by Niall Doherty

I sent out the following to my mailing list yesterday…

Hey everyone,

A special broadcast today to announce that I’ve killed the premium subscription model I launched just two weeks ago. As noted initially, the whole thing was very much an experiment, and it’s quickly become evident that it will never work out as I had hoped.

Aside from the fact that I saw a very low conversion rate from free to paid subscribers (less than 1%; I was hoping for at least 2%), several of you fine folks chimed in with insightful comments that really made me rethink the whole idea. For example…

“Whether you’re receiving donations or subscription fees, you’re getting rewarded for what you do. I think one way leaves the reader feeling better than the other.” Mitchell Roth

“I think the revenue stream, from this side, seems to flow in one of two directions. In one direction we get to feel good, and in the other we get to feel obligated… Give us the option to feel good again rather than obligated.” Andy Hawkins

“I really think you need to bring back the donate button and place it below each every post of yours… I think last time you mentioned “don’t want to be greedy” in relation to having it together with the paid subscribers option and I encourage you to explore this belief. I don’t think it serves you in the long run. Let your subscribers/readers decide if they want to contribute with a monthly payment or with a one off payment.” Tal Gur

With all that in mind, I’ve swallowed my pride and reverted back to the way things were before, except it’s now much easier for readers to donate if they feel so inclined.

[…]

Now, for those of you who already signed up to become paid subscribers: first of all, thanks again for your support. Secondly, rest assured that I will be refunding your subscriptions over the coming days.

Yours experimentally,

– Niall

Lessons Learned

1. Obligation sucks

As noted by the fine folks I quoted in the above message, nobody likes feeling obligated to pay for something.

Of course I already knew this to be true, but for whatever reason I figured my paid subscription model would be an exception, a setup where people wouldn’t feel at all obligated.

The feedback proved otherwise.

David Damron may have put it best. Rather than become a paid subscriber, he sent me donation a few days back with the following note:

Instead of paying for subscribing, I am going to make a conscious effort to donate whenever I feel your articles provide killer value. Most of them do, but some are above and beyond others. So, don’t think of this as a cop out to not pay monthly for subscribing. Think of it as more of a motivation to write premium content that may lead to more $$$ than if I just let the subscription model hit me up every month whether your info is great or not.

Since I write about a broad range of subjects here at DtR, it’s extremely unlikely that every post will resonate with you, the reader. And that’s fine. What sucks though is when I write a post that doesn’t resonate with you at all, then two minutes later you check your email to find that you just sent me an automatic payment. When that happens, you can’t help but feel a little cheated.

Better I just give you the option to donate, and leave you free to do so whenever you feel an article of mine really hits the mark and adds value to your life. As David noted, this approach also puts some healthy pressure on me to keep producing quality content.

2. If it’s broke, man up and fix it

When it started to become clear that this paid subscription model wasn’t working and likely never would, I was tempted to take the “wait and see” approach. Tempted because that would have required no immediate action on my part, no firm decision, no admission of error.

But as Chris Guillebeau recently wrote

We often feel paralyzed by choice and make no choice. But the thing is, no choice is a choice. If you’re not doing something about it, you’re doing something about it.

Sometimes it’s good to be stubborn, but if something obviously isn’t working, take immediate action to fix it, even if that means admitting failure and looking a little foolish in front of a lot of people.

3. Trust your gut (but only for the big things)

Besides the constructive criticism and the poor conversion rate, the other telltale sign that this paid subscription model wasn’t going to work came from my gut. While I expected and accepted that I would be somewhat uncomfortable with the whole thing post-launch, I figured the feelings of unease would gradually subside.

But they never did.

Throughout the two weeks that the paid subscription model was live, it never felt quite right to me (perhaps I would have felt different if the conversion rate had hit double figures, but I’ll never know).

Now all this talk of “not feeling quite right” might sound a little woo-woo to many of you, but after reading a fascinating book called How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer, I’ve resolved to trust my gut (or “emotional brain”, as Lehrer calls it) more when it comes to tough choices…

The emotional brain is especially useful at helping us make hard decisions. Its massive computational power — its ability to process millions of bits of data in parallel — ensures that you can analyze all the relevant information when assessing alternatives. Mysteries are broken down into manageable chunks, which are then translated into practical feelings.

Backed by tons of scientific research, Lehrer tells us that we’re better off thinking less about decisions that we care a lot about, and putting more trust in our emotions to help us choose wisely. Meanwhile, when it comes to simple problems (e.g. “Should I buy these parachute pants?”) it’s usually better to ignore your emotions and try make a rational decision.

4. It’s never too late (or too early) to do the right thing

When your gut does tell you that something’s gone wrong, don’t let timing stop you from making it right. It’s never too late or too early to make amends.

My buddy Jacob Sokol gave a great example of this a few months back, when he knocked over someone’s parked bike with his car, panicked, and fled the scene. But a few minutes down the road he came to his senses, turned the car around and went back to do the right thing.

As Jacob tells it, he felt like a bit of an ass and took some heat from vigilante pedestrians when he went back, but he was able to leave the second time with a clear conscience, knowing that he hadn’t compromised his values.

Now I don’t want to pretend that me and Jacob are infallible heroes for doing these kinds of things. I know I’ve done the wrong thing in many situations like that in the past, and I’m guessing Jacob has, too. It’s probably because of those previous, unresolved fuck-ups (together with the resulting feelings of shame and regret) that we’re more likely nowadays to swallow our pride and do the right thing when we mess up.

On a related note, Drew Jacob recently wrote about the frequent opportunities we all have to do the right thing…

You don’t need to [create heroic encounters] because there are already so, so many moments in life when someone needs to stand up or speak out. And chances are you won’t take action in the moment. Most of us have more opportunities to be heroic than we ever respond to, so why try to create more?

I bet you can easily bring to mind a few unresolved issues in your life, actions or conversations that you’ve been avoiding. Consider every such issue as an opportunity to do the right thing. You might tell yourself that you’ll handle it when the timing is better, but it never will be. Now’s as good a time as any.

5. Paid access may still be a good idea

Just because this whole paid access thing didn’t work for me, doesn’t mean it won’t work for others. After all, it does seem to be working well for the likes of Ev Bogue.

Remember: There’s what works for some people, and there’s what works for you. The former you can spend all day reading about on the Internet. The latter you can only discover through experimentation.

As such, I’ve no regrets about trying out the paid subscription model. Now I know for sure that it’s not right for me.

6. That thing you learned

Rather than ramble on with more lessons I learned from this experiment, I’ll stop here and open it up to you. I’ve already heard from several readers via email who shared some good takeaways, and I’m curious to hear more.

Alternatively, I’d love to hear more stories about swallowing your pride and doing the right thing after you realized you made a mistake.