It’s been over a decade since Apple first allowed news publishers (and others) to sell a subscription in their iPhone or iPad apps. And one complaint has reigned supreme all along: you had to get your users to subscribe through Apple, not directly to you. It cost the publisher silver: a full 30% of your subscriber’s payment, month after month, year after year. And it cost the publisher the relationship: limit the possibility of targeting offers, collecting user data and refining the connection between the reader and the point of sale.
Apple has heard these complaints and has taken steps to make its offering more attractive, primarily by reducing the revenue cut it requires in certain circumstances. (Most of the credit here goes to video game company Epic, which is fighting a far more costly battle against Apple’s App Store policies and international regulators in countries like Japan and the Netherlands. )
But the big step came last fall, when Apple announced it was letting a certain class of iOS apps, including news apps, bypass its built-in payment system altogether. Apple would allow so-called reader apps – “apps that provide one or more of the following types of digital content – magazines, newspapers, books, audio, music, or video – as the main functionality of the app” – to use a new technology called a linkallowing apps to direct users to the publisher’s website to subscribe.
Sending a potential subscriber to your website is a loss in ease of use – Apple’s one-click subscriptions are pretty cool – but an unqualified financial gain. You keep what was Apple’s share of your subscribers’ money, and now you own the relationship.
The new policy was announced last September, but it only came into effect on March 30 and adoption has been relatively slow. But now, three months later, we have the first big example of a “reading app” pushing a non-Apple way to subscribe: Netflix. Here is Filipe Espósito for 9to5Mac:
As noted by several users and also confirmed by 9to5Mac, the Netflix app now uses the new iOS API for playback apps which takes the user to an external website before subscribing. It’s unclear exactly when Netflix started rolling out this option for iPhone and iPad users, but based on reports, the rollout now appears to be global.
When you press the subscribe button, a message says “you are about to exit the app and go to an external website”. The application also notes that the transaction will no longer be Apple’s responsibility and that all subscription management should be done under Netflix’s platform.
Netflix had stopped using Apple’s in-app purchases in 2018, not wanting to share its revenue with the phone maker. Subscribing to Netflix on an Apple device meant going to netflix.com in a web browser. Now, however, the streamer can at least push people there in the app.
What does all this mean for news publishers with iPhone and iPad apps?
- Stop offering in-app subscriptions through Apple. The only reason left to give Apple 30% (or 15%) of your subscription revenue is that its in-app subscriptions system is super easy to use. This is no longer a sufficient reason.
- Request approval to link to your own subscription interface. Yes, the ability to link to your own website is still not a right — it is a privilege. First you need to request the vaguely Orwellian “external link account right”. There are a few requirements, which shouldn’t be a problem for most news publishers. Most importantly, a publisher can “not offer in-app purchases on iOS or iPadOS when using the external link account right.” In other words, you can use Apple’s system or your own system, but not both at the same time.
- Make your own mobile subscription system as easy to use as possible. This should already be a priority no matter what Apple does! If someone using a smartphone wants to give you money, make it as simple as possible! One suggestion: Start accepting Apple Pay on your website. It has long been against Apple’s rules to sell digital goods (like a subscription) in an iOS app through Apple Pay. But on the web, you are free and clear. For an iPhone user, Apple Pay is almost as simple a process as an in-app subscription, and from a vendor’s perspective, it’s nearly indistinguishable from a credit card payment. .
- Keep testing a wide range of subscription offers to see what works. Apple’s rigid rules in the app made it difficult for users to test different locations. (The first three months for 99 cents! $50/year for the rest of your life!) Smart publishers already run frequent tests like this to optimize their offerings; now these can also be directed to app users.
News apps on phones and tablets haven’t been the revolution some hoped for a decade ago. Most people who download The Daily Gazette iPhone app are already familiar with The Gazette and its work. They are probably already subscribers or quality candidates to subscribe. Thus, publishers are more likely to view their mobile apps as a tool to please. existing subscribers only to attract New those. That’s unlikely to change anytime soon.
But nonetheless, none of your subscription dollars currently benefiting from Apple’s 30% haircut no longer have to. And rather than building a resource-intensive replacement, you can just use whatever system you have in place. Save that money and see it as an opportunity to make sure your readers’ journey to payment is as smooth as possible – on any device.