As Paywalls Proliferate, Quality Journalism and Marketing Must Follow

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In news just yesterday, Bloomberg and Vanity Fair were both reported to be moving to paywalls. Vanity Fair will offer three free articles a month, then readers will be required to subscribe for $19.99 a year for either digital-only or print plus digital, Digiday reported. They'll add a searchable archive of its articles, a subscriber-only newsletter and possibly even access to its writers and editors—the latter being the trend of the year, it seems like. (Read my recent article on that.)

Bloomberg's details are less clear at this point. Business Insider wrote that they are "finalizing plans to roll out a paid subscription offering for its property." It will coincide with a relaunch of the website. Their Businessweek property launched a metered paywall last summer. Non-subscribers can read four free stories each month. The digital-only option includes access to the app, Daily IQ, Businessweek content online and six to eight special print issues a year, for about $50 to $60, according to MediaPost.

"We've tried to focus on smart, clever people who have more money than time on their hands," John Micklethwait, Bloomberg editor-in-chief, told Financial Times back in 2017.

Although these are huge entities, many experts now trumpet the necessity of paywalls for all size publishers. In his new book just out this week—A Member Is Worth a Thousand Visitors—SIPA member Rob Ristagno, CEO of Sterling Woods Group, writes, "The first thing you have to accept is that you MUST put up a paywall and create a membership model around your content... but it isn't enough, especially if it's done suddenly and without a comprehensive business strategy."

Ristagno will be presenting at SIPA Annual 2018 in a session titled Membership Models: The Five Forces to Success with Brian Cuthbert, group vice president, Diversified Communications, and Megan Hall, senior manager of events & digital products, Diversified Communications.

Ristagno's paywall edict fits neatly into his overall strategy, the strongest words being these: "You must find your best customers—or as I call them, your 'whales'—and focus relentlessly on their wants and needs. "Forget about the 'barnacles' that will consume your content and never pay you a penny. About 20% of your readers are superfans and will be willing to pay you for access to your quality, curated content that solves a real problem for them. Find them and treat them like royalty!"

Backing up Ristagno's whales approach, a 2017 Reuters Institute survey found that 16% in the U.S. paid for online news in 2017, up from 9% in 2016—and those who will pay are most likely to pay for news reporting.

The New Yorker may be the biggest digital subscription success story. Interestingly, according to Monica Ray, evp of consumer marketing at Condé Nast, their most important driver has been the ability to target affinity groups on Facebook and Google using paid posts and paid search keywords. This puts articles in front of potentially new audiences.

Though a B2C strategy, it does echo B2B advice given by Charity Huff, CEO of SIPA member January Spring. "In Facebook, you have to pay to play. Just 2.6% of all posts are seen by your fan base. Paid ads can drive real business outcomes like brand awareness and website traffic. It's taking advantage of amazing targeting." (Huff will also speak at SIPA Annual 2018, at a Pre-Conference Workshop titled Best Practices in Direct Marketing.)

The common denominator between B2B and B2C when it comes to paywalls and subscriptions is the quality journalism. "At a moment when quality journalism is not a luxury, but a necessity, it will enable us to invest in our reporting, writing, photography and video, expanding into new areas and onto new platforms, with you, our core readers and viewers, clearly in focus," wrote Radhika Jones, Vanity Fair's new editor-in-chief, in a note to readers.

And even more to this thinking, Michael Silberman, svp of strategy at Piano, which helps publishers grow revenue, said that publishers need to become more like product marketers, something that most SIPA members should be pretty adept at.

Ronn Are you subscribed to the SIPAlert Daily?
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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…