On the new business model of The Brooks Review

July 12, 2012

Yesterday, Ben Brooks announced a change to the business model of his site, The Brooks Review. Essentially, Ben is switching to a membership-based model, which means he is leaving ads behind and from now on his site will rely solely on reader support to sustain itself.

This is great for everybody. It means readers won’t see any annoying ads, and it also means that his freedom to write whatever he wants will no longer be influenced (if only ever so slightly) by whoever’s paying for the RSS feed sponsorship that week. It’s a win-win. As a bonus, he now has a great opportunity to build a deeper, more personal relationship with his readers.

But there’s a catch. As great as the membership model may be for one individual author or one individual site, it scales poorly. The Brooks Review is a great site, but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It has to share the vast realms of the Internet with many other sites that are very closely related, and that’s when things start getting ugly.

Don’t get me wrong, I love The Brooks Review, and every day I read every single post, link, or quote that Ben publishes. I would love to become a member and support his writing.

But here’s the thing: I also love Shawn Blanc’s site. As I do Minimal Mac, Daring Fireball, Marco Arment’s blog, MG Siegler’s blog, Andy Ihnatko’s blog, Matt Gemmel’s site, Rands in Repose, and many other wonderful sites that every day address very similar issues and topics. Do you see where the problem is? No matter how much I love these sites, if all of them decided to switch to the membership model, there’s just no way I could afford to support each and every one of them. And that sucks.

In the interest of full transparency, I am currently a supporting member of Shawn’s site, as well as a patron of Patrick Rhone’s work. I also own every single T-shirt that Michael Lopp has offered (and his two books), and several Daring Fireball T-Shirts. Clearly I have no problem paying for good content. But good content needs to be reasonably priced, and while it is certainly fair to argue that $4 per month is a good deal for one site (and indeed I agree), the numbers grow pretty quickly as you read more. Just for reference, a yearly subscription to the digital edition of The New Yorker works out at about $5/month, less than the aggregate membership price of just Shawn and Ben’s sites, which is $7.

Then there’s another, potentially even more damaging issue: up until very recently, these sites have enjoyed a virtuous circle in which they link and drive traffic and readers to each other. They often chime in on the latest news, comment on each other’s posts and so on. Many of them are actually friends and even business partners (as is the case with Shawn and Ben). This has been overwhelmingly positive for all of these sites, and also for their readers, because the conversation has been wonderful to follow. They are, essentially, partners working towards the same goal: the bigger their collective audience, the more interested potential sponsors will be, which will drive sponsorship prices substantially up. Everyone wins.

However, this can only work if the vast majority of these sites rely on ads to support themselves. If one or two are member-based then there’s some tension but the whole thing still works. But if enough of them turn to a membership model, then the picture changes: suddenly they’re no longer partners, they’re competitors. My $4 (or whatever amount I’m willing to spend) can only go to so many places. For example, from now on Shawn and Ben will be in direct competition for their readers' money. How will this affect them? I don’t know. You may say that it will motivate them and drive quality up, which is certainly possible. But most readers will still be punished (in Shawn’s case by missing the wonderful Shawn Today, and in Ben’s case by having to wait seven days to read the latest articles), unless they go all out and become members of all sites. Again, not ideal because the aggregate price is not so affordable.

The key thing here is that a significant percentage of their readership is shared across sites: their collective audience is big, but their individual audiences may not be so big (admittedly, I don’t know this but it seems a logical assumption). By forcing their readers to choose, they’re playing a dangerous game. A game in which the first player to move may seem the smartest one, but if everyone follows then the game is ruined for all of them. Maybe Ben’s worked out the numbers and in his case the risk is worth it, but it’s still a risk, and that’s worth mentioning.

What I suggest is simple: Introduce an additional membership option, collectively shared across all membership-based sites. Kind of like Fusion Ads, but for readers instead of sponsors. Charge something like $10 for full access to all sites, and then split the money across participating sites evenly, or however they think it’s fair. Like I said, some of these guys are already friends and even business partners. They should be able to make it work. As for the readers that only want to support one site, they can continue to do so via the current membership options. This way everyone wins, and the virtuous circle continues. Nobody gets punished and everyone gets exactly what they want.

I think this could be a good opportunity for them, and I really hope they eventually come up with something like this. Even with Shawn and Ben’s sites only, it could work. If you add Patrick, Marco and the rest to the mix, things would only get better. Think about what a great experience that would be. I’m sure many readers would be happy to contribute. I know I would, in a heartbeat.

UPDATE: As mentioned by Patrick Rhone in an email, what I suggest here is not too different from the current Read and Trust network, of which I’m also an active supporter. The only difference is that the network provides access to additional content that is not available anywhere else, including the authors' websites. For this reason I tend to think of the network as an independent entity that works well on its own. It is a nice place for those readers, like myself, who are interested in the authors' work and want to go beyond what’s available on their sites.

Would it be a good idea to include full access to the authors' sites as part of the Read and Trust membership? Maybe, if the numbers allow it. From a reader’s perspective, the more integration there is, the better. But a completely integrated model may not work out well for the authors financially. The key thing and the challenge is, I think, to find the balance that allows for a great reader experience while at the same time generating enough income to support their hard work.

UPDATE 2: You can listen to Shawn and Ben’s take on this article in this week’s episode of The B&B; Podcast. The whole episode is great, and they answer a lot of questions about this issue, not just mine. They start talking about this article around the 0:55' mark.

Thanks guys for taking the time to discuss this article!