As the quest for cash in digital media gets ever more frantic, the call for a renewed focus on reader revenues keeps getting louder. Peter Houston, author of the InPublishing Guide to Paid Content Strategies, presents ten top tips for creating a successful strategy.
“Until and unless you focus on migrating from ad revenue to reader revenue, it’s game over,” says John Wilpers.
Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator, agrees: “Paywalls are the only future for journalism.”
Wired editor Nicholas Thomson expresses similar sentiments: “It is my strong sense that paywalls are an essential part of the future of journalism.”
Charging readers to access your content is the future of publishing. Realising this is one thing, putting together a successful and sustainable paid content strategy is another.
Here are ten top tips to get you started:
Be very clear why you are getting into paid-content. A paid-content play can strengthen your revenue mix and reduce your dependence on ad sales. It can build long-term reader relationships and lay the foundations for audience funded add-ons. But paid-content is a long game. It requires effort and investment to leverage brand loyalty and deliver content that your audience values. If you view reader revenues as a quick win, better try another fad-driven pivot.
Get ready to do some reader education. If you’ve been giving your audience unlimited access to your online content for years, you’ll need to convince them it will be worth paying the new price of admission. Explain how content costs, but also tell them what you’re going to do with their money. Outline your plans to deliver better content behind the paywall, better than what they currently get for free. And get ready to tell them regularly.
Winning at paid-content doesn’t mean giving up on advertising; digital subscriptions powerhouse The New York Times still books $120 million in advertising revenues. But to deliver a return to advertisers, you’ll need to maintain a healthy traffic flow outside the paywall. Strike the right balance between free and gated content. And if ‘ad-free’ isn’t a major selling point, consider how to bring advertisers inside the paywall without upsetting subscribers.
As well as a direct revenue play, think about your paid-content strategy as an opportunity to create additional, audience-centric products and services. A successful paid-content strategy depends heavily on regular customer communication, from conversion to renewal. Take advantage of your audience metrics and outreach to build deeper market insights that can be used to research, test and develop brand extensions. See paid-content as the first step in a broader reader-revenue strategy that could include add-ons from events to ecommerce.
Don’t see paid content as a one-time cash-for-content swap. As important as it is to get that first payment in, think beyond the basic transaction and establish long-term relationships with your readers. It’s much cheaper to retain existing subscribers than acquire new ones. Deliver consistently on the brand values your subscribers originally signed up for and remind them of those values often. Paid content is not a fire-and-forget strategy; always be thinking ahead to that renewal date.
Paid content doesn’t have to be new content. Charging for archive access allows publishers to unlock the value in their historic assets. Clever curation can add value to long-hidden content, surfacing and re-purposing the very best from your publication’s past. Readers will pay for the nostalgia of revisiting old favourites and for the convenience of a well organised and searchable reference resource. Archive content packaged into print specials also offer publishers a second bite at the cherry.
Common across digital media, technology will make or break your paid-content strategy. Software to manage audience ID and permissions is fundamental. As you progress, tracking and targeting capabilities will be crucial to deliver content and marketing that secures conversions and renewals. You’ll also need to bill your customers and take their money. Think hard about what you can buy off the shelf and what you need to have developed. Aim to integrate as many systems as possible.
All your staff need to support your paid-content strategy. Relying on the editorial team to deliver quality content is no longer enough. Editors must work with marketers to plan and deliver content packages that convert and retain paying readers. Sales will need to tailor some pitches around smaller but more valuable audiences; data must communicate what’s working and what’s not; and tech needs to support everyone. Bring all your departments into your paid-content objectives. Incentivise them all against paid-content targets.
Communicating the value of the content hidden behind your paywall is crucial. Whatever channels you use, from direct mail or email to social media, you must get across the unique content proposition you are asking people to pay for. Demonstrate value with sampling or low-cost trials, but be consistent in your messaging. Leave readers in no doubt about why they are signing up for a subscription and, if you deliver on your promises, renewals will be so much easier.
You can put all the parts of your paid-content strategy in place – from crystal clear objectives and the highest quality content to cutting edge technology – but without the courage to put up those gates and make your audience pay, you’ll never see success. “The biggest hurdle to selling content is mustering the belief that you can,” writes US publishing veteran Andy Kowl. You must create and communicate value, but don’t be afraid to ask your audience to pay for your hard work.