Tenting, metering subscription strategies have different pros, cons

Abhishek Dadoo
October 26, 2022
Tenting, metering subscription strategies have different pros, cons
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This article was first published by INMA on 5th October 2022

Over-the-top media services (OTTs) have made it commonplace for most digital content subscription businesses to pursue the tentpole strategy. This is a strategy where premium content is gated behind a hard paywall, forcing users to opt into a subscription in the spur of the moment.

As a publisher, here’s what you should know about common tentpole and metering strategies.

Tentpole strategies

Every tentpole strategy starts with how the publisher decides its tentpole content. At its most basic level, data-driven publishers look at their last-touch attribution model to decipher which content categories led to new subscriptions in the previous weeks and months. They then demarcate all such content coming out of editorial in the tentpole bucket. This strategy assumes what worked in the past will work again, but there are many factors to consider before we award this strategy a clear winner.

For this strategy to work, the publisher’s marketing team has to attract look-alike audiences to its site. If the audience profile is shifting or if the publisher is proactively looking at expanding audiences to other segments and geographies, this strategy is bound to deliver lower yields than expected.

It requires a lot more data and sophisticated subscription technology to dynamically assign tentpole content for different audience segments. A simpler route some publishers take is to create a multi-category, exclusive content section on the site, and this helps audiences opt-in for subscriptions.

Some publishers rely on their editorial teams to decide their tentpole content every day. Before we balk at this strategy, let’s think about its merits.

Experienced editors have the best pulse on their audiences. Their choices have biases and opinions baked in, and therein lies the secret sauce. Opinionated publications attract opt-in audience segments from the get-go. This strategy self-selects the audience landing on a Web site every day, and the conversion to subscriptions depends on the digital marketing team’s ability to target the right audiences for that day.

Metering strategies

Many publishers that don’t use a tentpole strategy use metering. This allows readers to access a certain number of metered articles free every month, after which they throw a hard paywall at the user. This attracts fewer “spur-of-the-moment” subscribers. At the same time, it limits the subscriber pool to highly engaged readers.

Some publishers within the Fewcents network use differential metering depending on the geography of their audiences. The underlying assumption is that the metering threshold for domestic users is higher than the metering threshold for international users.

I would argue this strategy is inefficient unless the publisher is able to re-engage its readers. We analysed data for more than 1.5 million users:

  • 76% of users visited a particular site only once a month.
  • 95% of users visited a site four times or less in a month.

Clearly, such engagement rates are not defensible to build a subscription business.

Here are some of engagement strategies used by publishers:

  • Registration walls: The hard registration wall allows publishers to capture e-mail addresses of non-subscribers and gives the publisher the ability to send personalised newsletters based on users’ last visit.
  • Social media: Some publishers have high engagement on their social media channels. Converting those fans into engaged readers is imperative to the success of a publisher’s metering strategy.
  • Push notifications: Personalising push notifications is critical for driving user engagement. Blasting a push notification every time a new article is published is hardly a strategy to drive engaged readers.

We don’t have enough data yet to understand which engagement channels work best. However, it is evident that the majority of sites are flooded with extremely casual users, and figuring out a strategy for better engagement rates is imperative to the success of any metering strategy.

There are publishers that have adopted extreme or hybrid strategies. For example, Business Insider has all of its content behind a hard paywall. This is a de facto claim that it considers every single piece of content as tentpole and subscription-worthy. Other publishers take hybrid approaches where there is some tentpole content, but the rest of their content is behind a metered paywall.

While the future is pointing toward dynamic paywalls where algorithms decide the right mix of tentpole and metered content, most publishers today make a conscious choice and iterate on their strategy frequently. The success of their subscription businesses is in their ability to run new experiments, fail quickly, and succeed occasionally.

Abhishek Dadoo,

Dushyant Khare

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Abhishek Dadoo

Abhishek is a seasoned business leader and technology product manager. He has worked in management consulting with PwC and Altman Solon in Boston, USA before moving to Singapore permanently. In Singapore he has held roles in market development with Ericsson and DHL before branching out to start his own venture, Shoffr, a digital marketing solution that provides online to offline attribution for digital marketers. In 2019, Abhishek sold Shoffr to Affle, a publicly listed ad-tech company in India.

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