12 tips on making digital news pay in future

Media owners face a dilemma with digital news content.  While a section of the population are still happy to pay for compiled news in print format, there is great resistance to paying for digital news on desktop or as a mobile app.  A small number of established news brands are experimenting with hard paywalls, but for the majority a free access, ad-funded model is the only option.  And with new entrants like Huffington Post and Buzzfeed offering compulsive, shareable, mobile friendly news for free, it takes courage to charge.

So how can “traditional” media owners make digital news pay?  We have all seen the stats on the growth of smartphones and tablets, and the shift to mobile web access.  Plus the under 35s are now increasingly discovering news via mobile and social channels that can’t access paywalled content.  And ad rates on standard websites are permanently under pressure.

Here’s a dozen ideas to help you stay in the black for digital news…

1.     Build mobile habits

Know when your audience are using smartphones and tablets, and make sure your news content is mobile friendly.  On smartphones, dedicated news apps are gaining ground on the mobile web, and they provide a greatly improved user experience.  Deliver the news in a slickly designed interface and you have a better chance of establishing a regular habit.

2.     Encourage contributions

Grow traffic and keep costs manageable by inviting contributors to post on your site.  Huffington Post has built its site with the help of high quality unpaid blog posts.  Forbes does pay contributors but payments are based on the traffic they generate.  Bleacher Report doesn’t pay, but rewards its enthusiast contributors with tiered badges and online status.  Guardian Witness actively encourages readers to contribute pictures and articles on hot topics.  Time Out makes it easy for users to rate events and post reviews and now receives over 15,000 a week.

3.     Join the sharing economy

Younger consumers increasingly discover news via social media; it’s as important as search and branded news gateways for the under 24s. Making your news articles share-friendly from website or mobile app is a simple first step.  And show how many shares articles get. Think hard about article headlines and make sure they are temptingly clickable for twitter or facebook.

4.     Know your audience

Use analytics and in-house surveys to really understand how your audience uses your content – what time of day, what device and what content they read and share.  This not only helps you tune your content to suit their weekly routine, it also paints a picture of your audience for advertisers so they can tailor their campaigns more effectively.

5.     Extend ad formats

Go beyond banners and skyscrapers.  Investigate page takeovers, sponsorship, email newsletter ads, video and audio ads, surveys, polls and of course native advertising.  Ensure sponsored or native content is as high quality as the rest of your editorial and entertains or informs your audience – plus is clearly labelled.  New digital news entrants Huff Post and Buzzfeed rely on native and sponsored social content and both are now profitable in the UK.

6.     Embrace pics, audio and video

Digital news isn’t just about text articles.  Mobile readers love picture galleries, listening to audio content and, when bandwidth permits, watching videos.  The Economist has recently launched a radio show.  Here’s a chance for former print brands to encroach on the territory of broadcasters.

7.     Capture reader data

Anonymous users are of limited commercial value.  Find reasons to capture email addresses and simple demographics on your more loyal digital readers.  Test out personalisation, commenting, online privileges and special offers. Then you can send news alerts and special offers by email and let readers know about other paid services.

8.     Partner with advertisers

Collaborate closely with your most lucrative and digitally savvy advertisers.  Understand their marketing objectives and build cross media campaigns that deliver measurable results.  Regularly review them and keep tweaking campaigns in flight.  Offer unique insights into your audience (their customers) plus your editorial and design skills you can deliver more value than programmatic!

9.     Re-package and re-cycle

News articles don’t die after one day.  Much content has evergreen appeal and can be re-promoted, re-packaged and continue driving traffic for the long term.  Reviews, recipes, interviews, travel pieces, profiles, analysis all can be recycled and find a new audience.

10.  Test out transactions

If you review live events, could you sell tickets? Time Out has adopted this model, connecting its avid culture vultures with special offers.

11.  Stay experimental

Digital media is evolving fast and no one publisher has discovered all the answers.  Keep watching your customers, and keep experimenting with new formats and ideas.  Watch the stats, quickly kill what doesn’t work and expand the winners.  Buzzfeed famously test article headlines to destruction to identify the most shareable phrases.

12.  Look outside your market

Watch your competitors by all means, but also keep tabs on seemingly unrelated markets and other countries.  There’s often inspiration among niche publishers or new digital start ups that is worth copying and adapting for your own audience.

Making digital news pay isn’t just a concern for national and regional news media.  Many B2B publishers and specialist consumer media also rely on niche news as part of their editorial mix.  If you know of any organisations that are succeeding in making money from digital news please share their experiences.

About the author:  Carolyn Morgan has launched, grown, acquired and sold media businesses across print, digital and events.  She has programmed several highly regarded conferences on digital publishing and advises publishers on their digital strategy.

If you’d like a chat about how you can reinvent your publishing or media business for the digital age, please get in touch.

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