Forget subscription fatigue. Subscription amnesia is the problem
7 min read

Forget subscription fatigue. Subscription amnesia is the problem

New research shows that consumers vastly underestimate their monthly subscription spend.
Forget subscription fatigue. Subscription amnesia is the problem

A song to read by: "Wide Open Spaces," by Soccer Mommy

What I’m reading: "How to Blow Up a Pipeline," by Andreas Malm

One unsatisfied customer

How much do you pay per month on subscription services? That was the question research firm West Monroe asked 2,500 respondents in its recent survey, “The State of Subscription Services Spending.”

Compared to the results of a similar survey West Monroe conducted in 2018, the findings were eye-opening. In their words, “Consumers increased their monthly spend by 15%, are less aware of their expenses and have tried new services in an increasingly digital economy.”

The study explored subscription services across the spectrum, in 21 total categories, including mobile phone services, wifi, gaming, fitness, meal services and more. Amazon Prime was, inexplicably, its own category.

While the study did not examine subscriptions to news services explicitly, it did include them in the research, labeling the category “digital newspapers/magazines.” And its overall conclusions  — that consumers are spending more but underestimating the total value of their spending and generally misremembering key details regarding it — also applies to news consumers.

In addition to this finding, which warrants a bit of unpacking on its own, the study also explored other critical factors related to subscription spending, including how happy consumers were with their various subscriptions, compared to the 2018 results. The data, in many cases, is somewhat troubling for publishers.

How much do you spend on subscriptions?

The respondents in the survey, on average, increased their spending on subscription services from 2018 to 2021 by 15%, from $237 to $273 per month.

When asked how much they thought they spent on subscription services monthly, respondents were incorrect to the tune of 340%. On their first guess, consumers suggested $62 per month (compared to $80 per month in 2018); on their second guess, they offered $96 per month (compared to $112 per month in 2018). The actual amount they spent per month, $273, is 3.4x more than they had thought.

The study also charts which subscription services consumers use most, and how much they spend on them. Again, they compare the results to the 2018 findings.

Digital newspapers/magazines ranked eighth-most common, behind, from most popular downward: mobile phone services; wifi at home; TV/movie services; music streaming; gaming services; cloud storage; and home security systems.

One of the few pieces of good news from the findings? The percentage of respondents paying for digital newspapers/magazines rose from 7% to 9%. However, cancelling out that good news, the amount spent dropped from $20 to $10 per month.

Consumers dislike their news subscriptions

Unfortunately, we are now entering the bad news portion of the article.

Compared to literally every other category, digital newspapers/magazines were tied with “wifi at home” for the second-least popular subscription service. Fashion subscription boxes took home the ignominious honor of being the least satisfying subscription service experience.

The survey breaks satisfaction into four categories: happily hooked; happy, not hooked; unhappily hooked; and unhappy, not hooked. The “happy” portion is pretty self-explanatory; the “hooked” portion refers to the amount of awareness the consumer has for that particular category of subscription.

When West Monroe broke these qualitative satisfaction ratings down by how they changed since 2018, digital newspapers/magazines look even worse.

The percentage of digital newspapers/magazines subscribers who labeled themselves “happily hooked: has decreased 20%, second worst in all the categories behind only identity protection services (there is a story there, I’m sure). The other numbers are more mixed: the percentage of survey respondents who self-identified as “happy, not hooked” rose 11%; “unhappily hooked” rose 4%; and “unhappy, not hooked” rose 6%.

Overall, although this data is, of course, just a small sample size, it paints a pretty damning picture: More people are subscribing to digital newspapers/magazines, but they appear mostly unhappy about the expenditure.

What do we make of this?

The results of the West Monroe study mean different things depending on whom you ask.

If you are a news publisher, the survey underscores a common refrain: that you have to continue improving. This study did not intend to examine the satisfaction, among news readers, of their news subscriptions; it polled a broad swath of people about the perceived value provided to them by a service they pay for.

Journalism is complicated, and the relationship subscribers have to their news sources is more emotionally and psychologically wrought than the one they have with Blue Apron.

Of course news is less satisfying than Netflix, and given the political climate surrounding the media, negative attitudes toward it are no surprise. It is not a get-out-of-jail-free card for publishers, but far more scientific studies regarding subscriber satisfaction have been done, and the results are generally more complex than the picture painted here.

Now, if you are a consumer, the takeaway might sound a little more like this: I’m paying what now for what??

The West Monroe findings offer a pretty unsettling take: that people are paying more for subscriptions but thinking about them less. Is that really a good thing? If I work for a consumer protection agency, I might find these results on the predatory side of the spectrum.

Much like the rise of buy now, pay later services, a financial model for which a core appeal is its ability to continually siphon money from unwitting customers remains a dubious proposition. I can imagine the tagline now: “Subscription services — your customers will forget they even have them!”

West Monroe, I must say, seems to be of that mindset. Its final call to action, geared of course toward businesses, is for companies to get into the subscription game now:

“Consumers are primed to adopt subscriptions across a host of industries and channels. The most successful subscriptions are supported by consumer experience strategies that create the stickiness necessary to keep customers hooked, happy and renewing.”

Caveat subscriber

It once again strikes me that the people making decisions about financial models pay little concern to the welfare of the consumer. A system in which companies profit off their clients’ amnesia, paying monthly charges for a service they do not use, still rubs me the wrong way.

I get it: for-profit journalism is a business. If you sign up for a subscription and forget about it, tough luck.

But perhaps we could build in some commonsense consumer protections? How about, if someone has not made use of a subscription they are paying for in over a year, the company cancels it. We can assume, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that they have forgotten about the subscription at that point. After all, publishers already do that in many cases with their newsletter lists. (The key difference being that newsletter subscribers are not paying, of course.)

Is that too conscientious? Where exactly is the line between passive profit and active grift? Does it rest on the burden of knowledge? These are questions for … well, no one I guess.

The whole line of inquiry brings us back to my pet project, the monthly access payment. Instead of asking anyone and everyone who wants to read an article to subscribe, publishers should offer curious readers more ways to pay. This is not, as it has been improperly impugned, a micropayment. It is the digital version of a newsstand purchase.

If I want to read a paywalled article from The Houston Chronicle, rather than forcing me to subscribe to a newspaper halfway across the country, give me an option to pay a one-time fee that is just a touch higher than the price of a monthly subscription. In return, I get unlimited access to the site for a month, and once those 30 days elapse, the contract expires.

So long as publishers deal with access as a binary — either subscribe and read, or don’t subscribe and don’t read — they not only lose out on a significant portion of readership that would happily pay but not subscribe; they also, as this study reveals, force readers to keep a mental catalog of their ever-growing roster of random digital subscriptions.

In the process, well-meaning people end up getting price-gouged by publishers all because they committed the sin of wanting to pay for journalism. Media folks talk an awful lot about “listening to their subscribers” when trying to craft better publications. How about they extend that same empathy when it comes to figuring out how those readers would prefer to pay?

Some good readin'

— I was going to write about Defector's first annual report, but then too many other people beat me to it. But read this! (Defector Media)

— How ad-supported media fails Black readers, courtesy of Capital B cofounder Lauren Williams. (New York Times)

— This was eye-opening and a further reminder that there needs to be far more Indigenous journalism circulating in the discourse. (High Country News)

— A really good piece about what's going wrong with Austin. (The Jacobin)

— The Google News Showcase: bribe or ineffectual product? (Press Gazette)

— If you subscribe to only one climate change newsletter, Emily Atkin's is the one. (HEATED)

Cover image: "The Gulf Stream," by Winslow Homer