe, how much per year? I know my Bike subscription used to be only $20 or so per YEAR. To make that amount of money be worthwhile online, you’d still have to have a LOT of subscribers.

But here’s why the comparison makes sense: the amount of money they charge you in subscription doesn’t cover much more than postage and printing the actual hard copy of the magazine. They still make almost all of their money from those big full-page glossy advertisements. This is the same thing with newspapers traditionally.

So I don’t think the comparison really holds up because these so-called “subscription” sources really don’t make their money off of the subscription.

Anyhow, my $0.02.

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Zen April 13, 2011 - 9:01 pm

If you want to pay for blogs, it is simple: “leave a tip”.

Virtually all blogs carry click thru advertising. If you read a post, then leave the author a tip by clicking on one of their adverts.

It costs you nothing, it creates income for the blogger and it helps advertisers to get people to look at their products (lots of ads actually lead to good sites!), which is what they want. Advertisers don’t write ads just for people to look at, they want to get you to click on them!!!

So click on an ad and leave the blogger a tip.

If a blog gets a thousand readers, a thousand small tips can add up to a real income.

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John Smith June 30, 2011 - 1:15 pm

Get latest digital magazines for iPad, iPhone and PC/MAC available on Other Edition newsstand.

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Chris January 27, 2012 - 3:19 pm

I’ve been contemplating offering a paid membership service to my website and did a bit of research which is how I ended up on this page. Thanks for the comments and great article by the way. What I get from what your saying and by the comments is that a paid membership must have something of value and be found nowhere else.
Creating unique content to members on a regular basis that goes beyond what anyone else does.

I’m developing my paid membership now and through your thoughts I’ve figured that I need to:

Create unique videos
Offer all my ebooks around my subject to be read free (I have a number of ebooks i’ve created in my niche)
Provide unique member only content that is delivered to members first before the rest of the site.
Be premium, like you guys said a $3 a month blog sounds like it’s poor quality by an $80 a year subscription sounds like your getting quality.

Thanks for your advice guys hope it works.

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Robb Sutton January 27, 2012 - 3:20 pm

It definitely has to be done very carefully with a lot of planning. You are right on about the pricing too.

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