In what is a fairly significant development, Google has announced the launch of “Subscribe with Google” a service which allows news publishers to offer subscription services to users. Subscribe with Google will allow a seamless sign-in and payment flow via the Google account, and payments via credit card. At the launch, Philipp Schindler, Chief Business Officer at the company said that this is a small revenue share deal, with a large percentage going to the publisher. Responding to MediaNama’s question, the company declined to elaborate on the specifics of the revenue share, about whether there is a standardised revenue share, or on who can sign up: whether it’s an open service that any blog can offer to its readers. What Richard Gingras, VP (News) at Google did say was, that the revenue share covers the costs of the operation, and that the focus is on News coverage (as opposed to blogs).

 

Subscribe with Google Miami Herald

What’s being rolled out is a base product for subscription: responding to a question, Gingras said that the company might want to look at how they might accommodate memberships in terms of subscription carousel, given that subscription vs membership is a subtle change. In the same manner, bundling of multiple publications could be possible, but that would depend on the willingness from the publications to partner for bundling.

At launch, Bonita Stewart, VP (Global Partnerships) for the search giant said that they’re launching with 17 partners, with partners from US, Mexico, Brazil, UK, Japan, Australia, and have 59 publishers in all in their subscriptions working group. Note that there are no subscriptions in India yet, but Google does have a payments product in the country: Google Tez, which uses UPI.

Google piloted this with Financial Times and the Washington Post. Once a reader subscribes, they’ll remain signed in across devices and the web. What’s just as important is that Google is bringing the power of its search to subscriptions: if you’re a subscriber, a separate carousel will be visible to users, with relevant news from your subscriptions. A user can manage all of her subscriptions directly from her Google account.

Conversion of free readers to paid subscribers

Google used to have a First Click Free approach to inclusion of subscription-based sites in search results. This required publishers to provide a limited amount of free content to Google Search users on a daily basis. Last October, Google replaced this with a Free Sampling approach, with publishers getting greater flexibility in terms of how much content readers can sample. This helps address the top of the subscriber acquisition funnel, Gade Lahav, head of product at FT.com explained. FT.com has around 920,000 paying customers, of which a vast majority – 720,000, are digital only. FT.com has a daily readership of 1.9 million, with a strict paywall.

“Our model is around habit”, Lahav said. “People pay monthly recurring payments, for their habit, and the approach to help them is form a habit, enhance a habit, and then pay to keep habit. Free content is necessary for forming a habit. There’s a clear tradeoff. If you increase the free content, then more people will start forming a habit. If you decrees the amount of free content, then fewer people will enter the funnel.”

For FT.com, it was initially 3/day. During the testing period, “We started two per day and saw no change. We went to 1 per day and saw a single digit uplift in conversions, and Google flagged an impact (Editor: a reduction) on the top of the funnel. We went to 3 free articles per month, and saw positive impact at the bottom, at double-digit, but major impact on top of the funnel. Blocking people altogether leads to the top of the funnel becomes a problem.”

“We want to maximise the impact at the end of the funnel, without too much of an impact on the top of the funnel.” They came up with a model: sample for the vast majority, narrow usage and block for a tiny but fruitful minority. This allows publishers to move away from a one size fits all approach to subscription.

This approach to conversions is also being aided with a new dashboard for publishers that sits on top of Google Analytics. Typically Google Analytics has been designed for e-commerce and conversions. The News Consumer Insights dashboard helps publishers analyse usage through a subscriptions perspective. What is being developed is a “propensity to subscribe” signal, which uses Machine Learning to identify audience segments in terms of opportunity. A first time visitor is unlikely to subscribe and sees the free article. The regular customer sees premium offer.

MediaNama’s take

1. What this does is open up a fresh revenue stream for Google, as an alternative to advertising. This is not new to Google, which has subscription products on the Google Play Store, and
2. Given the current environment, where platforms – especially Facebook – are under scrutiny over the impact they’re having on news, Google is positioning itself as an entity that works with publishers to enable revenue for them, rather than one that takes revenue away from them. Schinder’s emphasis on the idea that “The future of Google and that of our publishing partners are fundamentally linked” was not without reason.
3. Why Google isn’t expanding subscription beyond News is odd, just as their opacity regarding revenue shares. What stops them from instituting and disclosing a standard revenue share?
4. This is probably a death-knell for independent publisher support/subscription services. Google can easily expand this to adopt models for micro-payment and patronage. It’s only a matter of time and volition.
5. The missed opportunity here, for Google, is that of expanding the analytics dashboard to cover other elements which publishers need: for which they are currently relying on Chartbeat and/or Parsely. Google Analytics, powerful as it is, clunky and not mean for publishing. The new dashboard helps with conversions – thus another e-commerce approach to analytics – but not necessarily meant for newsrooms. More information there might help expand the funnel for publishers.