Social media subscriptions need a selling point. So far, it’s not working.

Twitter and other social networks want people to pay for content. But they’ll need a marquee feature to convince users to subscribe.

Twitter bird with guitar

Twitter offers three paid features: Twitter Blue, Ticketed Spaces and Super Follows.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Click banner image for more Subscription Week 2022 coverage

Cate Bonacini is a self-described Twitter super user. Bonacini runs communications for the Center for International Environmental Law, so she likes to keep up with journalists talking about climate on the platform. When Twitter launched a subscription service, Twitter Blue, Bonacini thought that would help her stay on top of the news. She subscribed.

Twitter Blue debuted last June and offers Twitter faithfuls the ability to undo tweets and read ad-free articles for $2.99 a month. Bonacini said the service improved her Twitter experience in some ways, letting her more easily read long Twitter threads with the subscription’s reader mode. The ability to undo a tweet before it’s posted gives her a few extra seconds to catch a typo. She likes the bookmarking feature, which allows her to add posts to a folder.

But she said Twitter Blue hasn’t improved her experience enough to make the subscription worthwhile. She already subscribes to most of the news outlets that offer ad-free articles on the platform. Bonacini also thinks reader mode should be free, especially because it helps people with visual impairments.

“I don't see a huge reason for me to continue using Twitter Blue,” Bonacini told Protocol. “It's just a matter of when I want to cancel the subscription.”

Twitter Blue’s hard sell

Twitter offers three paid features: Twitter Blue, Ticketed Spaces and Super Follows. The latter two are still in beta, while Twitter Blue rolled out in the United States in November after it was first tested in a couple of other countries. Twitter Blue gives paying users a slew of tools, including the ability to undo tweets and read ad-free articles from a handful of publications. Ticketed Spaces charges for live events on Twitter’s Clubhouse-like audio rooms, called Spaces, and Super Follows let creators charge to see subscriber-only content (like … tweets that cost money).

But paid features are proving to be a hard sell for Twitter. Sensor Tower data shared with Protocol revealed that Twitter Blue is the company’s top in-app purchase ahead of Ticketed Spaces. But since September, worldwide spending on Twitter’s mobile app has only reached $2 million. For a platform with millions of users, $2 million is just … not a lot.

Twitter loves to experiment with new features that might not actually go anywhere. (Remember Fleets?) But to entice people to pay to use Twitter, experts say the company — as well as other social media platforms that offer subscriptions — needs to figure out the one feature people would actually pay for, then slowly add in other perks.

“The basic issue is that people got Twitter for free. You can't change that,” said Andrew Hutchinson, a content and social media manager at Social Media Today. “Now, you can't sort of go back and say, ‘Oh, now you want to pay for it.’”

Social media subscription experiments

Twitter isn’t the only social media platform trying to figure out how to diversify beyond ad revenue. Some platforms’ subscription services focus on exclusive access to creators, some focus on removing ads and some are trying a mix of both. Most platforms, with the exception of YouTube, are still in the early stages of their paid services.

Instagram and TikTok began exploring creator subscriptions in January. On Instagram, subscribers pay a monthly fee ranging from $0.99 to $99.99 to access exclusive content from creators, and they receive a purple badge on their profile to indicate they’re a subscriber. Meta has said won’t take a cut from subscriptions until next year “at the earliest.” TikTok’s subscription test is light on details. The company confirmed in January that it’s trying out paid subscriptions that will let creators charge for their content, but it’s unclear how many creators are involved in the pilot and how they might be paid. Spokespeople for TikTok and Instagram declined to share how many subscribers the platforms have attracted since their tests started.

A Twitter spokesperson also declined to provide details on its subscription services. “Our teams are continually gathering feedback for these experiences and enhancing the features,” the spokesperson said.

YouTube has seen success with its subscriptions. For $11.99 a month, YouTube Premium users get access to YouTube Music and the ability to watch videos ad-free or in the background while their phone is locked or they’re using another app. About 50 million people have subscribed to or tried out Premium and YouTube Music as of last September.

Will Aldrich, a director of Product Management at YouTube who focuses on Premium, said the platform isn’t ready to share the latest subscriber count, but the service continues to grow “at an amazing rate.” “We've been thrilled at the continued growth rate, for both our ad-supported business and our premium subscription offerings,” Aldrich told Protocol.

How social media subscriptions can succeed

If social media platforms, which have historically been free, are going to attract paying subscribers, social media analysts said they’ll need to highlight one main tool to entice users, and slowly tack on more perks. Platforms have gone years without asking people to pay, so that one marquee feature has to be good.

That philosophy has helped drive YouTube Premium’s success. Aldrich said the platform wants to feel seamless for paying YouTube subscribers first and foremost by removing ads and allowing people to switch apps without shutting off their video. The other add-ons, like exclusive livestreams with artists, are just that: add-ons.

“I think a sustainable subscription business that really lasts for the long term is going to have a really thoughtful blend of having no ads — this universal simple appeal, convenience kind of features,” he said. “And then pair that with thoughtful exclusivity.”

Hutchinson said there's an opportunity for Twitter to look at third-party analytics and insights tools, like Hootsuite and Buffer, and wrap those features into a subscription targeted at businesses. The platform is reportedly looking to make one of those tools, TweetDeck, part of the subscription service. Hutchinson said providing businesses with the analytics tools and insights they pay for off the platform could bring in a consistent base of subscribers — even if it’s small.

“Twitter could enhance its value if they created a business tier,” he said.

Scriberbase founder Adam Levinter, author of “The Subscription Boom,” said it’s still too soon to say whether Twitter Blue and the platform’s other services will succeed. He said Twitter is treating the services as experiments, and it’ll likely continue to tinker with them down the line.

“The first version of this subscription program isn't likely to be the last version of what they go with in the market,” Levinter told Protocol.

He added that Twitter should look to its conversion rate from average to paying users as a measure of success. “It remains to be seen actually what that conversion rate is going to be,” he said. “But that's really going to drive the scale of this.”

The fate of Twitter Blue hinges on the company’s soon-to-be-owner, Elon Musk, who wants to move beyond advertising and find new ways to monetize tweets. Musk suggested to banks who provided financing for his Twitter acquisition that the platform may start charging third-party websites that want to quote or embed tweets, for instance. In since-deleted tweets, Musk suggested that Twitter Blue could also charge for one huge perk: a verified checkmark. For some, that might be the marquee feature worth subscribing for.

Workplace

The tools that make you pay for not getting stuff done

Some tools let you put your money on the line for productivity. Should you bite?

Commitment contracts are popular in a niche corner of the internet, and the tools have built up loyal followings of people who find the extra motivation effective.

Photoillustration: Anna Shvets/Pexels; Protocol

Danny Reeves, CEO and co-founder of Beeminder, is used to defending his product.

“When people first hear about it, they’re kind of appalled,” Reeves said. “Making money off of people’s failure is how they view it.”

Keep Reading Show less
Lizzy Lawrence

Lizzy Lawrence ( @LizzyLaw_) is a reporter at Protocol, covering tools and productivity in the workplace. She's a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied sociology and international studies. She served as editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, her school's independent newspaper. She's based in D.C., and can be reached at llawrence@protocol.com.

Sponsored Content

Foursquare data story: leveraging location data for site selection

We take a closer look at points of interest and foot traffic patterns to demonstrate how location data can be leveraged to inform better site selecti­on strategies.

Imagine: You’re the leader of a real estate team at a restaurant brand looking to open a new location in Manhattan. You have two options you’re evaluating: one site in SoHo, and another site in the Flatiron neighborhood. Which do you choose?

Keep Reading Show less

Elon Musk has bots on his mind.

Photo: Christian Marquardt/Getty Images

Elon Musk says he needs proof that less than 5% of Twitter's users are bots — or the deal isn't going ahead.

Keep Reading Show less
Jamie Condliffe

Jamie Condliffe ( @jme_c) is the executive editor at Protocol, based in London. Prior to joining Protocol in 2019, he worked on the business desk at The New York Times, where he edited the DealBook newsletter and wrote Bits, the weekly tech newsletter. He has previously worked at MIT Technology Review, Gizmodo, and New Scientist, and has held lectureships at the University of Oxford and Imperial College London. He also holds a doctorate in engineering from the University of Oxford.

Policy

Nobody will help Big Tech prevent online terrorism but itself

There’s no will in Congress or the C-suites of social media giants for a new approach, but smaller platforms would have room to step up — if they decided to.

Timothy Kujawski of Buffalo lights candles at a makeshift memorial as people gather at the scene of a mass shooting at Tops Friendly Market at Jefferson Avenue and Riley Street on Sunday, May 15, 2022 in Buffalo, NY. The fatal shooting of 10 people at a grocery store in a historically Black neighborhood of Buffalo by a young white gunman is being investigated as a hate crime and an act of racially motivated violent extremism, according to federal officials.

Photo: Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The shooting in Buffalo, New York, that killed 10 people over the weekend has put the spotlight back on social media companies. Some of the attack was livestreamed, beginning on Amazon-owned Twitch, and the alleged shooter appears to have written about how his racist motivations arose from misinformation on smaller or fringe sites including 4chan.

In response, policymakers are directing their anger at tech platforms, with New York Governor Kathy Hochul calling for the companies to be “more vigilant in monitoring” and for “a legal responsibility to ensure that such hate cannot populate these sites.”

Keep Reading Show less
Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

We're answering all your questions about the crypto crash.

Photo: Chris Liverani/Unsplash

People started talking about another crypto winter in January, when falling prices had wiped out $1 trillion in value from November’s peak. Prices rallied back in March, restoring some of the losses. Then crypto fell hard again, with bitcoin down more than 60% from its all-time high and other cryptocurrencies harder hit. The market’s message was clear: Crypto winter was no longer coming. It’s here.

If you’ve got questions about the crypto crash, the Protocol Fintech team has answers.

Keep Reading Show less
Latest Stories
Bulletins