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Why People Don't Want to Pay for Subscription Content

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate and author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. She is a former trade newspaper editor.


A great comment came in on my video about consumers cutting subscriptions in response to inflation. In that video, I had noted how my husband cut multiple subscriptions as he reviewed his post-retirement expenses. The video comment said, “I feel like this is a branding issue. If he felt he had a personal connection/ongoing conversation with each one of those brands, rather than just receiving a service, he wouldn’t have unsubscribed. What do you think?”

Oh boy, do I have thoughts on this!

How Many Creators Can You Support?

I recently paid to subscribe to a friend’s Patreon channel. While this writer does create thoughtful blog content I enjoy reading, I really subscribed because I have a long-standing friendship with him for almost a decade now. So when he started this new chapter in his content creation journey, I was glad to sponsor him.

The commenter is right in that people who have a relationship with a creator are more likely to become paying and continuing subscribers. That’s the foundation on which Patreon is built, even though we have to wonder if it’s just a pity buy.

But let me ask you how many of your favorite creators you’re willing and able to financially support? For example, let’s say you want to support 10 creators at $3 per month on Patreon. That’s $30 per month, or a whopping $360 per year, for just 10 creators. I don’t know about you, but I probably have dozens to a hundred or so creators I’d be willing to support, maybe just not able.

It's Not About the Money

Even though I’ve been talking about the hard dollar costs that are causing consumers to cut back on subscriptions, I don’t think that’s the whole story.

Let’s talk about the cost in time. Let’s use those same 10 creators who each might create a five-minute subscriber-only video per week. That’s a really low estimate since I would think that closer to 10 minutes would be more common. Even up to 30 minutes might not be unusual. But for the sake of example, let’s stick with just five minutes. That’s 50 minutes per week for each of 52 weeks per year. That’s just over 43 hours of time to watch this content that you are paying for. That’s over an entire standard 40-hour work week of time per year with just five-minute videos.

In fact, that’s one of the reasons my husband ditched a non-Amazon subscription that allowed him access to books and resources. When he unsubscribed, the group reached out to him and offered him even more materials for free to stay in the program. He declined, saying that he just doesn’t have the time, even though he’s retired. Now that he’s retired, he has a host of other things he’d rather do.

There’s also the issue of content fatigue. I don’t know about you, but there comes a point where I can’t watch even one . . . more . . . video!

Even if you’ve engaged with a person and their personal brand, even in love with them and what they do, there are limits in time, money, and energy that will prevent you from paying to subscribe and support every creator you enjoy.

YouTube Creator Woes

YouTube continually sends emails about the ways they support creators. Let’s rephrase that. YouTube wants to support “qualified” creators. Again, my husband provides a great real-life example.

He had a YouTube channel for many years. He amassed maybe 2,500 to 3,000 subscribers, which is respectable, and allowed him to become a paid YouTube Partner. If I remember right, at peak, he was making maybe around $1K per year from his videos. Due to work, education, and life priorities, he walked away from his channel but didn’t delete it. He still received some ad revenue share, but way less than when he was active. Then YouTube threw him out of the partner program a while back for not qualifying under their new requirements.

In August 2022, you need to have 4,000 watch hours on your channel in the last 12 months, have 1,000 or more subscribers, and have to have uploaded a video within the past six months. This knocks out many small creators, regardless of how engaged their fans.

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And it gets worse. If you’re not eligible to participate in the YouTube Partner ad revenue sharing, YouTube can still show and profit from ads on your videos. What? It’s happening on my channel. I’m a business person. I understand why YouTube is doing this. Storing and serving up and administrating billions of hours of video is an enormous cost. I once estimated that YouTube had about 30,000 years’ worth of video. I just saw another estimate of 60,000 years. And 500 hours of video are being uploaded every minute of every day. Every minute!

Even if you have a highly engaged audience on YouTube, if you don’t meet their qualifications, you’re not getting monetized.

Is Patreon the Solution?

A Patreon blog post in December 2020 featured creators who were making over $200K on Patreon. Many of them are also on YouTube. The lowest YouTube subscriber count for this group was 33.9K, and the highest was 7.2 million. Not your average self-published content creators, for sure. Comparing the number of Patreon patrons to YouTube subscribers for this elite set, the buy-in rate was anywhere from 0.2% to 6%. There were two outliers at 11% for a podcast by political liberals and 30% for a gamer channel.

What do these examples tell us? Even the most successful creators on Patreon and YouTube don’t have 100 percent paid buy-in from their fans. I’ve estimated that approximately 1 percent of your author or creator fan base will actually pay for your books or content.

Are We All Just Buskers Now?

A monthly subscription can be a huge commitment for consumers, even if they like the creators. One system that I’ve liked for rewarding and supporting creators is TikTok’s system of virtual coin gifts. You prepay with real cash for a package of virtual coins. If you like a video someone has created, you can easily, with a couple of clicks, send them these coins, which they can cash in for real cash at some point in the future.

Sadly, though, if you register as a business account on TikTok, this monetization feature is not available to you. Why? Personal account creators are making money from their content. Why can’t business accounts? I think if these personal creators are making money, they’re a business, too. Sorry for that jealous rant.

However, according to a 2021 Business Insider article, even top-earning TikTokers don’t make too much this way. One creator with over 2 million followers reported making $1,664 from January to May 2021, averaging between $9 and $38 per day. Top TikTokers usually make the most money from brand sponsorships. This is not a fan sponsorship or gift. Brand sponsorships are big brand companies that offer them money. So that’s not the same subscriber income we’re discussing here.

YouTube has introduced a similar thank you gift system, which I like because the cash payments go directly to the creator. However, you need to qualify for the YouTube Partner program.

I hope that direct-to-creator payments do become more available on social media and content delivery channels. Unfortunately, these are one-off purchases and not sustainable and reliable subscriber income. I liken it to buskers and street performers who hope for passersby to throw some money their way for their music or other entertainment.

Blame It on TV

For literally about a century, consumers have been conditioned to the availability of free content on radio, TV, and the internet. People got used to free TV and radio shows, paying by putting up with sponsors’ ads. But people got annoyed with ads. In the 1970s, the hope in paying for cable TV was a commercial-free experience. It was for a while. Cable has lots of ads now, except for the more expensive premium options.

Unfortunately, the early internet was built on the ad-sponsored model, just like broadcast TV. Advertisers hungered for the eyeballs that websites got and were willing to pay for them. Early website owners and bloggers profited from including advertisers’ ads. Some site owners and bloggers got a bit cocky, thinking it was their quality content and engagement that made them successful. As web tools got better, easier, and cheaper, competition for content increased exponentially. Lots of quality content flooded the internet.

As with TV, consumers got annoyed with ads on the internet. Ad blockers are now common, not just for annoyance reasons but privacy, too. Today, content creators are struggling to convert to paid content models like Patreon and Substack.

The world had the chance to break the ad-sponsored model when the internet arrived, but it didn’t. However, the system wasn’t able to handle secure payments at scale directly from subscribers in the early days. Getting paid from advertising sponsors was easier. So here we are . . . again.

Free will always win. Realize that those who are willing and able to pay for your content are precious and rare. Adjust your expectations accordingly.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2022 Heidi Thorne

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