six colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

The subscription paradox

When Todd Vaziri recently updated his chart of the length of John Gruber’s The Talk Show—which prompted me to update my chart of The Incomparable’s length—I’ve been reminded of something I learned from my days in the magazine industry. As P.T. Barnum (presumably) said, “Leave them wanting more.”

This isn’t showbiz claptrap—it’s a real effect. What makes someone a happy magazine subscriber, newsletter reader, or television viewer is the feeling that you’re consuming all of something you enjoy. You get to the end and still wish there were more, making you anticipate the next installment.

There are two danger zones. The first is if people just don’t like what you’re making. That’s an obvious one. If they’re not buying what you’re selling, you’ll lose them as a customer, and rightly so.

But then there’s another, less obvious danger zone: People who like your stuff but just can’t finish it all. You’d think that this shouldn’t matter, that if you only ever consume half of everything but enjoy it all, that should be good enough. But it’s not. Most people hate feeling that they’re not using everything they’re paying for. (I know the feeling, at least when it comes to Dropbox storage.)

I’ve had this described to me as “The New Yorker Problem.” People who enjoy reading The New Yorker still cancel their subscriptions, because they’ve got a few issues piled up. When we were designing the digital edition of PCWorld magazine after the print edition shut down, we spent a lot of time debating what the ideal magazine length should be. We could’ve put all the stuff we were generating on the web in there, making it seem like a great value… but it would’ve resulted in enormous issues that few, if any, readers could get through.

I’ve had the same experience with newsletters I’ve subscribed to on the Internet. I get a few daily newsletters, and I like them, but the fact that I just can’t find the time to read every one of them makes me frustrated. Yes, it would literally make me a happier subscriber if they gave me less of what I’m paying for. Any more and it might be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

This may not be entirely logical, but I believe it’s true. And that’s one of the reasons I’ve tried to bend the average run time of The Incomparable, which was at one point threatening to break 90 minutes, back toward an hour. Of course, some people would love it if we’d do two hours every week—but I feel like we’d be risking overstaying our welcome if we did that. I don’t want episodes to pile up. If you get many episodes behind on a podcast, unsubscribing starts to seem like a logical next step.

It’s something for all of us who create things on the Internet to keep in mind: People have a near-infinite supply of content at their disposal now. We should be respectful of their time and always leave them wanting more. There is such a thing as “too much of a good thing.”

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