Above Avalon Subscriptions Turn Three

Last week, I celebrated the third anniversary of launching Above Avalon subscriptions. Those who signed up on May 13th, 2015 began their fourth year as Above Avalon subscribers. In an environment where online publishing is being questioned and doubted like never before, Above Avalon subscriptions are working. Above Avalon is an independent source of Apple analysis, 100% supported by subscriptions. The lack of dependency on ads, sponsors, or other revenue streams has played a large role in what Above Avalon has become over the past few years. In addition, Above Avalon has given me a front-row seat for watching the changing Apple news industry. 

Strategy

Above Avalon embraces a subscription model in which subscribers pay for access to my full analysis and perspective on Apple. Two subscription options are available: $10 per month or $100 per year. Along with publishing weekly articles and podcast episodes, which are available to everyone, I publish a daily email available exclusively to subscribers. These emails go over everything that I think matters in the world of Apple. On any given week, I will cover 10 to 12 topics, one of which is discussed in the weekly article and podcast. The remaining topics are covered in email.

Subscribers receive other benefits that include receiving the weekly Above Avalon article via email, accessing the subscriber forum in Slack (more on this down below), and utilizing an archive consisting of approximately 600 emails previously sent to subscribers

Above Avalon is unique as a paid subscription site that focuses on analyzing one company. I am unable to name another paid subscription site that has the same objective. Most subscription sites focus on broader topics such as certain genres or entire industries. In an interesting development, the other paid subscription niche popping up has been in the sports world as writers and analysts launch sites focused on specific sports teams. 

The paid subscription model for analysis is not new. Its pioneers can be traced back to the financial world in which publications sent monthly and quarterly correspondence to paid subscribers via postal mail. However, the major change that has taken place more recently is a diversification in the way we consume news and analysis. A number of independent sites, often run by one person or a small team of people, have been able to grab an increasing amount of mind share from larger, more traditional news publications and multinational research firms. This market dislocation was one reason that led me to leave Wall Street and launch Above Avalon in 2014. The harsh economics of online publishing, combined with social media and tools for accepting online payments, sending emails, etc., have made it possible for one-person operations to find their audience (i.e. sustainability) in a sea of giants.  

Paid subscriptions afford me the ability to focus on quality, not quantity, when it comes to readership. There is no financial incentive for me to publish sensational articles as the primary byproduct is a temporary jump in page views. Instead, my incentive is aligned with my desire to write articles that inform, enlighten, and provide an alternate view of Apple and the world. This ends up producing trust and credibility with readers, which are important drivers for attracting new subscribers. 

Over the years, I've received different versions of the same question: Why don't I expand my coverage to include companies other than Apple? There is a simple answer: As Above Avalon subscribers can attest, my coverage area is already large. Since Apple doesn't operate in a vacuum, there is a need to monitor and analyze Apple's various competitors and the industries in which the company plays. However, the difference between Above Avalon and other sites is that all of my analysis is positioned from the perspective of Apple. In my view, having it any other way tends to breed Apple cynicism given the company's unique attributes. This cynicism often leads to the conclusion that Apple's different way of approaching the world will lead to failure. In fact, unwarranted cynicism is one of the main characteristics that lead to faulty Apple analysis. 

Highlights and Challenges

Highlights from the first three years of Above Avalon subscriptions include: 

  1. Reaching sustainability. While there was a specific subscriber threshold that marked Above Avalon sustainability (reached in 2015), subsequent events over the years have served as milestones. For example, seeing the first wave of annual Above Avalon subscriptions renew back in May 2016 further validated the business model. 
  2. Online community. One thing that I didn't necessarily expect to happen was an online community to develop around Above Avalon. The Above Avalon subscriber forum in Slack continues to see an increasing amount of interaction and discussion. Subscribers currently reside in 55 countries and hold a diverse range of backgrounds and occupations. They include Silicon Valley executives and investors, the largest Apple shareholders, and the leading Apple journalists and writers in the business.
  3. Member meet-ups. There have been three member-meets (two in San Francisco and one in San Jose). The fourth is scheduled for next month during WWDC. Each has been memorable as I've been able to meet subscribers and put faces to what were previously just names in email, on Twitter, or in the forum.
  4. Subscriber support. Since launching Above Avalon subscriptions, I've experienced quite a few life changes. My wife and I welcomed two boys into this world. Each time, the outpouring of well-wishes from subscribers has been great. However, there have also been difficult times, such as my mother's recent passing. Subscribers were there with condolences. I even received condolences via postal mail from subscribers. It may seem like a small thing, but it's something I will never forget. 

The biggest challenges have been:

  1. New things. I'm self-taught when it comes to the world of online publishing, podcasting and videography. In my prior career, I was a Wall Street analyst. While it hasn't been easy, YouTube and Twitter have been great tools for finding answers to questions. 
  2. Hesitancy to publish. As Above Avalon has grown in terms of readers, listeners, and subscribers, I've become more hesitant to publish on topics when my views on them are still in their fragile state. This hesitation has resulted in certain articles and podcast episodes taking a shockingly long amount of time to write and produce.   

Requirements

Above Avalon is an example of a paid subscription site working. However, when it comes to the model being replicated, I don't think there is a particular recipe or path for success with paid subscriptions. While some will find success literally overnight, others may find success only after a number of years.  

There are three requirements needed for paid subscription sites to work: 

  1. A strong voice. The recurring theme found in every successful independent site, email, or podcast is that it contains a strong voice. Wishy-washy stances on positions won't go far. The strongest voices have an ability to support their opinions with facts. 
  2. Perspective. Above Avalon subscribers aren't interested in simply reading about news events and topics that matter to Apple. Instead, subscribers want to know my perspective on those news events and topics. By having perspective, one possesses a certain kind of philosophy that transcends any particular topic or news event.
  3. Be the best. While "best" is subjective, in my view, being the best entails having a deep understanding of the subject matter at hand. In nearly every example of a successful subscription-based site, the founders / writers are experts in their coverage areas.

The Apple News World

Above Avalon has given me a front-row seat to the changing Apple rumors and news world, also known as the Apple blogosphere. There are three buckets: 

  • News / Rumor Aggregators. MacRumors, iMore, 9to5Mac, and AppleInsider are the most well-known. Others such as Cult of Mac, MacDailyNews, and MacSurfer have also been around for some time. The largest sites are characterized by having a team of writers and a business model consisting of various revenue streams (ads, sponsors, affiliate links, different forms of memberships). Many have moved into video, podcasts, and email newsletters. A vibrant online community in the form of active message boards and forums play a big role in these sites' sustainability. 
  • News Publications. These include Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Fast Company, CNBC, Recode, Bloomberg, Wired, The Independent, BuzzFeed, The Verge, and *insert your favorite news publication that covers Apple news here*. Most of these sites have one or two correspondents who write about Apple. However, it is becoming rare for news publications to have Apple-exclusive writers. Business models vary in this group but have increasingly been moving towards paid subscriptions. Only a select number of these sites have vibrant online communities.
  • Curators / Analysis / Research. Above Avalon, Daring Fireball, Asymco, Stratechery, MacStories, Tech.pinions, Six Colors, The Loop, Apple 3.0, TidBITS, Wall Street sell-side firms, podcast-only ventures, YouTubers, industry research firms, VC firms, and popular Twitter personalities are included in this category. There is much diversity in this group. Some write exclusively about Apple while others write and talk about Apple from time to time. Meanwhile, others use Apple as a way to analyze broader business and disruption theories. Business models run the gamut and include everything from ads and sponsors to paid subscriptions, donations, and affiliate links. Other sites and accounts are run strictly for marketing purposes. Communities tend to play a major role in these sites. 

While some sites have tried to play in more than one bucket, few have found success. News and rumor sites have made few inroads in terms of analysis and research while analysis sites have generally stayed away from the tough business of breaking news and scoops. 

Over the years, there have been a number of major changes in the Apple blogosphere:

News / rumor aggregators have grown up and gained legitimacy. After years of rocky relations, Apple basically treats the leading Apple news and rumor aggregators like any other news organization. Aggregators have achieved sustainability by broadening coverage to include pretty much everything that is in some way connected to Apple or the large iOS ecosystem. In addition, each runs with super lean operating budgets. The stories themselves likely don't pay the bills. Instead, it's the repeat visitors that are interested in the comment sections and forums. Each publication relies on podcasts and video as ways to maintain mindshare in each respective news medium. 

Apple rumor / scoop industry has dried up and consolidated. Ten years ago, there were a number of news publications that were in a legitimate position to break the next Apple scoop (some of which were likely controlled leaks from Apple). Today, there are only two or three sites that even publish Apple scoops. The consolidation in Apple scoops has been driven by Apple ramping up the amount of secrecy regarding unannounced projects. In addition, Apple "scoops" have increasingly come from research firms paying for confidential information coming out of Apple's supply chain. One byproduct of this rumor consolidation has been a relatively high degree of turnover among Apple reporters. 

Ad-supported business models are struggling. It is becoming more difficult to find ad-supported business models on the web. While there are likely a few reasons for this change, one includes ad dollars being funneled away from blogs and into podcasts and videos. This explains what appears to be an exodus of resources away from written blogs and into podcasts and video-focused efforts. Unfortunately, my suspicion is this won't end well for many as increased competition in the podcast and video space will tend to push sponsors to those with the largest followings. Such an environment would make it increasingly difficult for independent ventures to find sustainability by chasing scale. 

Paid news sites boost independents. Most news publications have embraced paid subscriptions as another way of boosting revenues. While a paid subscription to a multinational news organization may make sense for many readers, the value / price tradeoff becomes murky for readers interested in specific topics and niches. For example, the average news publications will only write about Apple once a week (if that much). This environment provides an even greater amount of oxygen to independent sites that can give the time and attention to niche subjects. 

Donation / support route isn't promising. The transition from ad-supported business models to subscription-based models hasn't been easy for many independent sites. Going from a scenario in which all content was public to one in which only a fraction of content is public can be jarring. Most sites have handled this transition by keeping content free and instead giving paid subscribers a very marginal amount of exclusive content. In essence, sites are treating subscriptions and memberships like donations. This is not sustainable for or attractive to subscription-based models.

Exciting Times

It's never been easier to start a paid subscription site. This reality has made it harder than ever to get a paid subscription site off the ground. While barriers to entry have been lowered in many content-focused genres, including blogs, YouTube, and podcasting, discovering your audience is becoming more challenging. At the same time, competition is intensifying. It's not realistic to assume the average consumer will subscribe to dozens of paid sites. However, there is no such thing as an "average" consumer. Instead, every consumer will subscribe to a different portfolio of paid sites. As an independent, the job is to earn a spot in some of those portfolios.

As I enter the fourth year of paid subscriptions, a big thank you goes out to Above Avalon subscribers. The past three years have been great and I'm looking forward to many more. I don't think there has been a better time to examine Apple. 

To become an Above Avalon subscriber, visit the subscription page