Mac Musings

If They Come, Will We Bill Them?

Daniel Knight - 2002.02.11 -

Looking at the handful of sites on the Mac Web offering subscriptions, Dean Browell asks, "If we bill them, will they come?"

He's asking the wrong question.

The question should be, "If they come regularly, will they support us?"

As one of four sites to recently add a subscription system, I'm disappointed that Browell didn't differentiate between what MacFixIt is doing (restricting access to some content) and what the other three sites are doing (offering free access to all content - but without the ads for subscribers).

Neither MacSurfer, the Mac Observer, nor Low End Mac has shown any intention of ever blocking access to our regular site content. In fact, Low End Mac has gone on record as refusing to play that game. If people want free access with ads or ad-free access for a fee, it's their choice.

Each of the four sites is different. MacFixIt has some real gems in their archives, including a lot of freely supplied reader feedback on troubleshooting issues. They know it's valuable, but now they've locked it in a vault where only those willing to pay the price of admission can see it.

MacSurfer is a regular stop for Mac junkies looking for a news fix several times a day. It's an invaluable resource simply because so many visit it. About 8.5% of last month's traffic to Low End Mac came through links on MacSurfer. I'm sure other sites are equally indebted to the Mac Web's leading headline news service.

But MacSurfer knows they have competition. Mac Minute could be viewed as the leading alternative to MacSurfer's headline news service, with MyAppleMenu a dark horse alternative. If MacSurfer required a subscription, one of these - or possibly a completely new site - would take most of their visitors.

So MacSurfer isn't charging for content. It is offering regular visitors the opportunity to support the site and receive ad-free access.

The Mac Observer (TMO) is in a similar situation, offering a good mixture of news and commentary. There are maybe a dozen sites, small and large, competing in their niche. Each has something to distinguish it, but going subscriber-only would lead to a huge exodus of viewers from TMO to other sites.

So TMO isn't charging for content. It is offering regular visitors the opportunity to support the site and receive ad-free access.

Low End Mac has carved out a fairly unique niche. We have Mac profiles (like at least three other sites), editorial content (like hundreds of Mac sites), run about 30 Mac-related email lists (only one other site comes close), and have a habit of linking promiscuously to other sites because we know there's a lot of good content out there. But if we charged for access, most of our visitors would go to EveryMac, Applelinks, Mac Opinion, and other sites offering useful technical information and/or editorial content.

So Low End Mac isn't charging for content. It is offering regular visitors the opportunity to support the site and receive ad-free access.

We need to do this because we depend on the income from our site, as do some of our writers. Unlike Applelust and many hobbyist sites, we don't run Low End Mac as a spare time operation. This is my livelihood, and at least one of my writers (Charles W. Moore) makes his living by the written word.

It's a Business

A little over a year ago, ads on the site provided all the income we needed - and then some. Then came the dot-com collapse.

In late 2000, we averaged 400-500,000 pages per month and took in over $4,000 each month - sometimes well over that amount. Our net (after paying the firm that manages the ads for us, and including affiliate and list sponsorship fees) was roughly $10 for every thousand pages served.

Based on site growth patterns, we anticipated serving a million pages in January 2002. Even if ad rates were cut in half, we'd have a pretty steady source of income. Last month we did meet that projection, serving a million pages.

But the harsh realities of the dot-com collapse didn't cut ad rates in half. They decimated them. All things considered, we're pulling in maybe $3 for every thousand pages served - maybe.

That runs us at a deficit of $500 to $1,500 per month. We've asked for and received donations from site supporters. They know the value of the site to them and donated anywhere from $1.50 to $200. That generated over $4,000 last year, which helped keep Low End Mac alive.

So did cutting my pay twice, taking a part-time job outside the house, and reducing what we pay our writers.

Offering ad-free subscriptions won't lead to a subscriber-only system. The goal of Low End Mac has always been to provide the best resources on the Web for free (that includes the links to outside content - we know we don't have it all on our site). But someone has to pay the piper, and ad rates continue their downward spiral.

We have several options:

  1. Shut down the site and "get a real job."
  2. Get a full-time job and try to keep LEM going as a hobby site.
  3. Sell Low End Mac - but what's it worth when ad rates are so low?
  4. Find investors - although it would be a hard sell with constantly dropping ad rates.
  5. Stick it out in hopes ad rates will increase.
  6. Beg for donations constantly.
  7. Push supplemental income - sell mugs and T-shirts, promote affiliate programs, find good deals on software and memory I can resell, etc.
  8. Turn LEM into a subscriber-only site, lose 95-98% of our visitors, and hope that the number of subscribers times the amount charged (less overhead) generates the income we need. Abandon all hope of attracting new subscribers once the site is subscriber-only.
  9. Use a micropayment system where visitors have to pay a penny for every page viewed or a nickel to access archived content. Lose most of our visitors.
  10. Knowing how loyal some visitors are, implement a subscription system that lets them support our site while at the same time receiving additional benefits other visitors don't receive. In our case, that's ad-free content and discounted prices on Low End Mac merchandise.

All the evidence says that less than 1% of visitors will become subscribers. Salon nearly hit the 1% mark after a year; I don't anticipate doing better than that. But 1% of 240,000 visitors (our tally for January) is 2,400. Round that down to a nice even 2,000 subscribers the first year at a net (after overhead and charter subscriber discounts) of $12 per subscriber, and you've got maybe $2,000 a month coming in from subscriptions.

When your bare bones budget is $3,000 a month and ad income has been well under $2,000 a month, that's lucrative. When you really want to pay your writers what they're worth (all had their rates cut once or twice last year, and I cut my salary twice as well), you'd really like to run the site with a $4,000/month budget - and subscriptions just may make that possible.

Why We Do It

Most of us on the Mac Web are doing what we love to do - writing about something we're passionate about. A few of us have managed to turn that into a business, just as Jobs and Wozniak did with the Apple I. We've been through our beleaguered period; offering ad-free subscriptions may be for us what the return of Steve Jobs and introduction of the iMac were for Apple.

Content has value. If not, we wouldn't spend our time writing it, let alone publishing it. Nor would anyone read it, let alone come back regularly to do so. That's why people subscribe to print magazines, newspapers, premium cable channels, etc. That's why we believe a few regular visitors to Low End Mac will choose to subscribe each day.

We're not making anyone pay for access; we are giving those who recognize the value of our site the opportunity to financially support us and receive premium ad-free access in return.

The question isn't, "If we bill them, will they come?" Instead we should ask, "If they come regularly, will they support us?"

Knowing the spirit of the Mac community, we believe this "grand experiment" will succeed - a subscription rate of under 1% will completely change our situation.