How B2B Media Companies Are Successfully Growing Subscription Revenue
There’s no question that 2018 has seen many publishers make a push to increase revenue from subscriptions and paid content, which many see as a necessity in the face of digital advertising’s many uncertainties. Subscriptions have become the talk of the media industry. Yet most of this talk focuses on upping subscriptions in the consumer publishing space. What often goes overlooked is that many B2B media companies have established substantial revenue streams from paid content and are just as eager as their B2C counterparts to grow this business line.
B2B publishers do face a unique challenge in their paid content efforts. Historically, many, if not most, B2B publishers have offered their content to readers completely free of charge, made possible by the underwriting of advertisers. B2B publishers may need to train their audiences to have new expectations.
Just throwing up paywalls across content that was previously free to access, however, isn’t going to be a long-term strategy for success. Paid content -- content people are actually willing to pay for -- needs to have a clear value proposition. It needs to help a professional in a specific industry complete their work more efficiently, run their business more effectively, or succeed in their career. And publishers need to be able to directly indicate how their content is useful in that endeavor -- or readers aren’t going to pay for it.
Getting Started with Paid Content
For B2B publishers looking to either begin or expand their paid content strategy, there are a few things to keep in mind.
Think Beyond the Subscription
Yes, the paid subscription is the most obvious “paid content” model, but it isn’t the only one out there. For some publishers that have always offered free, qualified subscriptions, going to a paid model might not even be feasible. Encourage your staff to get creative. Webinars, white papers, interactive guides and alert services are just a few ideas to get started.
Focus on the Quality of Your Editorial.
“Content is King” might be an old cliché, but the reality is that it’s true. If you want people to pay for your content, it needs to be powerful, relevant and interesting. Use the tools available to take a hard look at exactly what people are coming to your website to read. And don’t just focus on the pieces that get the most clicks — look at what readers are spending a lot of time with and see if you can create products around those information streams.
Focus on Good User Experience
If it’s hard to access your content, or there are multiple steps a reader needs to take every time they want to log in, they are going to be dissatisfied. Make it easy to sign up, easy to access, and easy to use.
Examine Your Audience
What types of products is your audience searching for? You can find this through onsite search analytics and keyword analysis. Don’t be afraid to poll some of your most engaged and loyal readers to find out what products or information they want that they aren’t currently getting — or what problems they need to solve.
Blazing the Trails
Publishing Executive talked to three B2B publishers who have had success with the paid content model — and they have all approached it in very different ways, proving there is no one single path to take.
The Data Approach
Dave Colford, chief revenue officer of Hanley Wood and president of Hanley Wood Media, says that for his brands and audience, the right approach to subscriptions was to focus on data. Rather than simply throw a paywall in front of content the Hanley Wood readers had been getting free for years, they identified the need for more in-depth research and data products readers could use to better manage their businesses. Hanley Wood took the time to talk to its audience and determine which data streams would be most valuable to them and what products the company could provide that could meet those needs. Hanley Wood also considered whether they were currently offering this type of data or if it would be something they needed to develop.
“We developed [our paid products] based on our relationship with our audience and analytics on what they do on our site,” says Colford, “as well as asking what research they were getting outside of our company, what kind of content they would pay for, and what they would value. It was based on analytics, but also face-to-face conversations about what they want more of that they can’t find anywhere else. And then we started to build it for them.”
This approach led to the creation of the Metrostudy research reports that Hanley Wood now offers, bringing together a variety of data streams for residential builders and developers into one, more comprehensive product. “We had the number one and number two data sources and put them together for this market,” says Colford. “That became a revenue model for us. Regardless of which brand they were aligned with, we guided them to different Metrostudy research reports.”
Hanley Wood then took their data-driven approach to paid content offerings a step further. The research reports pull together data from a wide range of sources into one product that gives their audience a powerful tool to help manage their business, something they can’t get in a single location from anywhere else. But rather than offer it as a single report, or a single product, they evolved it into an entirely new way of managing the relationship with their customer base.
“We also moved from a traditional subscription business to what we see as the longer-term membership model,” says Colford. “Readers are getting different types of information from us based on where they are in their business; sometimes they need consulting, sometimes they need more research, sometimes they need an executive summary. That is all part of what they pay for, rather than just a subscription model.”
To make this membership model of paid content work for the widest number of potential people and businesses, Hanley Wood doesn’t take a “one size fits all approach” that forces readers to either purchase everything they offer, or nothing at all. In addition to the membership readers can subscribe to, which gets them access to the full range of products, they can also buy individual services or reports a la carte, giving Hanley Wood the opportunity to prove the value of their content on multiple fronts. They recognize that data is valuable, and by providing multiple points of entry is the best way to build the paid content model over time.
Colford notes that for some publishers, this approach can be daunting. Hanley Wood serves upward of two million people and it is impossible to talk to all of them or provide exactly what every single one of them needs. For those just starting out, Colford suggests starting with the data a media company already has, and then start throwing ideas out. Even if there are 200 different ideas, says Colford, “you identify trends between your analytics and conversations, and see which are possible, which are offshoots of businesses you’re already in, and which will require more investment.”
Colford points out that there might be some great ideas that require too much time or money to be practical, but there are many different paths that can be taken quickly and for minimal investment. “It bears out quickly which ideas are sustainable and repeatable once you get them up and running. That is the real core: What can do that will make sense for the widest range of people, that we can repeat and provide long-term, that they will value and pay money for?”
Know Your Niche
BridgeTower Media has taken a different approach. BridgeTower president and CEO Adam Reinebach, says that while the company had a fairly robust and healthy subscription model, it wanted to take that to the next level. One way BridgeTower did that was by taking a closer look at its legal publications, and identifying a few needs that weren’t being met for the audience anywhere else.
“We write news and trends, and report on state bar associations, some of the big cases,” says Reinebach. “We also have legal opinions submitted and published, and that’s something you don’t get from run of the mill news service.”
For their construction publications, BridgeTower saw a different need: contractors who want to be aware of new opportunities to bid on projects didn’t have a single source to go for that information. So BridgeTower Media created a bid notification service that tracks a range of sources and will send an alert to subscribers when something new comes up that fits their parameters. “That’s an interesting product,” Reinebach noted. “It’s not your typical run-of-the-mill subscription type of product, but is actually very much in the workflow of the contractors who know and respect our brand.”
A Metered Approach
Legal B2B media firm ALM has taken yet another approach to paid content. ALM president of media Jay Kirsch says that rather than creating entirely new products, taking a metered content approach has been highly successful. “Publishers need to start to put up meters, where after a certain amount of content [readers] need a subscription to access more,” he says.
For this to work Kirsch says B2B publishers first need to focus on the quality of the content and fortunately most B2B publications already have a rich archive of incredibly valuable content. Publishers should analyze what content has resonated the most with their audience, and then ensure the entire staff is focused on producing more of that type of material.
However, Kirsch cautioned that it’s not enough to just count the number of pageviews and judge the content on that alone. Looking at “time spent” with each article, as well as how often readers return to certain content, can be better predictors of audience engagement and the perceived value of content.
One important point to note is that this strategy might result in fewer overall pageviews in the short term. Focusing on producing higher-quality content will bring in more engaged readers, but that is an audience that will need to be cultivated over time.
“Focusing on readership is the way to increase ad revenue long term,” says Kirsch. “A lot of time I hear, ‘If we put a meter up, it will reduce pageviews and ad revenue goes down.’ But over time those who have paid for the product will use it more, and their increased usage makes up for those who were only there for a few months. In the end, you see a net growth in traffic.”
Putting Paid Content Into Practice
Because B2B publishers cover an incredible breadth of industries and firms that range from multi-billion dollar corporations to small businesses, the opportunities around paid content are going to vary wildly. B2B publishers interested in expanding their paid content strategy need to take a hard look at the niche markets they serve, and find very specific, but highly relevant, needs that simply aren’t being met. That might mean consolidating various forms of content into a more easy to digest package, or it could mean inventing entirely new products that no one else has thought about offering.
All three of these publishers did have one thing in common: They listened to their audience. They connected with their most engaged readers, asked questions about what they did and didn’t like, and paid close attention to not just what content was getting traffic on their sites, but how their readers were using it. If there is any one “magic bullet” for success, taking the time up front to really understand what readers want and will pay for — rather than telling them what you’re going to sell them — is it. From there it becomes a matter of what B2B publishers do best: producing that high-quality content to match their audiences’ needs.