Credit: Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

An era for publishers has ended, not with a bang, but a whimper in traffic from social media. In recent weeks Axios reported how Facebook traffic is dwindling at the same time that X has removed the link preview in a bid to keep users from clicking away. In 2011, we thought "The Revolution would be Tweeted." Today, we are starting to see that the future may be bundled.

In an era where the term 'subscription fatigue' has found its way into the modern lexicon, the New York Times has performed what can only be described as alchemy, with the addition of nearly 200,000 subscribers last quarter.

This modern-day Midas touch is not accidental; it is the result of a calculated and thoughtful strategy about subscription bundling. The company's president and chief executive said in a statement that more than a third of the nearly 10 million subscribers were now subscribed to more than one Times product.

In short, bundles provide a mix of content types at an appealing price point that can bring in different audience segments while retaining existing ones.

Why the bundle works for customers

Let’s take off our journalism hats for a moment and adopt the perspective of consumers. The success of bundling is a result of human psychology and the desire for convenience, variety, and a perceived increase in value.

It is the allure of a well-curated mixtape over a single song, the charm of a bouquet over a solitary rose. Bundling taps into the psychological principles of expedience and perceived value. It offers not just a newspaper or a newsletter, but a mosaic of content that, like a well-balanced meal, leaves the subscriber satiated and nourished.

When presented with a thoughtfully curated bundle, subscribers appreciate the simplicity of getting all their favorite products from a single source. The act of bundling signals to the consumer that the products complement each other and are designed to be consumed together.

A bundle also caters to our appetite for more variety and options within a set range. The paradox of choice on the internet leaves us wondering if we will ever get to the bottom, whereas a bundle provides enough variety without overwhelming.

A consolidated price point creates an impression that a subscriber is getting more-for-less compared to purchasing each product individually.

Why the bundle works for brands

A bundle means more branded touchpoints, more brand offerings and ultimately means a subscriber feels more connected to the brand. By creating an ecosystem a reader can become more immersed in a publisher's offerings. It strengthens the relationship and builds loyalty.

What we have seen at Subtext is that the number one reason people unsubscribe from a news publisher is not that the cost became too burdensome, but rather because they were no longer being engaged by the brand. In short, they get bored. When the bill comes, they cannot remember what value they get and decide to cancel.

Whether it is an exclusive text channel, podcast or newsletter, creating more touch points specifically for subscribers can quickly turn into a sense of vibrancy. A news brand that does not have a meaningful brand engagement once a week is doomed to lose subscribers. Moreover, it is hard to imagine "social media" brand engagements will remain "meaningful" indefinitely.

In other words, bundles allow publishers to elevate their brand, cultivate first-party data and community, all while creating a VIP experience that reinforces subscriber retention.

Bundling for growth

Recently the Wall Street Journal debuted a new podcast targeting "Joe Sixpack". Another benefit of the bundle is that it allows a publisher to target different audience segments and find value in the overlap.

"Segment overlap" - as it’s called by the MBA types - allows an organisation to make 2 + 2 = 5.

Thinking strategically about how to bunny-hop from one segment you are already targeting to another with a product that brings value to an existing segment is another art in itself. That can easily pay dividends.

This is where creating audience personas is invaluable. As you create a new persona, you can start to imagine where they overlap with existing audience personas and from there you can fill in the gap.

The Journal probably sees a few (but jumpable) degrees of separation between "Joe Six Pack" and the typical subscriber.   

Trend or future?

It is possible that the decline in social traffic is temporary. But the wind started shifting years ago. Publishers and consumers alike seem ready to move on.

Meanwhile, the subscription bundle is probably not a panacea, but it does feel like part of whatever the next chapter is for publishers moving forward. What is the nature of value in a digital age? Is it in the singularity of products or the richness of experience?

I run a text group of digital media thinkers and I asked them for thoughts.

Yoni Greenbaum, COO at Lehigh Valley Public Media says: "I love the bundle idea, but the pieces need to be local. Plugging in Disney+ or a Verizon discount is not going to resonate on the local level like a bundle that included access to fitness facilities at the local university or discount membership to the local Y or a free beer every month at the local microbrewery. It should all be about bringing value to the ask and if you are a local news provider, the benefits (or bundle) should be local as well."

Here are the rest of their replies.

David Cohn is the co-founder and chief strategy officer of Subtext, and senior director of Advance Digital, where he leads the 'Alpha Group,' an internal research and development team. He spent seven years as a freelance journalist, writing for titles including Wired, The New York Times, Seed Magazine, Quartz and Columbia Journalism Review.

Free daily newsletter

If you like our news and feature articles, you can sign up to receive our free daily (Mon-Fri) email newsletter (mobile friendly).