ANALYSIS: When does "subscription fatigue" set in?
You know the feeling. There's a new show you want to check out on that brand new streaming service. The problem is, you already pay for four subscription streaming services. Are you really going to add MGM-Premium-Max-Plus to your catalog of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Disney+? Maybe your sister already has a subscription. Or you can wait to read reviews and see that the show really wasn't worth it.
The same thing happens with news. You already pay for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and your local outlet for regional coverage. And now here comes this story on Wired or The Atlantic or Coffee Lovers Monthly and they've got it behind a paywall? Who do they think they are?
You're encountering subscription fatigue, the sense that you can't keep paying for content piecemeal from different outlets. After all, do you really want to keep a spreadsheet of how many NYT stories or Hulu shows you watch in a month to see if it's paying off? This phenomenon has been analyzed in the media industry (and the software industry, and the e-commerce industry) for years now, and researchers have come to a terrifying conclusion: we aren't really sure if subscription fatigue is real or not.
Here are some of the prevailing theories about subscription fatigue and, if it exists, what it means for the future:
- Theory 1: Subscription fatigue exists, but the upper limit where it sets in hasn't been reached yet. As Axios reported today, the NYT and WaPo tripled their numbers of paid digital subscribers since 2016. Sure, this is partially due to the Trump Bump, but readers have shown a willingness to pay for news in an era where the daily news feels incredibly important, particularly from prominent outlets. The fear in media is that readers will only be willing to pay for a few media subscriptions at a time, and smaller outlets won't be able to compete with the big dogs.
- Theory 2: It exists, but it's industry-specific. So, you'll be perfectly happy to pay for 3-4 subscription streaming services, and 3-4 news outlets, but your stomach for audio podcast subscriptions might limit you to 1-2. Patrick Campbell of Profitwell believes a software subscription is the least likely to induce fatigue, considering it's a subscription that likely fulfills a need for you and your business. Streaming is a different matter, though. If your two favorite shows on HBO Max end and aren't coming back, you'll be more inclined to unsubscribe. The same could be true in the news industry. Nobody quite knows yet if the end of the Trump presidency is going to signal an exodus of subscribers away from news subscriptions. The NYT might live to regret this January 2020 article on how to check on your number of digital subscriptions, and cancel what you aren't using.
- Theory 3: It doesn't exist. Venture capitalist Matthew Ball argues that the entire concept is a misnomer – people are still spending money on all the things they used to, but the way we pay for things has simply changed. For example, I may not like that I spend $15/month for Spotify Premium, but that's certainly way less money than I used to spend on music (much to the detriment of indie artists, I might add) when I was buying 5-10 CDs every month in stores. There is also a study suggesting that some people are more likely to pay for new subscriptions if they already have a few. These might be called the super-spenders or super-subscribers. People who spend more on entertainment subscriptions are also likely to spend more on news media subscriptions.
When it comes to this last point, the study suggests that novelty and timeliness are incredibly important when it comes to garnering and maintaining subscribers. If you're a streaming service, that means having a hot new show that everyone is talking about. (Remember how much we all needed "Tiger King" in those early days of the pandemic?) For a news organization, that means content you can't read elsewhere that gets shared and widely discussed online. Think of Ed Yong's coronavirus coverage for The Atlantic (though most of those articles are free) or the NYT's comprehensive analysis of President Trump's taxes.
Given that knowledge, even if subscription fatigue doesn't exist, or only exists within certain industries, it's going to be tough for smaller entities to compete with major players if they don't have the resources to consistently publish high-quality, intensely sharable content.