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Recurring Donations Are Worth More Than Just the Money

Content-driven sites with a passionate audience are increasingly finding success with the recurring donation/subscription model. Some content sites have gone over to a full subscription paywall: The New Yorker allows anyone to read a very limited number of stories per month, but beyond that access is limited to paying subscribers. Other publishers keep access free, but offer extras to paying supporters. The Guardian, for example, offers monthly and annual supporters access to premium content without display advertising. Author Sam Harris [Disclosure: a longtime Hop Studios client] doesn’t limit access to content on his site, but does provide contributors with early access to live events and some of his podcasts.

Soliciting support can be tricky — nobody really likes being asked for money, so it’s important to spend some time thinking about your particular audience and how best to approach them. Tailoring the timing, wording, and frequency of your requests is crucial to making your support model work. Done wrong, support pitches can actually alienate your audience!

Subscriptions: What to Consider

If you’re contemplating moving to a subscription model, here are some questions to consider:

  • Is your audience accustomed to paying for access to content (like magazine subscriptions)?
  • Can you offer any extras that your audience wants or needs as an inducement or reward?
  • Is there a topic your readers might rally behind, or find particularly irresistible?
  • At what point(s) in the user’s visit can you introduce your request for support without interrupting or annoying the user? Pop ups that appear over the middle of a story will certainly get the user’s attention, but they may be more annoyed than inclined to reach for their wallets.
  • If your site already has visible sources of revenue like display advertising, how can you convince your visitors that their support is still needed without looking greedy?

The New Yorker has long been subscription-based, so they don’t need to bring readers around to paying for something they are accustomed to getting for free, but they do need to attract new subscribers! They accomplish this by offering six free articles a month to the public. Each time the visitor accesses an article, they see a prominent note indicating how many of their free stories have been used so far. This sequence leads naturally to the moment when the subscription pitch is made, and significantly softens that moment with the goodwill the free articles accumulate beforehand.

Screenshot of New Yorker story limit message: You have 3 free articles left this month. Join The New Yorker for unlimited access. Subscribe now.

The Guardian has taken a different tack: visitors to the site see multiple contribution requests on each page, but they’ve used a distinctive visual treatment for these pitches, making it easy for the visitor to differentiate between content and support material. And, while they do suggest recurring support models (monthly and annual), the site also has options for one-time contributions, and for content-specific contributions. For example, on the day this piece was written home page visitors can choose to give funds directly to a series about the government sell-off of public lands, an issue of national concern particularly pertinent at this time of year (July 4). As an added inducement, the Guardian displays what’s been pledged by others so far, encouraging the visitor to join in a good cause.

Screenshot of Guardian content support pitch: America's public lands are under threat. The Guardian is seeking your support for This Land is Your Land, our series on the government's public land sell-off. We've hit our original goal, but welcome additional gifts to support our coverage of public lands and the environment. $82,888 pledged so far/$100K goal. Make a contribution.

Sam Harris takes a more hands-off approach with his contribution solicitations, limiting himself to a support button in the navigation bar, and a support pitch at the bottom of most pages, both placements that don’t interfere or interrupt the visitor’s consumption of his actual content. But since Harris isn’t a traditional publisher and wishes to keep his content free, he’s also thought carefully about the many ways visitors might wish to support his work, and his support page gives visitors the option to give once, monthly, or to target support to his Waking Up podcast on a per-episode basis.

In addition, he gives contributors many payment options: credit cards, PayPal, and Apple Pay. Podcast supporters are routed to Patreon, a recurring donation system specifically designed to help support creative content publishers like writers, musicians, and artists.

In each of these examples, the publisher suggests one or more dollar amounts for support, making it easy for visitors to know what kind of contribution would help the site most. But visitors may also choose their own contribution amount to suit their economic circumstances.

The Payoff

A successful support model will obviously pay off literally, but there are some potential intangible benefits to cultivate as well. Typically, your supporters will be the users who most value your content, those who visit frequently and regularly, and those who are already somewhat invested in your continued existence. It is in more than your financial interest to cultivate this group! Consider the New York Times’sWhat You Get” page, for example:

Screenshot from New York Times support page: Go behind the scenes. Explore the inner workings of the newsroom and see the unique ways in which Times stories come to life. Get closer to journalists and the stories themselves.

When this engaged audience step ups and lends financial support to your site, you have the opportunity to build the relationship further. By asking them about their interests and reading habits you can set editorial direction based on feedback from your core audience, an interaction that is likely to ensure loyal readership and continuing reasons for that readership to support you financially.

The Costs

Since the set up costs for a recurring donation method are are low, the risks are also fairly small. While setting up the technical tools to handle contributions isn’t simple, there are many options. Publishers can start off simply by accepting contributions via PayPal: PayPal charges a per-transaction fee and takes a percentage of contributions, but there are no other other costs. The same is true for services like Patreon.

Publishers with more technical or financial resources can integrate contribution tools directly on their sites by setting up a secure certificate (SSL), shopping cart, and payment gateway. Nonprofit organizations can utilize services like Network for Good or Fundly. In most cases publishers will still have to pay transaction or platform fees, so it’s worth shopping around for the most economical options.

You Don’t Have to Have All the Answers Now

We would be remiss if we didn’t point out one other key fact: there is no single correct answer here. What works for one publisher may not work for another, and even the best-laid plans can have unforeseen consequences.

While you should think hard about opening the door to a particular contribution model, remember that even the big players are still figuring things out. Experimentation, observation and flexibility are necessary ingredients to any contribution plan. As this article about the New Yorker’s switch to a paywall notes, adaptation to how readers use your site is a continuing process.

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