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Ever since he cut his ties to The Daily Beast/Newsweek and launched his political blog The Daily Dish as a subscription-driven site earlier this year, Andrew Sullivan has been refreshingly transparent about how his new venture is going, with repeated updates about the number of subscribers, the number of conversions from free to paid, and so on — far more than we get from the average traditional media outlet with a paywall. And while he may not have met his ultimate goal of raising $900,000, he already has a lot to brag about.
As my GigaOM/paidContent colleague Laura Owen noted in a post based on Sullivan’s latest update, after six months of offering subscriptions, the Daily Dish has managed to raise a total of $715,000 from about 28,000 digital subscribers. The political blogger’s stated goal when he launched the site was to raise $900,000 — a figure Sullivan said would make it possible to pay for all the servers and bandwidth the site uses, but also to pay some of his staff (and himself) a salary, since he has a number of editors.
Subscriptions have slowed sharply
Based on the numbers so far, Sullivan admits in his post that there’s some doubt about whether he will ultimately get there, since most of those who have contributed did so in the very early days of the subscription campaign and the curve has fallen off rapidly since. The Dish blogger raised almost half of the money he has already taken in within the first 24 hours, and collected over $600,000 in the first two months — which means subscription revenue has only grown by about 17 percent in the past four months.
Sullivan notes that almost as many readers have hit the maximum of five “read-ons” — clickthroughs that go from a free excerpt to the full version of a post — as have signed up for subscriptions, meaning his base of paying readers would double overnight if all of those people decided to subscribe (and it should be noted that the Dish’s posts about reader numbers aren’t just about transparency, but also about hitting people up for money).
The Dish blogger has also described in the past how he has tried to tweak the “read-on” wall in an attempt to find a balance between appealing to new readers and turning readers into subscribers.
Despite those efforts, however, the Dish’s conversion rate has remained stubbornly fixed at about 2.5 percent — although Sullivan also notes that this is higher than the typical conversion rate for media paywalls (some paywalls have conversion rates of 1 percent or lower). Assuming that the conversion rate remains the same for the next six months, Sullivan says it seems increasingly unlikely that he will hit his revenue goal by the end of the year.
In a way, Sullivan has already succeeded
So if The Daily Dish doesn’t hit that $900,000 goal, does that mean Sullivan’s experiment is a failure? I don’t think so. For one thing, as the Dish blogger points out in his post, even if he only hits the $815,000 that he is currently projecting based on existing sign-up rates, that is still as large as the Dish’s annual budget was when it was a part of The Daily Beast/Newsweek — and that’s not too shabby at all. The blogger has also noted that he went for a larger goal than was actually necessary in order to build in some comfort room.
Not only that, but Sullivan has already shown that it is possible for a single blogger with a devoted fan base to launch a solo effort (albeit one supported by an editorial team of about eight) and make more than three-quarters of a million dollars directly from readers, without having to carry any advertising whatsoever. That’s a pretty remarkable achievement in itself. And there’s always the chance that offering some well-targeted ads could boost the revenue significantly, something Sullivan has said in the past that he is open to.
Duplicating this solo blogger model may not be possible for everyone — just as raising $1 million for a new album on Kickstarter may not be possible for every musician — but I think Sullivan’s success so far has to be a pretty optimistic sign for direct-to-reader business models. Now all we need are more experiments providing the kind of transparency that the Dish blogger has.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Albert Chau