September 4, 2010
The Unsubscription

Joe Sheehan left Baseball Prospectus and opened up his own, subscription-based newsletter. Costing $20 and promising no certain frequency - he writes when there’s something to write about, which is often enough for me - he’s been able to build up a respectable audience. It’s a word of mouth thing that’s going to be nichey - you have to know and like Sheehan’s writing to support him. His SI columns function as the only real marketing. (I know he does other media, but I’ve never seen a ton of real evidence that doing radio drove subscriptions. I do radio because I enjoy the interaction, not because I think it’s valuable marketing.) 

I like Joe’s idea to some level. Basing it on email, I think, is reasonable. Sam Lessin makes a better case for it than Joe does, but knowing Joe, I also think his disdain for technology factors in. He wants easy, simple, and an email newsletter is that. Nothing wrong with it. 

As more of a tech/geek/fanboy, I’m much more inclined, were I to enter this space (and I’m not, ever) I’d want to do something more mobile. I’m a huge fan of RUWT and would much rather use Mark’s model of synergistic app/mobile website. First, mobile ads are pretty easy and I’m high on the use of iAds, especially as the technology to pair viewers with relevant ads ramps up. 

Really, what I think would be the ideal is an idea I’ve had called the “unsubscription.” (It’s a terrible name, admittedly, semantically backwards of what it’s trying to say.) Slate Salon used to do something like this - you could pay for access or watch an ad. In 2002-3, that was pretty cutting edge. I think that in return for watching an ad and having it as a “presenting sponsor”, in much the same way that Prudential is seen on MLB’s At Bat app, you could get a month’s subscription. (I should mention that I think a recurring low price, like $1.99 is better than a higher, yearly fee.) 

A sponsor could say “I have $2,000 to spend. The first thousand people to watch our ad or download our coupon will get one month’s subscription.” Don’t like the ad? Don’t watch and pay the two bucks yourself.  I think that model works pretty well for everyone - reader, advertiser, and most importantly, the writer.

The problem is scale. Few advertisers want to deal with small sites, let alone something relatively new like this. Few writers have the sales skills, connections, or time to find an advertiser once, let alone 12 times a year. It’s pretty expensive for advertisers as well, especially in an environment where large sites are getting $35 per thousand. The case would have to be made that the advertiser is getting a LOT more for their money and the targeting might work in favor of something like this. Rather than it being an annoying and random ad, there’s a value exchange for those that wish to accept it. 

In an economic environment where everything is free and Twitter-speed both thrills and kills, the subscription model is tough. Quality is important, but not so important that many are willing to pay for it. In sports, stocks, and a few other areas, everyone thinks they’re an expert and is wiling to produce content for free. That’s why TheStreet.com and SBNation have grown so much, by feeding that need and giving just enough feedback to keep people coming back.

Fact is, as much as I like the concept of this model and as much as I root for Sheehan to be right about this, I don’t believe it works. I know it doesn’t work for me, having tried a similar experiment last year with the concept of a for-pay Twitter account. Maybe that was a double whammy - asking people to try something new on a free service and to pay for content - but I think it’s pretty indicative.

Maury Brown asked me on Twitter when we were going to see InjuryExpert.com. Even if I owned the domain, the answer is the same: never.