What online content will people pay for?

All online publishers, whether they have a traditional print business or not,  are busy searching for the perfect online business model. The consensus appears to be that they need a mix of free content to attract users/readers/customers, and some premium paid-for content. But how can they categorise their content to work out what can be charged for? I’ve assembled five categories, based on a range of examples from traditional and online-only publishers. I’m indebted to Miles Galliford of subhub, whose post on this topic is worth reading, and also to Iain Nicol and Mark Bishop who contributed to the discussion on the Specialist Media Network.  So what content will people pay for?

1. Pay to gain

The notable successes in paid-for content arise when the user can see a financial gain for themeselves or their business – such as Racing Post or the FT. (read the full story on Racing Post on the Media Pioneers group on Linked-in) Property and investment sites also do well. Consumers will also pay for less tangible gains: subhub’s clients see strong take up in health and self-improvement topics.  So it’s health and happiness as well as wealth that can persuade the reader to pay for content.

2. Pay to own (and keep)

Downloads seem more tangible than a pass to view on-screen. Buying music through itunes means you get to keep the music. Econsultancy’s reports are downloadable PDFs, and there’s a secure feeling in having them on your harddrive. Magazine iphone apps created by pixel-mags allow the reader to download the issue so they can view it when they are offline – plus they get the archive to browse.

3. Pay for expert content

Expert content goes beyond niche information – it’s stuff you can trust. One online publisher has had great success in charging for wine tasting notes from a well-known expert, while there is plenty of free information elsewhere. Another can charge yachties a premium for indepth reviews of port facilities, again where there are free sources, but with less credibility. Econsultancy’s best practice SEO guide from a known expert, Dave Chaffey, has greater perceived value than anonymous tips.

4. Pay for data/ intelligence

More in the b2b world, once information is exclusive and hard to replicate, it moves into the realms of data, which is worth paying for.  I’ve mentioned before WGSN, which turns worldwide observations on fashion trends into an essential tool for retail buyers.  Brad Insight, through its traditional directory business, now has a powerful database of agency and media contacts.  In the consumer world, Birdguides sells email and text alerts of rare sightings, invaluable for enthuasiasts.

5. Pay for convenience

Even content that is freely available can be repackaged and charged for if it saves consumers time and money, or makes it portable. The Guardian is free online, but its app has sold 70,000 copies at £2.39. Getabstract.com provides professionally written summaries of over 5000 business books, saving busy execs time in reading.

I’d be interested to hear your own experiences of what makes people pay for online content.  Comment on this blog or join in the discussion on the Specialist Media Network. I’m taking part in a panel discussing this topic at Publishing Expo at Olympia on 25 Feb – do drop in if you can.

Carolyn Morgan runs Penmaen Media, who create practical digital media and marketing strategies, and have particular expertise with media businesses.  She is also content director of the Specialist Media Show, taking place at Exec Peterborough on 25 May 2010, where online content will be one of the hotly discussed topics.  If you are a specialist media owner, it should be a valuable day, with inspiring speakers, opportunities to swap ideas and tips with your peers, and discover new suppliers and services.