Earlier this week, legacy publisher Condé Nast announced sweeping plans to implement digital paywalls across its titles in the United States, including Glamour, Vogue and GQ.
Currently, The New Yorker, Wired, and Vanity Fair have metered paywalls, with The New Yorker’s paywall driving $115 million in subscription revenue in 2018, up 69 percent from 2015, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.
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With annual subscriptions to The New Yorker ranging from $89.99 for a digital-only subscription to $119.99 for a digital and print subscription, this implies more than 1 million paying subscribers who drive almost enough revenue to cover the reported $120 million that Condé Nast is said to have lost in 2017, faced with a rapid and sustained decline in advertising revenue. No wonder the company is taking a closer look at digital subscriptions to secure its future.
Condé Nast is not alone. Paywalls are the latest trend among publishers looking fill the hole left by advertisers, which are spending more of their marketing budgets on creating their own content as well as advertising on digital platforms like Facebook, Google and Instagram where consumers spend huge amounts of time and they can micro-target the audiences they want to reach.
In addition to selling access to articles, there are no doubt interesting opportunities for Condé Nast to turn some of its content into paid services. For instance, Bon Appétit might leverage its bank of recipes to create an indispensable cooking resource; the NYTimes Cooking App, for which users can pay $5 a month or $40 a year to access, has been a hit for the paper of record and has amassed more than 120,000 subscribers.
The Vogue Runway archive of reviews and images from fashion shows is an essential research tool, used by stylists and other fashion industry executives who may be willing to pay a fee to access it.
But not every Condé Nast title has very high-quality content like The New Yorker or a must-use product opportunity. Indeed, for a paywall to work, a publication needs to have must-use products, must-read stories or must-follow writers — and ideally a combination of all three. Trade and business publications often have these attributes, and they also have a leg up because consumers can write off those subscriptions as a business expense.
In a recent podcast, Condé Nast International president Wolfgang Blau spoke to Digiday about the opportunity in B2B subscriptions as well as “that whole ecosystem of conference and consulting and everything you can build around that.”
“The borders are really blurry between B2B and B2C,” he added. “I’d say most of our conferences for instance are B2B, most of our current thinking goes more towards B2B, most of our editorial products — if not all — are B2C. They’re being sold as B2C while now the Vogues have a high share of B2B readers and in print it’s learnt behaviour to know which story is B2B or B2C. Digitally we want to untangle that a little bit over the course of this year.”
Perhaps Blau was referring to the imminent launch of Vogue Business, a new title that the company says will fill “the gap in the market for industry decision-makers, from start-ups to CEOs,” according to a press release, which will be issued next week. Vogue certainly has a sizable following within the fashion industry, but the decision to use the consumer facing brand for a B2B title is curious and raises plenty of questions when it comes to the traditional influence held by Vogue advertisers and the real ability to do independent reporting.
Then, there is the slew of publications in the Condé Nast portfolio such as Glamour, Self and Teen Vogue, which are fundamentally consumer propositions and will also have to compete with primary news sources like The New York Times and The Washington Post for share of wallet, as well as subscriptions to other consumer services, like Netflix, in a market where people spend only a small fraction of their total media-technology consumption time on publisher websites.
It is likely that these other Condé Nast subscriptions will cost nowhere near the price of a subscription to The New Yorker — which will soon charge $149 per year for a print and digital subscription — and will be more in line with Vanity Fair and Wired which currently charge $30 per year for a print and digital and will soon bump up their prices to $49 per year.
The fundamental question is: how many people will pay? Condé Nast will need to convert a good portion of casual web browsers into paying readers, while retaining what’s left of its print subscribers. It has already started to reduce its print issues for publications like Allure, W and Bon Appétit, and cut them altogether for Glamour and Self.
Magazine subscription figures were inflated for years, based on heavy consumer promotions which were used to acquire readers, similar to paid traffic acquisition online. (The department within Condé Nast long responsible for upping circulation was called “Consumer Marketing.”) The company could use equivalent tactics to up subscription numbers online, but to make the subscription model work it will also need to retain users to make paid acquisition tactics worthwhile over the long term.
But again, none of this gets to the core issue, which is that these businesses may never be as big as they once were. We no longer live in a culture where the likes of Vogue are singular bibles in their verticals and today’s consumers have a vast universe of media and technology platforms competing for what is ultimately a finite amount of attention.
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For Condé Nast to make online subscription models work, they will have to construct entirely different businesses focused on delivering true excellence and value to their readers — not just pleasing their advertisers. Whether Condé Nast can pull off the pivot remains to be seen.