Free to paid: 7 questions before you set up paid digital subscriptions


Niche B2B publishers are now considering paid digital subscriptions after years of a free online, wholly ad funded model. In the last two years I have had many conversations with independent publishers, some with print publications, others now digital only, about setting up paid subscriptions for their online content.

Of course each market and title has its own idiosyncrasies, but here are the broad questions to consider If you are planning such a move for your media brand.

1. Who finds your content most valuable?

B2B audiences are quite diverse – they can include students, freelances, large organisations or government departments. It’s worth focussing your attention on the most lucrative segment to start with – which group really value your content, and can afford to pay for it? Then design your first paid proposition around their needs. You can always add other subs packages later. Find a way to size the market and make an estimate of how many might pay for content and how much revenue it could generate.

2. What unique content can you provide?

For your target segment, consider what their alternative information sources are, to identify your competition for paid digital content. Maybe set up an informal user group, or run an online survey, to work out what is unique about your content. Be aware that you may need to create new content, or repackage current content, to create something unique. For many business audiences, convenience and ease of use are as relevant as exclusive content.

3. What is the most popular content for your target group?

Mine your own web analytics and email click history to identify what content people value and spend time with. Add in an online survey and talk to your user group – to identify what they really value. Then you can start to put together a package of valuable content to make the beginning of a subscription proposition.

4. How should you structure the paywall?

In most B2B media markets some content will stay outside the paywall, to attract traffic, such as industry news, or specialist job listings. And you need a certain amount of free content for social promotion or a free newsletter.

The main decision is whether you go for a metered access model or have specific sections of the site that are for paid subscribers only. Much depends on how your content is structured, and how wholehearted you are about the move to paid. A good guiding principle is that most people baulk at paying for content that was previously free, so if you don’t have a history of paid subscriptions it is better to create (or repackage) new premium sections for paying subscribers.

5. What should be in the package and how to price?

In B2B markets, the value is not just in online articles. Access to datasets, archives, downloads, niche email alerts, and the ability to comment on articles or network with other members online or at live events is also valuable. Careful analysis of competition, which may come from associations and event organisers as well as traditional publishers, will help you hone the package and set pricing. And here a user group is also helpful.

You might want to keep life simple to start with and have only one package, but there are many b2b media who offer three packages to appeal to different budgets. Price conscious individuals or freelances will probably prefer a monthly contract – the price and commitment seem lower. And if you have some larger organisations who may want multi-seat subscriptions, work out a pricing policy that encourages more users.

6. What tech platform to use?

Start researching this early. Much depends on the limitations of your current website – and your willingness to replace the entire CMS or just bolt on a paywall. If you are a small publisher there’s little point in using platforms that are designed for larger media organisations – the entry cost might be too high and you won’t get their attention.

Unless you are very confident in your tech knowhow, it’s better to use a third party, as they will have experience of setting up multiple sites. Do your due diligence on their other clients, how long it took to set up. Choose your tech partner early and then you can build the user experience around the features they already have, rather than building too much bespoke, always a risky move in tech projects.

7. How to market the new paywall?

First, get your user group onside, and test out the UX of the paywall and your marketing with them. If you have never charged for online content before, then have a soft launch – maybe offer a free month or two for new sign-ups. Get your email database in good shape and be clear on the business benefits of subscribing. If corporate subs will be a large part of your business, sign up a few key clients early, maybe on an introductory deal, and then publicise their names to their competitors.

Introducing paid digital subscriptions is a major project, and needs good planning, and probably a designated project manager to co-ordinate the research, content review and discussions with tech platforms.

You might also be interested to read…

10 strategic themes for the future of publishing from fipp congress

How to build a compelling premium intelligence product: 10 tips

Developing a premium subscription proposition

If you are embarking on a digital subscription journey and would appreciate some advice and experience from other publishers,  feel free to get in touch to have a chat over the phone or over a coffee.


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About the author:

Carolyn Morgan has over twenty years experience launching, growing, buying and selling specialist media businesses across print, digital and live events. Carolyn now advises publishers large and small on their digital strategy and writes and speaks on digital publishing strategy.

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