The “what” and “how” of the paid model for news publishers


As we move into a world where paid content models are prevalent, wouldn't it be nice to have a clear roadmap for success?

While we create a lot of roadmaps here at Dow Jones, some outdated before the day is over, we haven't found one that definitively predicts performance in driving value from digital content.

However, from our experience with both The Wall Street Journal and Barron's we've identified elements for consideration as a product is marketed within a paid model. These elements fall roughly into two categories: the "what" and the "how" of the paid model.

The “what”

I recently read that financial and business news sites like Wall Street Journal and Financial Times are believed to have more success getting readers to pay for digital content because of their financial focus. This opinion will be challenged as more publications launch their paid models and we find that it is, in fact, quality that supports the paid model. Experience with The Wall Street Journal reinforces this view. As coverage broadens at The Journal to include national and international news and politics we've seen no decline in our ability to attract subscribers; in fact, quite the contrary.

In 2008, The Wall Street Journal invested in a redesign of This renewed site benefited from creative thinking about readership funnels and the subscriber life cycle. Paid content is dependent on establishing a trial environment particularly if the price points are moderate or higher. With quality being the underpinning of value, we need to allow prospects to sample and understand what they're getting. The Journal's renovated site included a migration path where free traffic was nurtured through a relatively low “friction” registration tier, and they in turn were converted to subscribers.

While every visitor doesn't behave according to this plan, the site is designed to increase engagement regardless of where in the funnel they settled. These paths encourage readers to become familiar with the product and its full value — a requirement for a paid model.

The “how”

The digital platform or application could be categorized as a “what,” but the choice in “how” content is made available is the real issue. A publisher may choose to have a publication's full content on a web site and segments of content, such as local sports, dedicated to a smart phone or touch reader experience — charging for all. Or she may elect to charge for some digital platforms and not others despite only nuanced differences in content. These strategic choices balance market size, investment efficiency, and optimal return across the franchise portfolio.

An important consideration is how paid models are received on a specific platform. Look at the impressive sale of digital news and information via iPhone and iPad apps. The same group of users who felt strongly that content on the web should always be free, are now willingly and eagerly paying for content on their iPhones and iPads. The new “free” is US$0.99. Does a platform with a “lean back” newspaper reading experience subtly reinforce value and quality in comparison to their web site siblings?

How the commerce functionality is designed and implemented has a significant impact on a publication's success in a paid model world. I've seen newspapers implement digital commerce with a weak technical or operational solution. The commerce capabilities presented to the prospective purchaser likely didn't compel them to engage and purchase. Results of these commerce efforts led some publishers and media commentators to arrive at the unfortunate conclusion that consumers weren't willing to pay for content. Apple's iTunes is case and point that how we implement our commerce solutions are absolutely critical.

Making the decision to implement a paid model is a complex one, but the heavy lifting only begins at this point. Choices about the pricing, positioning of the offer, and other direct marketing options need to made, tested, and revised.

Don't under-estimate the psychology of the offer. Aspects of the digital purchase experience like the offer itself (individual digital product choice or a bundle with print) and the functionality of the commerce engine (upsell and cross-sell associated products within the order flow) can both sweeten the offer and entice response.

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