If Paid Content is the New Hope, How Do We Convert Free Readers to Paying Ones?
So we’re agreed? Reader revenue is the way to go. We’re over traffic-at-scale and ad-only funding models. Subscriptions probably won’t pay all your bills, but a healthy mix of subs and ad sales is what we’re all about these days.
OK? Great! Now that we’ve settled the paid content argument, how are we actually going to get people to pay?
Recognizing the strategic advantage of re-establishing a reader revenue stream and having a reader revenue stream are two very different things. One calls for a little common sense, the other is going to take some effort.
Speaking about an American Press Institute study into why people pay for news, API deputy executive director Jeff Sonderman sums up the challenges involved in developing a successful paid-content business. “If newsrooms want to build a business model around digital subscriptions, they have to think about the quality of the work they’re investing in and be sophisticated in how they market, target and keep those subscribers.”
At the heart of the task is the need to convert casual readers to subscribers and, like almost everything else in digital media, that’s a little more complicated than it used to be.
I’m not for one second underplaying the effort and expertise that goes into audience development for print. But getting a physical sale seems like a fairly linear endeavor compared to the complexities of digital conversion.
One of the biggest differences is that a print subscriber can pick up your publication and look at every page before they buy it (or get thrown out the shop). With digital, demonstrating the quality of your content and the value of the subscription you are selling is much tougher.
How do you convince someone coming sideways from a social share that you’re content is worth paying for?
Assuming you’re willing to allow some free access, metering solves some of the problem. But gauging the right level of free isn’t easy. It depends on your audience, their relationship with your brand (if any), and the content you’re selling.
The more unique the content package, and the stronger your brand, the less content you need to give away for free before people buy in.
The UK’s Financial Times, with its focus on a narrow business niche and a subscriber base dominated by corporate accounts, gives next to nothing away. It does let prospects sample content through a heavily discounted time-limited trial and famously boosted subscription sales 600% by opening access to its coverage of the UK’s Brexit referendum. But generally, nothing.
Broader-based titles give more away or free, although even with commodity news content, the trend is for tightening access. The New York Times now gives readers just five articles a week for free, but launched its paywall in 2011 giving readers four times that. The Boston Globe has grown subscribers by cutting free access from five to two articles a week and The Washington Post has trialed a registration only approach, making readers sign up for its daily newsletter to keep reading for free .
Somewhat counterintuitively, other publishers are giving more content away to coax stubborn prospects over the line. The WSJ, rating the likelihood of site visitors to subscribe, gives those most likely to pay up less content for free, while the least likely to subscribe get more. The thinking is, the more content that holdouts sample, the more likely they are to subscribe.
Data Saves the Day
If the journey from visitor to customer in digital media is a long one, behavioral data is increasingly seen as the way to shorten it.
The WSJ’s prospect rating initiative scores non-subscribers against 60-plus data points, presenting the hardest paywall to those judged most likely to subscribe. Others get more access or are even given time-limited guest passes if they register. Handing over their contact details allows them to sample more content, but also brings them into the WSJ’s subscription marketing funnel.
Like the WSJ, Hearst Newspapers is testing technology to automatically flex paywall access and target subscription promotions depending on reader behaviors and preferences. Content access is opened or closed depending on data signals, from location and device to the type of content the customer has shown an interest in.
Data is then used to target subscription offers according to interest -- sports fans get offers focused on their local team, movie buffs are promised film reviews and interviews. With 24 daily and 64 weekly papers across the US, Hearst Newspapers claims subscription gains of 10% across the board from this data-driven approach to subscription marketing.
Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten has used browsing data to identify website visitors five times more likely to pay for content than the average. Its “subscription-purchase prediction model” has delivered prospects 22% more likely to subscribe from Facebook ads linked to paywalled articles and pushed telemarketing success rates up from 1% to 6%.
With deeper knowledge of audience preferences, the conversion to paying customer can clearly be more effective. Data provides insights into the information needs of registered audiences that should make it easier to present content that represents real value for money to them.
But publishers can’t afford to ignore anonymous visitors.
The poster child for paid content, The New York Times has grown its digital subscriber base to 2 million, but it also serves almost 90 million non-subscribers every month. The paper needs to keep those people coming back to support ad sales efforts -- still 40% of revenue at the NYT -- but also to keep them engaged and open to future conversion efforts.
Now With More Added Value
Beyond content, getting people to pay means making them feel special. Increasingly publishers are adding extras to clearly differentiate their subscriber offering from the user experience that is available for free.
Access to journalists through Slack groups and conference calls is common as is early access to content -- the NYT made episodes of its “Caliphate” podcast series available to subscribers one week before anyone else. I wrote last month about The Economist developing a subscriber-only app to give paying customers the best possible experience of magazine’s content.
Exclusive events also play a part -- B2B media and marketing publisher Digiday issues subscriber-only invites and creates exclusive VIP areas at public conferences.
Others are creating extended content packages: The Daily Beast is targeting 1 million “hyper-loyalists” with its “Beast Inside” membership program. While its main website will remain open, members paying $100 a year will get an extensive bundle of exclusive advantages including:
- A daily single-topic deep-dive newsletter
- Early access to weekend stories
- A custom version of the “Cheat Sheet” newsletter
- A Trump-centric podcast
- Binge access to the monthly Beast Files crime
- The opportunity to post comments and opinions
Conversion is Not an Exact Science
Determining exactly what will convert your audience from free to paid is not an exact science. It might be as simple as getting your messaging right. The Guardian has secured 800,000 paying customers on the strength of appeals to support independent journalism.
You might need to think about pricing -- the Beast Inside is offering a 50% discount to charter members -- or you might be lucky enough to be like Money Media and operate in a professional market where price is secondary to actionable insight.
What converts people may even change over time and adjusting metering counts, subscriber offers, and member benefits could become a regular endeavor.
But one of the clearest summations of what people will pay for comes from John Wilpers, editor of FIPP’s “Innovation in Magazine Media” report. He says, “If it is valued, if it is unique, if it is something you can't get anywhere else, and if it speaks to their passions, makes them smarter, gives them advantages, and entertains them, then much like everything else that does that, readers should pay for it.”
Your job as a seller of content is to convince your audience that that what they are buying is unique, useful and entertaining. Then, once you’ve singed them up, all you need to do is deliver.
Peter Houston runs Flipping Pages Media, an independent consultancy and training firm, helping publishers build multi-platform success. He has run Guardian Masterclasses, spoken at Google’s ThinkPublishing and was formerly Editor-at-large for The Media Briefing. He now co-hosts the Media Voices Podcast, delivering a weekly take on the media news and guest interviews with senior players at a leading media organizations, from Facebook to Nieman Lab, The Economist to CNN.