How Do You Sell Content to an Audience That Controls the Narrative?
Now more than ever, the publishing industry finds itself on a quest for more effective ways to make money.
For the past few years, the industry has been working through a regular cycle of taglines and keywords: ‘metered models,’ ‘memberships,’ ‘registration paywalls,’ dynamic paywalls,’ and so on. These have led publishers to leverage a mixture of advertising, paywalls, and subscriptions to generate revenue.
That approach makes sense from a publisher’s perspective, as the seller of content, because subscriptions promise recurring revenues. But it doesn't reflect how users consume content and, therefore, doesn't reflect the buyer's point of view. Because any transaction involves a seller and a buyer, you have to factor both into the business model.
The keyword cycle is primed to shift again, and I predict that the industry will now turn to embrace user engagement. And by that, I mean the practice of increasingly giving users what they want, the way they want it, in order to convert readers to paying customers.
Unfortunately, traditional paywalls and subscription-only models are not equipped for this. The industry needs new ways to engage audiences, and publishers need to put readers at the center of their business models.
What Does Publishing Have to Do with Baseball?
While rewatching the film Moneyball the other night, I realized that the baseball industry once faced – and overcame – a similar challenge.
One particular scene stands out: After employing the nascent practice of sabermetrics, Billy Beane’s Oakland Athletics win a record-breaking 20 consecutive games, only to lose the 2002 American League Division Series. A dispirited Beane (Brad Pitt) takes a meeting with John Henry (Arliss Howard), owner of the Boston Red Sox, who commiserates with him for the bad press he’s getting after the loss, but ultimately praises Beane for employing a system that Henry believes is going to change the entire baseball industry. His words (abridged below for clarity) are particularly insightful:
“I know you’re taking it in the teeth, but the first guy through the wall... he always gets bloody... always… I mean anyone who’s not tearing their team down right now and rebuilding it using your model, they’re dinosaurs.” - Arliss Howard as John Henry in Moneyball (2011)
Sabermetrics constituted a radically different approach to measuring and evaluating baseball performance. The media industry must similarly embrace a new mindset to confront fundamental changes in content consumption today.
Why? Because the shift from print to the Internet changed the paradigm. It turned how people consume news upside down, moving from a ‘push’ to ‘pull’ model. Whereas previously a complete newspaper was delivered (pushed) to your doorstep, today you pull only the content that appeals to you off the web – the story you like, the video you want to watch, the news you want to hear. And that’s how the perspective has changed: People are in control of what they read, and when and how they read it.
The huge elephant in the room is that the paradigm shift from ‘push’ to ‘pull’ flipped control of the narrative from the publisher to the user. In the pre-Internet world, the publisher controlled the narrative; they created the paper and the flow of news, and they told you what you needed to know. Today, publishers may believe that control of the narrative now rests with the platforms (search engines, news aggregators, social media) that curate content from across the Internet. However, it is really the user who is in control, while the platforms are just a vehicle for content consumption.
Platforms gather media, while users moderate it. The user is now able to choose what content they see, which constitutes an entirely different power structure.
The Big Question
What publishers now have to ask themselves is: “How do you sell content to an audience that controls the narrative?”
The answer is to offer audiences the experience they desire, on their terms. This is why publishers need to shift their focus from only selling subscriptions to giving consumers access to the content they want, when they want, in the way they want it. Users don’t think in terms of paywalls – ‘soft’, ‘hard’, ‘registration,’ or otherwise – they only care about reading what they want and experiencing what they like.
So, from my perspective there are two essential ingredients for success:
- Publishers must offer unique content that entices users, and
- publishers themselves must actively engage those users as much as possible.
Quality and uniqueness may be in the eye of the beholder, but without appealing content, publishers will have a difficult time getting anyone to their site. While content ignites interest and interaction, it’s essential for publishers to then engage users so that they spend more time on the site.
Users value their time, so if you want their money, save them time and make it easy for them to buy your content. Prioritize convenience and allow truly frictionless access to content.
To be clear, I’m not talking about eliminating subscription models. They are still the backbone of monetizing loyal users. But they apply only to those loyal users and ignore the vast majority of occasional users.
The industry needs to acknowledge that there is no one catch-all model for every publisher. The path to sustainable revenue streams is – and always will be – a combination of a-la-carte, time-based models and subscriptions. Some options are suited for a publisher’s loyal readers, and some are aimed at their occasional readers. That way we are putting users first and respecting their needs.
Focus on User Engagement
Publishers need to focus ruthlessly on benefiting their users. Let me state my opinion bluntly: Anything that is painful to the user will not be around in five years. Thus, any model that isn’t centered on giving users what they want, when they want it, will become obsolete in this new era of user engagement.
If content is not appealing, users won’t consume it; if publishers don’t engage their audiences, then those readers won’t stay and pay. Failing to deliver on one (or both) leads to failure.
I don’t mean to come across as negative. The future is, I believe, positive for those publishers who find ways to adapt. Rather, I see it as my responsibility to identify the root of a problem and recommend a path forward. That’s why I made the link between publishing and baseball. Even though the industry faltered at the start, sabermetrics arguably changed baseball for the better. I think the same will be true of the publishing industry in its current scenario.
Moving forward, publishers are going to be increasingly dependent on user engagement for reader revenue. The sooner publishers embrace this change, the closer they will get to their paying users.
And is change such a bad thing? I mean, who wants to be a dinosaur?
Cosmin Ene is the founder and CEO of LaterPay, a payments and technology company with offices in the US and Germany. Under Cosmin’s leadership, LaterPay has become the monetization standard for local publishers in Germany with over 200 clients, and has expanded to the US market.