Subscriptions v micropayments: which way forward for online publishers?

Online publishers, whether they have a heritage print business or not, are all convinced they have to find ways to charge readers for their online content and services. For newspapers, who have seen their ad revenues tumble, it’s a matter of survival.  But how to work out the method of charging and the price the market will bear? There’s plenty of contradictory research out there, with paid content’s survey implying subscriptions are preferable to micropayments, while continental’s recent survey says the opposite, and predicts the rates will be in pennies. But most of these surveys focus on news, which to my mind will mostly have to be free. So what guidance exists for the “ordinary” consumer or b2b online publisher, who isn’t a national news organisation?  I think that the surveys are misleading, as they are testing a hypothetical decision. Better to track what other publishers appear to be charging for different packages of content. Assuming all general news has to be free, here are 5 other categories of online paid content:

1. Single piece of content (article or column)

This is the oft-quoted itunes model, where there is an easy payment method and consumers pay 79p. However, buying a music track to play 20 or 30 times and keep forever seems better value than a transient news article or celebrity column. Not sure even an opinionated motoring journalist is worth more than a few pence.

2. Single edition of magazine

The Spectator is currently offering a week’s pass to its iphone edition for 59p (or £2.39 a month). Athletics Weekly also offers an iphone sub at £1.19 a week. This is a discount on the print edition, and both claim to be pleased with the take-up. Distil magazine, in the b2b fashion sector, have just launched an app at £2.99.

3. Product review (indepth)

Good advice on a major purchase has a value. Parkers charge £1.99 for a day pass to their archive of 20,000 car information packs, and £4.99 for a check list on a specific used car. YBW.com, owned by IPC, charge £6.95 for PDFs of yacht reviews. Lonely Planet charge c£2 for single chapters extracted from their guide books. Have to be an authoritative source and provide several pages of highly relevant content.

4. Annual magazine subscription/ membership

The Spectator charges £67.50pa for its digital edition only; less than print but a bit more expensive than the iphone version. Which.co.uk charge £10 a month for a print sub including online access. Digital subscriptions tend to be cheaper than print, but not by much. Walking World charge £17pa for unlimited downloads of walks.

5. Annual pass to reports, surveys, tools, alerts

This tends to be the domain of b2b publishers, who have a clearly defined audience, and the credibility and authority to own the definitive reports, surveys, and other useful tools, such as job alerts or lead generation. Successful b2b publishers now aim to create tools that assist their audience in their daily workflow, rather than “nice to have” news and gossip, so the ROI is evident. Econsultancy charge from £195pa for unlimited access to their reports and surveys. The FT charges £3-4 a week for online subs, and £10 when bundled with the paper.

So what you can charge and the balance between subs and one-off payments depends on the audience, how valuable your content is, and whether they can find a free alternative. When an 80pp mag is available for under £1, however, it does seem unlikely that a single article can be valued at more than a few pence….

If you have any more examples of micropayments or subs working for publishers, please comment below, or join the Specialist Media Network on Linked in to swap ideas and tips with other specialist media owners.

Penmaen Media, the consultancy run by Carolyn Morgan, creates practical digital media and marketing strategies. If you’d like advice on how to price your online content, please contact us for an initial chat.


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