Numbers games

Subs quotas are better in theory than reality

The shift from analog to digital provided a wealth of performance metrics that could, in theory, be used to evaluate the contributions to the business made by the content side. In an ad model, the idea was you could simply focus on pageviews. After all, every publisher managed to RPM (revenue per thousand pageviews), this could match up quite nicely. Gawker was a proponent of this approach. The popularization of Chartbeat put this information squarely in front of reporters. Gawker famously had a big board showing pageview totals. In the mid-2010s, pageview mania swept digital publishing, sending a generation of young journalists into the content mine to write listicle drivel aimed at Google and Facebook algorithms. These were not happy times.

Subscriptions provided an antidote to this pageview-oriented approach by making the content the product. After all, people are paying for the content, so there’s a clear number to use as a KPI. Some publishers have taken their pageview quota approach, which they pass off as “goals,” and ported it over to subscriptions, where most strategies have been focused on piling on big subscriber numbers.

At Insider, “metrics reform” is even a main demand from its union. It’s never a great sign when union members are posting complaint flyers about how “my fate at the company relies on my ability to continue pulling in subs” and lamenting, “I am not alone in feeling anxious over numbers.”

I can understand the impulse to turn to numbers. They’re neutral and get around known problems with qualitative assessments, where bias and politics can creep in. A publisher wants to reward those who are driving the business forward vs coasting along (or, apparently, treating Sunday “as the new Saturday” and spending Monday hungover). But subscription quotas – sorry, goals that determine whether you keep your job – are a long-term mistake for a few basic reasons.

They reward the wrong things. The problem with pageview quotas is they incentivized clickbait. You just needed to get someone to click. Success was a good headline, not a valuable insight that built loyalty. Similarly, subscription quotas invariably overemphasize last click, not what led up to that click. People are paying for access to a bundle of content, not a discrete piece of content. Subscription quotas reward just what got someone over the line, not all that led up to the decision. Ironically, this is the same screwed-up attribution approaches advertisers take that publishers endlessly grouse about.) That incentivizes a reporter to produce the type of content that will push someone over the line, like an honorific list. As one reporter groused to me, it disincentivizes beat reporting that’s foundational for long-term success.

Motivations are different for editorial people. I find a lot of operator and business-side types don’t understand what motivates reporters and editors. Their frame of reference is typically sales. With sales people, it’s all about money. If there’s a strategic area that needs more focus even though the sale is harder, you give added rewards to people selling this. Let me tell you, that doesn’t happen in editorial. More to the point, most top journalists are driven by wanting to do good work, not by the thrill of chasing numbers. Hanging a metric over people’s heads like a sword of Damocles is going to distract more than motivate. It’s not an effective strategy to retain the best people and get the best results in the long run.

Quotas are morale killers. Regularly producing content is hard. It’s a grind, filled with anxieties and constant deadlines. Ask any ex-journalist, they’ll tell you that their newsroom job was far harder and stressful. There’s a reason journalists can be over-caffeinated and grumpy. Quotas exacerbate that to a degree where the upside doesn’t outweigh the downside. One reporter recently told me, “It totally has sapped my motivation. I really hate it. Just feels like you’re trying to do good work in spite of the system.”

To that final point, we are seeing a broad revolt against humans (and their labor) being reduced to cells on a spreadsheet. I used to ride my bike by a church in Miami that had a sign reading, “People don’t define your worth.” I’d replace that with spreadsheets. It’s neat to reduce people to metrics – and it makes you, the manager, seem smart and strategic – but in the long run, all this talk of quiet quitting is a symptom of the alienation many feel from their labors.

I’ve found visible metrics a useful input in measuring performance, but one of many. I was more inclined to focus on habits that tend to lead to good results vs just the results themselves, which can be affected by many factors outside the control of the worker.

The flip side of the numbers game is that advertisers too flee to the safety of spreadsheets in times of uncertainty.

Back in 2003 and 2004, I wrote for Direct Marketing News, writing about the areas of internet marketing still growing quickly in the aftermath of the dot-com meltdown: direct response ad networks, email marketing and search advertising. I had a colleague who only wrote about the postal service, since it was critical to catalogers. The direct marketing industry was a strange world filled with all kinds of no-nonsense characters and also some scammers and those operating on the fringes. (I learned to not trust any email marketing firm based in Florida.) Direct marketing was by far the least sexy area of marketing, a far cry from the glitzy TV ad campaigns that were synonymous with “above the line” brand building.

Along the way, direct marketing ate brand advertising. The rise of measurable outcomes provided by Google and others gave rise to a reimagined “performance marketing” that aspired to only pay for outcomes. After all, who wouldn’t want to pay $1 for $5 in sales? But only focusing on the bottom of the funnel loses sight of what marketing has always been about. Steve Jobs was probably the preeminent marketer of the modern era. He understood that the role of marketing was to make a statement about what a company stood for. I came across his introduction of the 1997 “Think Different” campaign that marked the beginning of his turnaround of the company after he returned from exile.

“Our customers wanted to know, who is Apple, what do we stand for, and where do we fit in this world? What we’re about isn’t making boxes for people to get their jobs done, although we do that well. Apple’s about something more than that. Apple’s core value is that we believe people with passion can change the world for the better. That’s what we believe.”

What Jobs understood is that in a sea of sameness you needed to have conviction that is more than winning on “speeds and feeds.” I roll my eyes as much as anyone at the blather about the Big Idea and “storytelling” out of ad agency creatives, but it seems the avalanche of visible metrics has led to a lot of lazy marketing that confuses paying for outcomes with building sustainable brands that mean something to people.

Besides, as Ozy showed and is regularly displayed by publishers juicing their numbers, just because it looks good on a spreadsheet doesn’t mean it’s valuable.

On the topic of metrics, The Rebooting supporter House of Kaizen helps publishers build more sustainable businesses with best practices and experimentation for better acquisition, retention and lifetime value. House of Kaizen founding partner Matt Cronin explains why the most obvious number often isn’t the right one to focus on in the long run.

Growth measured on a count of subscribers is ultimately unsustainable. The value of each user to the business varies significantly in subscription products, requiring the discipline of revenue-based evaluation and optimization to drive meaningful and sustainable growth. Each stage of the subscriber journey should be expected to contribute revenue and thus CLV, with targets defined by dollars rather than other measures.

Get in touch with Matt to learn more about how House of Kaizen helps major publishers and marketers build sustainable subscriptions programs.


The ad market is wobbly in a time of uncertainty, proving once again that CFOs ignore all the LinkedIn Cassandras warning against cutting spending. Vox’s Peter Kafka unpacks the mystery of why spending is down ahead of the economy going south. The answer is probably a mix of the candidates Peter lays out, but I suspect our current economic picture is so unusual – persistent inflation, a 180 on monetary policy, yet nearly full employment – that it has heightened anxiety about what lies ahead next year.

Subscriptions are more resilient in uncertain times, but they’re not immune to the business cycle – just ask Netflix. Jack Marshall at Toolkits goes so far as to say “flat is the new up,” while noting that other forms of monetization, including commerce, are also under pressure. Uncertainty sucks.

The safest place in publishing is having a direct connection with the audience. The eventual deprecation of the third-party cookie means unknown audiences will become less valuable. That is why the most sustainable publishing models will be underpinned by deep understanding of their audiences.

Search has powered the rise of the internet. And yet it hasn’t changed all that much. There was a time when Google competitors dismissed it as a boring list of “10 blue links,” which has slowly changed as Google has added more media types (and scraped lots of content it doesn’t own). Now, Google is planning a more “immersive” search experience of “visual forward” search results. (Also check out Alex Kantrowitz’s discussion with Google search head Prabhakar Raghavan on the Big Technology podcast.) For publishers, the risk to this pivot – maybe hastened by evidence of younger users turning to TikTok and other methods for search – is that it ends up siphoning off high-value intent traffic. The most profitable model of digital publishing remains creating evergreen content that ranks highly in Google.

Substack has produced a small set of breakout hits. Packy McCormick is one. His Not Boring newsletter now has 155,000 subscribers and open rates nearing 50%. The weird part of his success for Substack: Not Boring’s business model doesn’t include subscriptions but instead relies on sponsorships and as a feeder to an investment fund. This type of lean media model will become more common.

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