Publishers, here's how to get users to subscribe to your content

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As digital media companies, publications and streaming services increasingly look toward subscription, successfully transitioning existing audiences to paid users can be an intimidating—and an often commercially ill-fated—undertaking.

I would know. CollegeHumor has experienced great and not-so-great outcomes with pay walls.

In 2016, we launched "Bad Internet," one of the first scripted shows on YouTube's Premium subscription service. We sprung it on our fans, shoved a trailer in their feeds and simply asked them to pay. We overestimated ourselves: Even though the show was beloved behind the pay wall, it converted new subscribers poorly.

When we set our sights on launching CollegeHumor's comedy subscription service Dropout, we needed a plan that earned the trust of our skeptical audience and got them excited to pay for content they already received for free.

With these objectives, we launched a campaign built around a longtime CollegeHumor Illuminati gag. We planted "secret codes" around our content and social channels wherever an Illuminati symbol appeared (yes, really). The more codes a person collected, the more teaser content he or she could unlock on a hidden website we created. Just as momentum peaked, we announced our subscription service with a video explaining comedically what we were up to. We braced ourselves. Participating fans flocked to the video, which helped it clock a 97 percent like-to-dislike ratio and north of 1 million views in its first seven days. Subscribers to Dropout came flooding in and haven't slowed down since.

Audiences are willing to pay for content. The trick, we've learned, is picking a clear lane and sticking to it with transparency and authenticity. After going through this process, here are a few takeaways for introducing a subscription model successfully.

Create and state the value proposition clearly

Understand where your brand falls on the video-on-demand market spectrum. Are you trying to be an all-things-to-all-people service like a Netflix or are you on the opposite side of the spectrum with a more tribal following? On the tribal end, audiences might prioritize community as much as content. Pinpointing your lane helps focus you in on the value proposition.

As our "secret codes" campaign came to life, we joined our fans on Reddit, responding to their feedback in real time. That was the entry point into an anchor component of our subscription offering: a members-only Discord. Focusing on this said to our audience, "You're not simply paying for a streaming service, you're allowing us to connect you with like-minded fans who share the same worldview." The value proposition registered instantly.

Be transparent

While Gen Z audiences value mission-driven companies, what we might gloss over is how much they value openness and transparency. Audiences not only want to know who the creators are behind a channel, but what's influencing their creative and commercial decisions. If that veil can be thinned, and the objectives explained in a straightforward way, it's more likely to be embraced. When we explained our rationale for introducing a pay wall to audiences—funding content first and foremost for our audience—they got it and responded positively.

Speak to audiences the way they speak to each other

In our announcement video, we were open and self-deprecating, a notable feature of our content, while also describing the features and benefits of the product. While not for everyone, the tongue-in-cheek nature of our approach gave fans a reason to root for us. We let our guard down and even joked that some of them would call us sellouts (yep, again) but it played to our benefit. The communication style said we understood and could relate to them (and some of their troll-like instincts).

Be adaptive and reactive

Simply put, shit can go wrong. Your announcement could go sideways; be ready to adjust along the way. Mid-campaign, our secret site was hacked, exposing the codes and teaser content. Instead of abandoning the idea, we made more codes and filmed a humorous reaction video to course correct. Our team was always on, watching the conversations unfold in Reddit threads and Discord, answering fans in real time, which made them feel even more connected to our brand as the pay wall was erected.

There's no perfect formula to launching a subscription service, but the biggest mistake we've seen is when a brand fails to pick a clear lane with explicit intentions. Formulate a value proposition that meets the needs of your particular audience segment, state it clearly and make sure that every decision across product, marketing and content is met with that same filter.

True fans respond positively to authenticity, honesty, transparency and originality. If you build it—and build it well—they will come.

Shane Rahmani is chief business officer of CH Media

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