Beyond the Paywall Is a Relationship

For as long as I have been covering digital media, the paid content question has been relentless. Will consumers ever really appreciate and pay directly for the costly journalism they crave? There have been many encouraging but false starts.

In the late 1990s, early subscription success at Playboy, Consumer Reports, and The Wall Street Journal offered a preliminary answer. People will pay for content that titillates or that makes/saves them money. In the early 2000s, paid dating services suggested that people will also pay to make meaningful connections with one another. And of course, the rise of iTunes-and later, Spotify-shows some willingness to pony up for tangible music libraries.

Still, these are exceptions that underscore just how commoditized most forms of content have become. The social distribution economy further devalued individual media brands in favor of aggregation and continued the concentration of digital wealth around just a few key gateways. But publishers continue to seek ways of extracting more revenue, and they are starting to do so in some innovative ways.

For instance, ad blocking may be an unforeseen opportunity for publishers. Ad-blocker software use is rising sharply as consumers tire of sluggish site performance, intrusive promotions, and excessive drains on their mobile data plans. Publishers will need to decide what to do with visitors that they can see are stripping sites of their monetization model. Do you refuse service or perhaps change the conversation? If frequent visitors enjoy your content but dislike your advertising that much, maybe it is time to cut a deal.

How about offering them a relationship? One of the oldest Digital Native media brands, Slate, is building Slate Plus, a membership program that moves beyond mere enhanced access. It leverages its relationships, giving paid members private chats and early access to live events.

Publishers have toyed with the "membership" model for a while, but in most of the attempts I have previously seen, the member "extras" often amounted to some free tickets and a gift box now and then. Some of the emerging models currently being tested are getting smarter. In some cases, the publishers understand that people will pay for people. Deeper and different contact with the personalities that often breed loyalty is valuable.

As publishers achieve tighter control over site data and can see-in greater detail-who and where the audience is, they have the opportunity to segment the users. For instance, one site remains free for U.S. visitors because that is the market for which it sells advertising. International visitors are nice for basic traffic numbers but mean little to domestic advertisers. So the site puts a paywall up for non-domestic traffic, which tends to be expats and brand loyalists anyway.

Some publishers will be trying an "early access" model with loyal readers. Paid members will get to see fresh content first, perhaps a couple of hours before its general release. This idea plays into two digital anxieties: the fear of missing out (FOMO) and appearing plugged-in. A sense of prestige accompanies the social sharing of content. Publishers can appeal to their own readers' pride in being the first to discover and share a hot story or trend.

The membership model can also resonate with users when it is tied to existing relationships that your customers already have-with local businesses, for instance. This is going to be a hot area for newspaper brands, many of which are already leveraging the valuation of local news in subscriptions. Coupons for local merchants or discounts to local events will be bundled into local newspaper access.

But at the heart of these plans is a change in the kind of relationship that media brands must have with their readers, if they are to survive as identifiable brands. Most of these plans are showing how the publisher and its employees are a part of people's lives and neighborhoods. It requires having a conversation about that value and even getting the reader to become a partner in keeping the brand alive. In order not to be commoditized, content providers need to stop presenting themselves to customers as simply a commodity.   

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