Bridging the gap from free to paid online content

Everyone has an opinion on the Times paywall this week, as the carefully massaged stats were publicised on paying customers.  While the headline figure was 100,000, in reality this included many one-off purchases, so the number of long-term subscribers is probably under 40,000.  That’s about 0.5% conversion according to some clever analysis by Ashley Friedlein. Media owners seem to line-up on one side or the other of the free-vs-paid tug of war.  Murdoch, the FT, Construction News are all on the paid end of the rope, while The Guardian, Brand Republic and Sift’s Business Zone are firmly in the free camp, heels well dug in. I spoke at Media Pro this week, on the day the Times paywall figures were published, and there were plenty of questions about what they really meant.  By the way, my slides are here if you want to take a look.  My take on all this is that the really clever model is the one that balances free content with paid premium services, and links the two with strong incentives to register.  This works best in more specialist markets; here’s the step-by-step plan:

1. Why free content is essential

Free content in a niche market gives a publisher reach.  Everyone can sample your content, search engines can index it and people can share on social media.  You can extend your market internationally, and provide maximum coverage for advertisers.  Free content is the engine that drives new customers into your database.

2. How to build a registered database

It’s essential to have a clear strategy for converting free readers to potential customers you can start to build a relationship with.  Top hooks for obtaining that all-important email address are: newsletters, downloads, webinars, surveys, reports, archive access; or online privileges, such as forum commenting or event booking.

3. Why paid works (and who’s doing it)

With a paid content model, niche markets are profitable at very low volume.  Publishers have a closer relationship with their audiences, and advertisers can access a high value, focussed group.  Above all, it provides a predictable revenue stream.  See my earlier articles on Green Star Media, K9 Media, Songlines for examples of specialist media businesses getting this balance right.  More on the b2b environment in this post.

4. Tips on managing free, registered and paid

Organise your content carefully to entice readers from one stage to the next.  Don’t suddenly start to charge for what used to be free; develop new valuable content for the paid products: exclusive reports, interviews, specials, ebooks or events, and remember the appeal of “money can’t buy” networking or market sector “celebrities”.

5. Advantages for publishers – and advertisers

Good free content replenishes the database with new customers; it also makes it harder for your competitors.  Focussed database building creates in-house sources for selling your paid content.  Create multiple revenue sources: print, online, subs, events, one-offs, ecommerce.  Advertisers can then opt for the broad coverage of the free media, the targeting opportunities of the registered database, or the deeper relationship with the core.

How are you managing free, registered and paid in your media business?  Please comment below, or join the Specialist Media Network on Linked in and swap ideas with 400 other specialist media people.

About the author: Carolyn Morgan runs Penmaen Media, working with media owners to develop a profitable digital publishing strategy.  She launched the Specialist Media Show, which brings together media businesses from across the UK to share stories and learn from each other, and connect with specialist suppliers.  To discuss how you might develop a free/registered/paid strategy for your business, please contact us for an initial chat – it’s free to talk.

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