The eyedropper and the leaky faucet: Rethinking the subscription model

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Well, this has been an interesting few days for the subscription model, hasn't it? Here in Canada, the environmentally focused National Observer hunkered down behind a subscription paywall. That's after two years of being Kickstarter- and crowdsource-supported.

Meanwhile, Blendle, the "iTunes of News" seems like it too is flirting with a subscription model for a "Blendle Bundle." At least that's what they're hinting in a recent survey sent to Blendle users.

And, last week, Apple announced that its App Store will allow a variety of apps to use a subscription model for payment. On Monday the company told attendees at its World Wide Developers' conference keynote that major publishers like National Geographic will be able to offer subscriptions to content in the Apple News app.

This, despite the fact that very few subscription or paywall models have worked well, except for major players like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.

Sure, subscriptions have been a winning bet for Netflix, Spotify and And, of course, magazines and newspapers depended on a subscription/advertising income stream for decades, not that it's working out so well.

Consumers are in a different place today, and that's a place where we are starting to feel nickeled, dimed, drawn and quartered by each $5, $7 or $10 subscription we're paying out each month already.

We are reaching peak subscription fatigue. So, there's real first mover advantage when it comes to subscription categories. We were keen to sign up for Netflix, when the idea of all-you-can eat streaming TV was fresh and new. But we're much less likely to sign up for Hulu or Shomi or other latecomers.

On the apps side, we might be willing to part with $5 a year for the three or four must-have apps on our phones, but after that, we'll get pretty picky. This is even the case when we would gladly pay $5 each year for a new version of an app we like. We are much happier to give away money from an eyedropper than from a dripping tap we're afraid will never stop leaking. And, the reality is that most non-nerd users don't have more than three non-built in apps on their phones at the best of times.

Right now Blendle has a very user-friendly model, micropayments for just the stories you want from a slate of great magazines, including Slate, Fast Company and the New York Times. The fact that they are flirting with a subscription model suggests that those micropayments aren't making macroeconomic sense for them.

And then there's the National Observer. Some Canadian sites like have adopted a subscription model. In their case a hefty $15 a month, jacked up to $30 a month after 60 days. But it's an outlier and most of its subscribers are businesses. At that, the publication has only just about 9,000 subscribers. Plus, it's aggressively against sharing any content online beyond a strict paywall. It's not so much as a walled garden as a journalism penal colony. And, it's a business model that better suits an exclusive print business newsletter than a web property.

That's not a model the National Observer can emulate. It's an issues-based publication that needs to have it stories discussed, shared and noticed, not just chatted about by 9,000 businesspeople and politicians. Paywalls dissuade social sharing, as do subscriptions. And, it's not as if there isn't a lot of environmental coverage and information already available in Canada, as good as the National Observer's journalism is.

Plus, it's really hard to sell a leaky hose to folks who just want a smaller eyedropper.

Listen to an audio version of this column, read by the author.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for on technology and the Internet.

Photo: Jen R/flickr

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