Tiers, Paywalls and Social Media Can Lead Readers to Pay for Content

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There's been an interesting discussion on the SIPA Forum this week—join here if you're not already on it—about how much content should be given away and what type of paywalls works best. Here are some interesting industry examples I found:

Convert through a metered paywall and social media. The Economist struggles with their paywall. "We're constantly debating how much content to give away," Michael Brunt, CMO and managing director of circulation, told Digiday earlier this year. "If you're too generous, there's no point in subscribing. We have the other view: We are generous; we work hard to distribute content on many platforms to give a flavor." Their metered paywall allows non-subscribers to view three articles a week. And then a social media team repurposes content for their various platforms. For example, Facts of the Day gets posted on Facebook, usually with a link to one of their articles. Converting through Facebook is cost-effective and scalable, said Brunt. "It's a soft sell as they are already slightly engaged. Then it's appropriate to ask them to subscribe." This targeting has enabled them to lower the cost of acquiring by half.

Have discipline. In December, I asked Rob Ristagno, CEO, Sterling Woods Group, what lessons he learned when he was COO at America's Test Kitchen. "Besides becoming a better cook," he said, "I learned the importance of having the discipline to charge for quality content. Granted, you always have to give away some content to build trust and loyalty, but to survive, you can't undermine your business model by giving away your best stuff for free."

Know the type of niche you have. In a report on paywalls from BI Intelligence last year, they concluded that there is no one-size-fits-all model for publishers. Those with highly specific and unique content tend to gravitate toward strict paywalls, while those with a more general interest focus often operate with metered paywalls.

Be open to new ways. That same report also said that the traditional paywall model needs to evolve. "Millennials are more hesitant to pay for news subscriptions than their predecessors. Long-term, publishers need to consider alternative models like micropayments, membership programs and user data exchanges to monetize readers." Ristagno concurred: "We did extensive research and found that the most important thing publishers can do to grow their digital revenues is to have a robust digital membership program." (See Wednesday's column.)

Give a choice of tiers. In June Bloomberg Businessweek put up a paywall for readers of four articles in a month. After two articles, they're asked to provide an email address to continue. They then get two offers, a digital-only option costing $50-$60 a year and an all-access choice costing $87 a year (you get the print product which they've still found popular). From Digiday: "Scott Havens, head of digital for Bloomberg Media, said he saw the new membership prices as a starting point and that over time, the publisher plans to test higher ones, as well as a third, more expensive tier with additional benefits costing several hundred dollars a year. 'This is the beginning of moving up the price curve,' he said. 'What we do believe is we've undervalued the product in the past.'"

Think of content in new ways. Asked recently how they stand out in their competitive events market, Lia Kennett, VP events and special projects for digital publisher Recode, responded, "By offering premium content. We work very hard to ensure that Recode event content is something you will not get anywhere else... There are ways that we work that we believe resonate with audiences. We craft unique experiences. In addition to the content, we bring the most compelling players to the table, and it's really not formulaic for us."

Reach high with your content. The New York Times' latest digital guidance report—Journalism That Stands Apart, The Report of the 2020 Group—said that today's strong competition "forces The Times to take a clear-eyed look at the coverage of every subject that is central to our report and to evaluate whether it is good enough. Put simply, is it so much better than the competition's coverage—which is largely free—that we can plausibly ask readers to pay...?"

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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…