It’s fair to say that many in the media industry have found charging for digital content to be a tricky process to get right.

Some have found that putting up “walls” and forcing customers to pay for content they may not find appealing can result in significant drops in traffic and a low uptake. Some have even had to relinquish charging completely and consider going back to 100% free. 

Perhaps the clue is in the term “walls.” 

Premium digital content can easily stray from being about creating a valued and satisfying relationship between media house and audience. Instead, it can sometimes become about building a wall over which we pray someone will throw some money over.

The trouble often starts in the strategic thinking phase. 

Confusion and lack of insight have the habit of accompanying the process of working out new revenue and content strategies. Establishing paid-for content can then become a burden, something that has to be done quickly without really thinking it through. 

The top five most common sins we regularly witness are where media organisations: 

  1. Throw up a “wall” in a rush without any real understanding of which types of audience could and would pay for content.

  2. Construct a paid-for content model that looks great on an Excel sheet but does not reflect the true value of the content and brand experience.

  3. Copy blindly what the neighbour or competitor does without querying and investigating one’s own market and situation thoroughly.

  4. Start paid-for off as a technical project, building a user (un)friendly system that deters and revolts clients away from parting with precious funds.

  5. Only focusing on a paid-for solution in isolation, in any one department, without really looking at the wider creative transformation process of the media house. 

So what might be an alternative way to go about it from the outset? 

One example is from a regional media house called Västerbottens-Kuriren (VK) from the north of Sweden.

Three years ago, its journey of transformation started in the newsroom, with an acute awareness of the company’s lack of knowledge around its rapidly diversifying audience. 

The journey has (so far) culminated with converting more than 60% of readers to use digital as well as print, having the largest reach in the north of Sweden, a successful premium model, and launching a whole host of new digital products and services.

The process of getting to this state started with editorial developing and applying audience knowledge to daily decision making. Every day they improved how they plan and followed up — not just stories or articles but how the newsroom developed wider and richer themes.

This involved each desk on VK learning how to create content across multiple channels in a way that did not damage any one particular platform but instead saw digital become a healthy complement to the print offerings.

Importantly, it became an opportunity to redesign the content structure of the VK print brand, more in line with audience interests and needs.  

The work of editorial increased the overall quality of content and brand engagement, setting the ground for an organisation wide effort to consider how premium content would work. 

“We had the whole company in on the change — eight teams working on all angles of paid-for content,” explains Jessica Wennberg, VK’s deputy and managing editor. Wennberg led the transformation strategy design and implemented the entire process with VK’s Editor–in-Chief Ingvar Naslund. 

“For example, we did audience research on transactions and value for digital, a new design on the Web site, new systems, we did extensive work on our publishing strategy, working out which content would be free/paid for over 150 different content types and scenarios. And we changed the way we worked, new technologies, even put in some new roles and simplified our processes.

“In the end we did a considerable marketing campaign, which warmed up the readers to using both print and digital together” 

Paid-for content has been in place for over a year at VK now, which is a good amount of time to see if all that preparation, time and effort has been worth it: 

“We have higher reach than before paid-for and we have also more traffic than before and it has helped us with print subscriptions,” Wennberg says. “Normally we would have 5.6% down but now we are only seeing around the 2% decline. It will be very interesting what will happen next year.” 

So at VK, paid-for content represents an opportunity to have a different kind of relationship with diverse audience types, some free, some premium and in print.

Because the newsroom had spent time integrating and strategising thoroughly, paid-for content become essentially one of many aspects of an innovation process, as Wennberg explains: “The work wont stop. We are already on our way to more. TV, tablet editions, new special apps. Paid-for content is just one milestone of many.”

If you would like to read more about VK’s transformation journey please e-mail the author for a special report.