Subscribers are widely regarded as the most valuable indicators of a blog or website’s success. When it comes to selling a blog, some pundits have valued 1 subscriber at around $35. That’s incredible. Whether they’re truly worth that much is a mystery, but it holds true that most of us look to our subscriber count as the primary yardstick of our progression.
The question I want to ask today is: should we be doing this? Much has been written by various bloggers — including myself — about trying to gather more subscribers. A lot less time has been dedicated to examining why we should be pursuing this goal. It’s assumed that subscribers are worth their weight in gold, but are they really?
I’m not setting out to prove or disprove the assumption. I want to test it, weigh up the pros and cons, and see what happens. As I write these words, I’m not sure what the outcome will be. I like subscribers. I hope they come out on top. But I can’t make any guarantees.
Form follows function
I’m concerned by untested assumptions. Are subscribers really important, or did we just decide they were important? Your subscriber count is a fun visualization — a badge you can wear, a number which can be volatile but, like blue-chip stocks, tends to increase over time. Part of me wonders if our veneration of the subscriber count started because of it’s game-like quality: blogging is the game and your subscriber count is the score. As humans, we like competing, we like to measure our success in numbers rather than an abstract sense of achievement.
I want to set aside my own fondness for the impetuous little subscriber count badge and work out if it really means as much as we think it does.
What is a subscriber… really?
Aside from the percentage of your subscriber count made up of bots and scrapers, each subscriber is an individual who’s elected to be notified every time you update your blog or website.
While it’s almost impossible to determine how your users interact with a subscription, we know one thing for sure: each subscriber means that at some point in the past an individual opted-in to voluntary interruptions from you. Something about your blog or website made them feel as if they didn’t want to leave it behind in the internet ether. They decided it was for keeps.
After that point, things get murkier. Email subscribers get posts emailed to them, but you don’t know whether they read them or delete them, or use a filter to send them straight to trash.
Those who follow you blog in a feed reader are also relatively mysterious. In Google Reader it takes a fraction of a second to skip a post and mark it ‘Read’ without looking at much more than the first few words of the headline. If you’re like me, most of the posts you’re delivered will be ignored in this fashion. Of 50 posts, I might only scan a handful. Most posts fall into the ‘Not relevant to me’ or the ‘I already know that’ category. Because there’s so little time involved in skipping past posts, I can stay subscribed to a blog even if I only read a fraction of its content– simply on the odd chance that it’ll eventually produce something I want to read.
Your feed readers could be:
- Ignoring all your posts and on the path to unsubscribing.
- Ignoring most of your posts and reading just a few.
- Reading most of your posts and ignoring a few.
- Reading all of your posts religiously.
It seems likely that most subscribers fall into either category 2 or 3.
What does this mean?
Not all subscribers are engaged readers. In fact, I suspect that the ‘Returning Visitor’ count is composed of more engaged readers (proportionally). If you load up a website enough times and find it has little to offer, you’ll probably delete the bookmark. It’s a lot easier to sweep irrelevant feed items under the rug.
Your ‘Returning Visitor’ count will also include feed readers who’ve visited your blog to comment, extract the link to your post or vote for you on social media. I’m not yet sure whether subscribers are over-rated, but I feel confident in saying that the ‘Returning Visitor’ metric is under-rated.
Though each subscriber is not necessarily a ‘perfect’ reader (as they’re often characterized), I think the subscriber count is a better indicator of whether you’re on the right track with your content than your number of daily uniques (DU). Your DU count is held under the sway of too many variables you can influence but not control: social media surges, in-bound links and search engine traffic. Your subscriber count will depend on the quality of your content and your niche alone. Your DU in the short-term might say nothing about the long-term story behind your blog — and where it’s heading.
If you’re publishing for a niche audience who don’t often use feed readers, it might be more worthwhile to measure your subscriber count in comparison to the subscriber count of other blogs in your niche.
If subscribers are not necessarily engaged, daily uniques are even more flippant. It’s almost inevitable that most of the social media and search engine traffic you receive isn’t interested in your content. The web still has work to do when it comes to delivering the right content to the right people.
As for measuring your blog’s progress, I’d argue that your subscriber count is more valuable than any other metric. Your daily unique count tells you only how many people found their way to your blog — even if they navigated away instantly. Your subscriber count gives you an idea of whether your content is appealing to your target audience. That’s invaluable.
I do, however, think that a blog’s subscriber count is possibly over-valued by on-site advertisers and buyers. Of course, this is one thing that tends to work in our advantage. Only a small proportion of feed readers click back to your blog (unless you use partial feeds, which will mean you have less subscribers overall, anyway).
When it comes to on-site advertising, page views are the most important measure — as well as whether your product is targeted to the blog or website’s audience. Despite this, prospective advertisers do seem to be impressed by a decent subscriber count — probably because they assume that it’s accompanied by a lot of traffic. They also want the benefits of being associated with a respected blog or website. From a buyer’s perspective, I think subscribers are over-rated. From a seller’s perspective, they remain highly valuable.
When it comes to buying blogs as assets (with the assumption that the blog will eventually recoup the price you paid for it and make a profit on top of that) I believe subscribers are strongly over-valued. A blog’s subscriber count says very little about its potential profitability. If you’re ever looking to buy a blog as an investment, the key question to ask is: how much does it make?
Another thing to consider: people subscribe because of content rather than premise. If you buy a blog with 500 subscribers there’s no guarantee those subscribers will stay after the previous author hands over the reigns.
From a seller’s perspective, though, your subscriber count can drastically increase the value of your blog even if your monthly earnings are insignificant. Blog buyers seem to believe subscribers will translate easily into dollars. I don’t think this is true at all, but demand creates value, and there’s a very high demand to buy blogs with an established subscriber base — particularly in niches commonly regarded as ‘money makers’, i.e. blogs about blogging, SEO, make money online, gadgets and so on.
My advice to anyone thinking about selling their blog is to do everything you can to increase your subscriber count and monthly earnings. My advice to anyone looking to buy a blog is to look at the monthly earnings and page views, and get proof that both figures provided are accurate.
A blog’s subscriber count is the best metric you can use to work out if your content is doing its job. If your count is plateauing, you may need to increase the quality of your content to get things moving again. If it’s falling, determine whether you’ve changed anything about your content (i.e. form, frequency, etc.) If the change loosely corresponds with the drop, I’d suggest that you revert to what you were doing before, or try something else.
If you’re hoping to sell advertising on your blog, your subscriber count will influence what you can charge. Buyers attach more value to this metric than they should. If you’re a buyer looking to advertise a blog, website or product, look at page views and relevancy over the number of subscribers.
If you want to sell your blog, chase subscribers like crazy. The other metric you want to bump up is your current monthly earnings. You don’t need to have these two things in place to get a good price, though. I’ve seen blogs with a few hundred subscribers sell for thousands of dollars without making more than small change. Conversely, I’ve seen poor quality blogs with a high monthly income sell for thousands, as well.
If you’re looking to buy a blog for love, a subscriber count is probably the key metric you should be looking at. If you’re buying for love and money, look at its subscriber count, page views and monthly income. If you’re buying for money, look at its monthly income and, to a lesser extent, page views.