A Tiered Future: Let Free Content Sell Paid Content
Free has become such an online reflex that even one of the most vocal recent proponents of restoring pay-to-play economics to media argues against the blunt instruments some media propose. "We are refusing to launch pay walls," says Steve Brill, CEO of Journalism Online. The founder of Court TV is launching an ecommerce platform designed to retrieve revenue for the 1,300 digital publishers that have already signed up. The end user has a single account and log on that applies to any pay-to-play model the publisher chooses to deploy. However, even publishers who want to rehabituate users to pay for online content have to recognize the realities of search indexing and 15 years of free. You can't tell a search-driven visitor "pay us or go away," Brill says.
Instead, Journalism Online's newspaper and magazine brands will start with a "metered" approach that gives access to 10 or 15 free articles before requiring users to subscribe for further access to the brand. Those "avid readers" are demonstrating to themselves the value they place on a publisher's content by their repeat visits, and they are the most likely to pay. Rather than segregate certain content to put behind a pay wall, this model separates out the most loyal users. "We're counting on only 10% to 15%," Brill says. Many traditional publishers will bundle their print product with unlimited online access. But the saving grace of a metered approach is that it actually leaves much of the content still accessible to casual, search-driven traffic, he assures media companies. They will still be able to maintain the traffic scale necessary to support advertising. Yet even Brill admits this all comes down to quality content that visitors deem useful in their lives. "If you don't think you are doing something that 10% of your readers don't think is distinctive and will pay for, then you should rethink what you are doing," he says.
In this vision of a hybrid online content model, free and paid are not an either/or proposition. "I absolutely believe there are tiers of content that will always be free and some subscription," admits Hart. Critical to that vision, however, is erecting an easy system where users can traverse those tiers when they decide deeper, better content is needed. "We are at a crossroads where publishers have to start monetizing their content or they can't pay journalists. The infrastructure needs to be put in place to start charging people."
From Fee to a Little Free
Ironically, while so many publishers are trying to figure out how and where to lower that pay wall, traditional paid content providers are learning how better to breathe the free oxygen Google provides. "We will use public domain books and open up copyrighted book content for brief windows to allow people to find us in search," says Tim Harris, CEO of Questia, which offers college students $19.95 a month access to 76,000 academic books and 2.7 million articles for research. Harris is a firm believer that "any business delivering high quality content to end users only works if it provides value to all parties." He has watched free-model alternatives come and go, but in 9 years he has had more than 400,000 subscribers in total. Nevertheless, the site attracts 5 million unique users each month almost entirely through search.
Harris does not fear search diluting the opportunities for his quality content to show its value against free alternatives. "It lets us leverage the free content. Search drives the traffic and then we will provide a free trial. You use free to leverage your message, reach, and exposure and then make sure everyone feels the value proposition."
Perhaps the best example of a former paid-only publisher who learned to dance atop the pay wall is FT.com. Until 2007, the online extension of the Financial Times daily was all subscriber-only. "We re-thought the whole thing," says Robert Grimshaw, managing director. "A more sophisticated approach was to allow users a level of access that depended on their status." Anonymous visitors could see one article a month for free, while those who registered could get 10 before being prompted to subscribe.
Grimshaw is an unabashed believer in the necessity of pay models. "People say information wants to be free, but there is nothing free about the information that comes from our editorial team [of 500 journalists]." Nevertheless, letting more of the brand's highly regarded news and analysis move outside of sub walls has only enhanced, not diminished, the paid model. "Over the past couple of years we played with the barrier restrictions, but generally we have made them more restrictive," he says. FT's tiered access approach has allowed the brand to proliferate in the digital ecosystem more freely but at the same time grow the subscriber base to 124,000, increasing 22% a year. Less than 10% of the registered userbase actually pays for content, but that is fine with Grimshaw, because the low distribution costs realize such high margins on digital income. "Long term, I think we could deliver a publishing model that is more profitable than anything we have done in print."