Paid content in the spotlight: some successes, but challenges remain

The Wall Street Journal introduced digital subscriptions more than 20 years ago. Making it little wonder then the US-based outfit is now widely regarded as paid content pioneers, with more than one million digital annual subscribers and enjoying steady growth. 

One of the factors behind their success is not only because they laid their foundations early but also because their audience is not at all reluctant to pay for the content, chief marketing officer Suzi Watford said in Berlin. In fact their analysis shows the main reason for subscription growth is because readers want to gain access specifically to the title’s exclusive business news, finance news and opinion columns.  

WSJ ()


But what works for one title does not necessarily work for the other. In stark contrast to The Wall Street Journal, Matthias Streitz, managing editor at Spiegel Online in Germany, said opinion does not rank high in their research of which kind of content is likely to convert readers into digital subscribers. “We have tagged our content according to categories to find out what is selling. Comment and data journalism don’t sell. What we find is that exclusive news and interviews converts the best,” he says.

Related: Monetising directly from consumer: three tech experts share their thoughts

At the New York Times, the process of using analytics to try and understand the path to converting website visitors to subscribers is ongoing. Director for revenue optimisation, David Gurian-Peck, said user analytics is crucial in understanding the behaviour of web visitors. The goal is to understand the user conduct that will most likely lead to subscriptions and then share it with marketing who will create the appropriate push actions.

Similarly trial and error remains part of the game for many and nobody has the silver bullet. An interesting exercise to illustrate this was conducted at the Ananda Vikatan Group in India as far back as 2005. Srinivasan Balasubramanian, managing director and head of content, explained to FIPP that rather than close down their costly website at the time, they introduced an annual subscriber model for the Tamil language site

While it was initially a paid for model, they were confronted with the question: “How do we increase the potential for people to subscribe to it?” They then opted for a freemium model with ‘bait content’ behind a paywall and free content outside the paywall.

Now, 50 per cent of the site’s traffic arrive from Facebook posts and readers are lured past the paywall with a ‘try before you buy’ experience. Once a reader is asked if they would like to continue to enjoy content, the payment option appears. They have seen good conversions and already have reached a 6-figure number of “loyal” annual subscribers. The ultimate triumph depends on how successful they will be in converting a considerable percentage of their 6.5 million monthly unique visitors into subscribers.

No matter how straightforward this may sound, said Balasubramanian, the most important fact is that bait content should resonate with readers.

In Germany BILD is the market leader for digital subscribers with a current total of slightly over 340,000 paying online readers. WELT is also expanding its digital subscriber base, which currently stands at 76,800.

Most of the above examples were pioneers who started early. But there are also the late starters – those who published free content without realising readers would in fact pay for it. One of these is Aftenposten in Norway, a digital transformation leader in many other respects. Espen Egil Hansen, editor in chief, explained that it was only last year that they seriously considered that readers were prepared to pay for online content. They introduced a subscription model, which was immediately embraced by readers. In fact, less than a year later online subscriptions constitutes one of their most important revenue streams.   

Aftenposten ()


Eugene Leow, head of digital strategy at Singapore Press Holdings, publishers of the highly successful online platform Strait Times, says one of the biggest challenges in securing digital subscribers is the simple fact that you can always assume that your online reader can see the same story on a competitor’s platform, whether that be for free or paid for. The challenge is to do more with every story to guarantee a superior user experience. This is why the use of infographics, video and quality analyses becomes so critical.

This might be an obvious challenge, but not the most dangerous, warned Pete Brown, a senior research fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism who said the “Wild West” of social media could be digital publishers’ most dangerous frontier. His research team has been tracking publishers’ activity on social platforms for nine months and they could not pick up one singular trend in the data collected. Publishers are merely in an experimental phase to figure out how best to reach, retain, and monetise audiences, he said.

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In a recent article for the Columbia Journalism Review, Brown writes: “Meanwhile, the platform landscape is constantly changing: The tech companies behind the social platforms are continually competing to outdo (or replicate) their rivals’ latest innovations as they wage their own battles to keep publishers not just on but in their platforms.”

Brown argues that despite publishers’ disillusionment with their low financial returns, there is no sign of them retreating from publishing material directly onto Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and other distribution platforms. This is driven by “anxiety and uncertainty around the future of journalism”. The initial promises from social media platforms of revenue for publishers are yet to materialise. And even as traffic rises, monetisation remains a work in progress.

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