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Reader revenues? Absolutely, but what will people pay for?

The pivot to paid-content is undoubtedly a positive move for publishers, but what exactly should we be asking our audiences to buy? Peter Houston reports.

By Peter Houston

Reader revenues? Absolutely, but what will people pay for?

If you’re reading InPublishing, it’s probably safe to assume that you care about the future of the publishing industry. And assuming that you care, you probably welcome the signs that the industry has a new revenue stream worth embracing: you’re happy that paid-content is firmly on publishing’s radar.

It’s not exactly a new revenue stream – charging people to read what you’ve written is publishing’s original business model. But make no mistake, selling content today is very different from selling newssheets in the back of a 17th century coffee house. Those guys took the money, handed over the reading matter, and went back to their brews. Securing revenue from readers today is light years away from that.

It’s different even from the first few years of the 21st century, when subscription income still sat on a par with advertising sales for many publishers. Selling a subscription took effort; sometimes you even had to give away a book or a pen to seal the deal. But to anyone trying to navigate the complex terrain of reader revenues now, the old-school print-subscription landscape looks positively pastoral.

It’s fantastic that, as we desperately try to claw our way back from our own ad-funded Armageddon, we can get excited about the prospect of people paying for the work we do. But what exactly is it we expect them to pay for?

Starting simple

The challenge of the reader-revenue revolution is the mind-boggling scope of what is possible in the world of paid-content, but at the most basic level, people are paying for access to content.

Many publishers start their paid-content journey with e-books or reports. Leveraging subject matter expertise and even archive content, these are relatively easy to put together. They are also relatively easy to lock down; the ecommerce infrastructure required to sell electronic document downloads is widely available and cheap.

Narrowly focused one-offs represent a simple customer proposition – “Pay some money, get this thing”. The downside is a lack of scalability and any publisher looking to create significant, recurring reader revenues needs to look beyond single sales to digital subscriptions, and that’s where it starts to get complicated.

On the surface, a paywall is a straightforward cash-for-content transaction: pay or go away. But dig in and the reality is far more nuanced.

It’s a brave (or foolish) publisher that blocks access to all but paying customers. Some have made a success of this type of hard paywall, but these are typically very large organisations with very deep pockets, able to absorb the ad-sales loss and wait for their customers to catch up. Or they have incredibly niche content that people must have to be able to do their jobs.

The rest of us need to find some kind of half-way house, allowing enough access to content to give potential subscribers a strong enough sense of the value on offer without giving so much away that they never need to pay.

Less is more

The trend with this type of metered paywall is to allow less and less access before asking for money. The shining light of the paid-content scene, The New York Times, currently allows non-subscribers five articles a month before asking for money. When it launched its paywall in 2011, readers got 20 articles a month for free.

A broadening familiarity with and acceptance of digital subscription models has helped paywall publishers reduce free access. But getting the balance right depends entirely on the audience. The 2018 Reuters Digital News report says that while 30% of people in Norway have paid for online news, just 7% in the UK have paid.

The BBC may skew the market for paid news content in the UK, but that illustrates perfectly the challenge of converting free readers to paid. The willingness of audiences to pay depends on loyalty to your brand, how much they value the content on offer and, crucially, whether they can get similar content for free elsewhere.

Getting people to pay also depends on how effectively paid-content offers are pitched and explaining what’s behind the paywall can be challenging.

Data-driven marketing is helping some publishers convert, with subscription offers targeted according to viewing habits – sports fans get offers built around updates for their local team, movie fans are enticed with the promise of film reviews and star interviews.

Taking targeting one step further, the newest breed of flexible paywall opens and closes according to the profile of the person accessing content. Trials conducted by the Wall Street Journal have shown the least likely prospects can be converted by allowing them greater access for longer, chiming completely with industry wisdom that says it can take 20 exposures to a subscription offer before someone converts.

Superior experiences

In the realm of reader revenue, content may be more kingly than ever, but the king is probably going to need some help to keep the money rolling in. While content is the deal clincher, good user experience is the keeper.

In a couple of recent paid app re-launches, both The Guardian and The Economist homed in on improved user experience as a driver for converting and retaining paying customers. The Guardian upgrade is designed to provide a “superior user experience”, laying the groundwork for a revenue layer separate from its open-access website.

At around the same time as the Guardian launch, The Economist released the first update to its subscriber app since it was introduced in 2010. It now includes a curated ‘Daily Picks’ list that draws on content from The Economist Weekly edition, and Espresso, The Economist’s daily short-takes app.

The driver for the addition of the ‘picks’ feature was a greater breadth of content and improved discovery, part of an overarching desire for the nine-month project to deliver subscribers ‘the best possible experience’ of The Economist. Head of product Denise Law explained why that matters in terms of customer retention: “People who engage with digital products are more likely to re-engage with their subscription.”

Putting that another way, people pay for a better paid-content experience, from better content discovery to the removal of interruptive, privacy threatening, potentially malicious advertising.

Something extra

People are also paying to get more.

Beyond standard content packages, publishers are introducing extras that help convince subscribers of the value a subscription or membership delivers. From access to member-only events or VIP lounges at public events, publishers want their paying customers to feel special. Giving access to content before anyone else is a popular inducement, giving access to the journalists that create the content is also a proven member benefit.

This June, US news and opinion website The Daily Beast, announced the ‘Beast Inside’ membership programme. Members will pay $100 a year for a package of exclusive content and early access.

A new daily newsletter, the Rabbit Hole, will give them a deep dive into the story of the day and they’ll get a custom version of The Daily Beast’s existing Cheat Sheet newsletter. They will get a new podcast called Omnishambles, a new reported crime series called The Beast Files and on Fridays, they will get access to the biggest story of the weekend. Members will also be able to post comments to the site, something that non-members can’t do.

Beyond exclusive content, extras can include perks, discounts and recommendations, anything that adds value to the reader-publisher relationship.

A sense of belonging

The move to reader revenue is, at least in part, a reaction against the distancing that platform publishing brought. Publishers have woken up to the need to take back control of their audiences and a drive for deeper relationships sits at the heart of all paid-content strategies.

Part of that is fostering a sense of community among readers; making them feel part of the project.

In the bad old days, people carried their favourite publications around and left them on their desks or coffee tables to prove that they were cool or intellectual or connected. Digital subscriptions are less visible, but to be able to tell your friends that you’re supporting independent journalism with a subscription to a progressive news outlet is every bit as much a badge of honour. The Guardian is dragging itself ever closer to break even on the strength of this principle.

Real-world events, online discussion groups and even teleconferences have been used to activate paying audiences and build a sense of belonging. Bringing subscribers inside the content creation process, suggesting story angles or sources, ties subscribers to the brand; it also brings them closer and provides a reason to support you financially.

The recipe for success

There are a couple of ingredients common to all successful paid-content recipes and, if I can stretch that metaphor a little, the best shopping list I’ve seen comes from John Wilpers.

As editor of FIPP’s Innovation in Magazine Media 2018 report, he picks out content that:

* Speaks to the audience’s passions

* Makes them smarter

* Entertains them

* Gives them advantages

* They can’t get anywhere else

John sums up this paid-content wishlist as content that is “valued” and “unique” and to get people to pay, you need to be crystal clear how what you are selling ticks those boxes.

But, content isn’t everything.

A huge variety of approaches to paid-content is possible. From donations to all-you-can-read subscription bundles, memberships to micropayments, people will pay for paid-content packages structured to deliver value to them.

Focus on what your audience considers quality content, give them a good user experience, select extras that they want and wrap it all up in a community they want to belong to. Make it something specific to them, something they will want to pay for.

Peter is the author of the recently published InPublishing Guide to Paid Content Strategies.