“Subscribe” is a bad word for podcasting

Saturday Night Live Weekend Anchor Colin Jost

Saturday Night Live Weekend Anchor Colin Jost

Everyone wants your credit card.

Last week Disney announced their own Netflix style video streaming service “Disney +,” to which SNL Weekend Update anchor Colin Jost said; “The plus means you have to get Disney, plus Hulu, plus Netflix, plus Amazon, plus a Play Station and cable.”

Apple, NBC, YouTube and others have announced their own video streaming services.

Video streaming is rapidly becoming a mess.

It’s little wonder that a recent study from Deloitte showed that nearly half (47%) of Americans have video “subscription fatigue” from complicated choices and pressure on their wallets.  

And that study only focused on video services.  

38% of non-podcast listeners think “subscribe” means pay

On the audio side, seeking your MasterCard are; Spotify, Pandora, Sirius/XM, Stitcher Plus, Amazon, Apple and the soon to be launched podcasts-behind-a-wall services of Luminary and Himalaya.

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One of the items that caught my eye from last week’s Edison/Triton release of “The Podcast Consumer 2019,” is the allergic reaction (or confusion) of 38% of non-podcast listeners to having to pay to “subscribe” to podcasts.

Anecdotally, who in podcasting hasn’t run across; “do I have to pay?” or “I didn’t hit the ‘subscribe’ button because I didn’t want to pay.”


Indeed, today most podcasts are free, and millions of people have figured out that just like “subscribing” to an email newsletter or a YouTube channel, there is no cost. But more often in today’s society, we associate the word “subscribe” with pay, whether it be magazines (quaint, I know), video services, apps, mobile phones and a host of other services which result in a monthly hit on the credit card bill.

The words “free” and “subscribe” have never been a good fit.

L-R Brendan Monaghan, CEO Megaphone; Oren Rosenbaum, Digital Agent, UTA; Max Cutler, CEO Parcast; Erik Diehn, CEO Stitcher; Steve Goldstein CEO, Amplifi Media

L-R Brendan Monaghan, CEO Megaphone; Oren Rosenbaum, Digital Agent, UTA; Max Cutler, CEO Parcast; Erik Diehn, CEO Stitcher; Steve Goldstein CEO, Amplifi Media

Billboard for the soon to be launched Luminary service in Manhattan listing rather obscure names

Billboard for the soon to be launched Luminary service in Manhattan listing rather obscure names

At last week’s NAB Show in Las Vegas, I moderated a panel with some of the sharpest minds in podcasting. When it came to the topic of placing podcasts behind a paywall, the consensus was that the nascent podcasting business is in its awareness and adoption phase, and any type of friction that creates a barrier or confusion likely discourages use and discovery. That could dampen growth.

The words “free” and “subscribe” have never been a good fit. “Subscribe” implies cost and commitment. I have even adjusted the language for my own free email newsletter to “sign up” and “subscribe for free” where I can.

There is certainly a threshold at which consumers will push back and make a value judgement as to what merits their money.

We have become accustomed to paying for cable TV or Netflix. So some of the streaming video services stand a good chance. But if the consumer needs a spreadsheet to figure it all out, and it is starting to look that way, we will all look back fondly at the simplicity of the cable bundle.

On the audio side, people have long purchased music including individual songs and albums. Now streaming services offer a limitless world of music for $9.99 a month. That is compelling.

On the other hand, news on the web has been stubborn, with only a few publishers able to create viable paywalls.

Much like news, podcasts are free. It is a high bar to ask people to pay for something that has been free, and a higher bar asking those who have yet to listen to podcasts to pay. That rises from bar to long shot.

One of my millennial adult children, an avid podcast listener, had been a regular listener of David Axelrod’s “Axe Files” podcast. He recently learned that the show will be exclusive behind Luminary’s paywall. His comment; “I have too many other good choices - goodbye Axe.”

As more people link the word “subscribe’ to a credit card, the word will become even more confusing. Already today, 4 out of 10 non-podcast listeners are turned off by it.

As you market your podcasts, strongly consider amending your language to “subscribe for free.”

Time will tell whether podcasters will “subscribe” to that theory.

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Steven GoldsteinComment