Content Licensing Takes Research and Resolve, But Returns Can Be Well Worth It, NYT Exec Says

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“It’s all about getting our content out there to new audiences and extracting value from it,” said Alice Ting, VP of brand development, licensing & syndication for The New York Times, delivering the keynote at SIIA’s Buying & Selling Content event last week in New York. “Archival distribution, magazines, content packages, film options—yes, people now option our articles to create films.”

Creating content from scratch is expensive, Ting said, so many places are looking for content. They key is monetizing your content, in the face of all the free stuff out there. “Licensing provides a good ancillary revenue for us,” she said, noting that subscriptions and advertising still make up close to 90% of overall revenue. "[More importantly,] it’s a way to support the overall mission of the Times in a profitable way."

Ting said that they are seeing a lot more demand for content in non-traditional media spaces. While they do put a lot of resources into it—eight locations worldwide, 35 dedicated people—it is something that different-sized publishers can do if you know your assets and prospective markets

Here is Ting’s guide to content licensing, based on her extensive experience, much of it international:

1. “What are your goals?” she asked. “Why do you want to license internationally? To make money, build traffic? Are there other reasons? You need risk tolerance. Working in international markets is nothing like the U.S. We learn something new each day… For the Times, it supports our core purpose of trying to develop new audiences. Whatever we do internationally provides meaningful contributions.”

2. “Prioritize what markets to enter, identify key criteria from an economic and education level of your end users. English proficiency is an important criteria for us, although that’s starting to change. We try to leverage a lot of international data,” she said, repeating data three times to stress its growing importance. “[Data] allows us to be able to identify possible areas of opportunity, how many people from each country are reading that content. It also influences packages we want to create.”

3. Balance the dependability of mature markets like Europe with the excitement of emerging ones. “Who doesn’t want to be in an exciting place?” she asked. But they want your content and don’t want to pay for it. We’ve entered into contracts and never gotten paid for it.” Asia, of course, is growing for them, but even a place like India—with its high readership—can be “challenging” in the way they do business.

4. What needs are you trying to meet? What can you offer? Again, Ting said, data is really important here—“it helps to support the direction we go. You have to evaluate on your niche content and any competitive advantage you might have. We can supply value to readers by offering more global perspective.” For lifestyle verticals. Ting said that “everybody wants video. Producing videos can be expensive—with graphics and interactive—but it gets a lot of traffic.” We can also provide mobile-fitted content. Education is a big market for us, content-wise.

5. Do a self-assessment. “Entering a new market puts you at a disadvantage to local competitors,” Ting said. “What are your strengths? Ours is brand recognition, so we leverage that to get in the front door. Then we have quality content, proprietary data and an existing sales force.” A video tech platform would be something good to leverage, she added.A lot of clients just want easy—they want our logo, pick and choose content, and a format design.” For pricing, Ting said they talk to other people in that marketplace, do a market analysis, and it can all go “out the window when we start negotiating.

6. Know where you need help. What assets do you own? Among the Times’ live events, Ting said they are proud of their Times Talks with journalists and editors. But even there, where they own the rights, it may only be for certain uses, not for a clip of a movie they show perhaps. So she urges you to “delve into details on the rights. Just because you create it you may not own it. Photographers are exciting to work with but [rights] can be difficult. Make sure you know the assets you own. Ting said that now some places want events rights to go with the content. “We are less apt to give them that,” she said.

7. Build, buy or partner? “Hire some really good lawyers,” Ting advised. “They need to help you understand the local laws, trademark fair use, etc. Operationally, you want guidelines so people don’t take your content and do strange things to it. And one price does not fit all. Our wire service may cost hundreds of thousands in some markets and nothing in others. Who is the end user?

8. Who’s going to sell for you? “A sales staff used to just be [concerned with] straight sales,” Ting said. “Those were the good old days. Now it’s more about business development, much more complex. A sales staff wasn’t equipped to think beyond the sale.” If you sell internationally, it’s important to have a translator or staff that speaks the language, she added. There was a licensing agreement in Mexico where they ended up doing strange things with the Times trademark. “Understand and know who you’re partners with.” Asked about where she finds these new types of sales people, Ting advised to start looking for individuals with business development backgrounds.

9. Be very interested in the customs of the market you’re selling in. “Know the history of the country,” Ting said. “It will give you insights into the way they think. People in some countries may only want to have conversation over coffee and meals.” She said in Japan you have to know where everyone is supposed to sit—it’s based on your level. And women are usually only there to translate or take notes. “Understand how business etiquette works”—even gift giving may have special wrapping procedure. “These little things help to establish relationships.

10. Do your homework, talk to someone in the market; it’s the little things that matter. Be prepared to eat a lot, Ting said. In Japan, everything is done over meals. “And personal space in Latin America doesn’t exist. It’s also important to define all your terms and do so as narrowly as possible. We inherited contracts where digital was not defined. Ebooks, mobile, tablet, we had given all rights away for nothing. So know the value of your content."

11. What will you do in case there’s a need for termination? "You might need something like a prenup or a will,” Ting said. “Don’t negotiate against yourself. Ask for everything you want. They will ask for everything they want. Let them speak. Know the costs and implications of entering and exiting markets.”

12. Look at people stealing your content as a sales opportunity. Ting said that, even for the Times, it’s hard to prevent people from taking your content. “We don’t have a dedicated staff for that. Our sales force is out in the market. I just think it’s a sales opportunity when that happens. We’ll educate them with the understanding of what local laws are. In a lot of cases they just take it down.” 

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…