Publishers Must Keep Value Proposition in Mind at All Times

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A site called Disqus polled readers and commenters last year about whether or not they pay for online news and why. "By examining the current sentiment around paying for news, we hope to provide publishers with insights that will help them build successful businesses supported by loyal, engaged readers."

Of the 1,215 people surveyed, 30% of respondents said that they have paid for online news in the last year. Just over 1/3 of those people said that they pay because they want to read high-quality content "on topics I care about from a publication I trust." Other reasons for paying for content are:

  • Support a publication's mission and success.
  • My favorite news source has a paywall.
  • Access to information that most people do not.
  • Access to exclusive benefits besides content - webinars, events, deals.

That idea of supporting a mission also came up in a 2017 American Press Institute survey, especially when it came to young people. The Washington Post recently went to a new slogan in their front-page banner: "Democracy Dies in Darkness." You can almost feel the tilt towards a mission.

"With so much free content readily available on the web, publishers have to provide a compelling value proposition that readers believe is worth paying for," wrote Disqus.

That value proposition is becoming more and more tantamount as we narrow down the content we pay for. At our BIMS event in November, Grey Montgomery, president and CEO, Farm Journal's Pro Farmer, told interviewer Trevor Kaufman, CEO of Piano, that publishers not only need to create that value but must hammer it home.

"If [one of your customers] doesn't want to buy your content because he says it's too expensive for him, then maybe you need to do some soul searching in your content," Montgomery said. "My audience in a lot of ways can't afford it but they do because we also pitch back; for example, 'If you follow all of our hedging strategies with your size crop, this is how much you would have made. Therefore by investing the $500 you'll make $5,000.'"

Jim Sinkinson of FiredUp! Marketing has also spoken much on value. "Here's the thing that I would ask you: If you had to open your publication and choose one of your information units, whatever's current. Pull that out and say, 'Write me some copy on why someone should read that.' How would that go? Would you know how to sell that?"

Tamar Charney, managing editor of NPR One, spoke about providing value in NiemanLab's wonderful Predictions for Journalism 2019.

"We talk constantly about pageviews and engagement rates, circulation stats and Nielsen ratings, subscriptions and donation rates, but all that happens when we successfully offer something to human beings that is of value to them," she said. "Knowing what we do for people also keeps us clear about why we are doing what we are doing. It helps us know whether we are doing things for the right reasons."

According to the Disqus survey, "the most common reason why people pay for online news is for access to high quality content from a publication they like. Readers consider news to be high quality if the content isn't clickbait, the reporting is unbiased, and the publisher is considered trustworthy."

The three most popular reasons why people don't pay for news, according to that survey, are:

  • The same news content can be found for free elsewhere online.
  • There isn't a publication I like/trust enough to pay for access to their content.
  • Subscriptions are too expensive.

Interestingly, only about 6% cited discounts as their reason to subscribe, though more creative discounts (than just cutting the price) may evoke different outcomes. In Marketing General Inc.'s 2017 Membership Marketing Benchmark Report, several respondents said that their best performing acquisition was offering an extra 3 months for the price of 12. "We offer it via an emailed campaign as well as a 'look-alike' campaign on Facebook."


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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…