How to build an online paid content strategy

At the AOP summit earlier this week, online publishers were debating paid content strategies, with a particular focus on news organisations.  There are a growing number of examples of publishers building successful subscription bases: the FT, Wall St Journal, Which, Racing post (see my earlier blog on niche paid content) and many b2b publishers.  All now accept that general, nice to have news is not chargeable, but what is?  Here’s my road map for online publishers:

1. Focus on a core audience

Rob Grimshaw from borders on tunnel vision, with his focus on the 100,000 paying subscribers, rather than the millions who flit in for one article and then disappear.  In designing content worth paying for, you have to have a laser focus on your strongest advocates.  By building a stronger relationship with them, you are more likely to be able to work out what they value.

2. Have a free tier to drive traffic

News is ubiquitous and rarely unique; it is nice background info, but doesn’t change a reader’s life.  So think of it as a vast trawler net to bring in people who might just be interested in your premium service.  Keep it free to be visible to SEO (Which feel they suffer from having all their content behind a pay wall and invisible to search engines).  RBI keep news and forums on the free part of their b2b sites, and then have sophisticated conversion strategies to upsell to their paid services.

3. Develop intelligent content

Once you understand your core audience, work out what content can change their life –  ie help them be more successful in their work or make an important decision in their personal life.  B2b publishers like Emap and RBI can charge for reports, forecasts, pricing indices and lead generators that help business people grow revenues.   Yachting Monthly can charge £5 for a yacht review; in the context of a £10k+ purchase decision this seems reasonable.  Add functionality and services to pure content; look at the Times’ Culture+ and Travel+ clubs.  You may have to create new “intelligent” content, and limit the time your ed team spends on “nice to have” content that users won’t pay for.

4. Work out your pricing structure

In each market there will be price precedents – maybe the rate for a print subscription, or a mobile app.  It may be hard to deviate too far from these and you may need to create tiers to gradually move readers to higher price points.  A Polish regional newspaper owned by Mecom packaged its business and legal news, and persuaded 40% of its subscribers to pay a 35% premium for the service.  Micropayments may suit some audiences better than subscriptions: New Scientist successfully charges £3/$5 for articles on specific topics.

5. Be prepared for the operational and technical challenge

Implementing an online paid content strategy holds major technical challenges.  Media owners will also have to understand payment methods, customer service centres, and become adept at conversion and retention strategies.  Editorial teams will have to learn how to create intelligent content that readers will value.  The Wall St Journal have been charging online for a decade, but found the operational issues a big challenge. The explosion in new platforms such as mobile and e-readers adds further complexity.

I’m collecting examples of successful paid online content from traditional publishers, so would be keen to hear of any successes.  Do also follow the discussions on the Specialist Media Network on Linked In.

Penmaen Media, a consultancy business run by Carolyn Morgan,  creates practical digital media and marketing strategies; if you are a traditional media owner considering how to develop paid online content, please contact us for a free review of your options.