They’re Just Not That Into You

In a feature I wrote for last month's EContent on the state of the paid model online, I spoke with a number of the people at Journalism Online, Dow Jones, and The Financial Times (FT) about how they do or will make these models work. As we move into the second half of the year, we hear that many of the major news brands-such as The New York Times and, perhaps, even ABC News-are thinking of imposing new metered or pay wall ideas. This tiered approach appears to have made traction because many feel that making only the most frequent visitors pay for persistent access helps to identify the real brand loyalists whose recidivist behavior demonstrates the value they already place on your brand. Well, OK, this works in some measure for very high-profile, high-value media sources such as FT. But will it work for much more commodified content like most newspapers?

We keep trying to ask consumers what they think about paid content, and the survey metrics end up all over the map. The latest attempt delivers the most sobering news. If you add up a few recent studies, it turns out that many people already believe they are paying for the content they receive. They just aren't doing so in the way publishers want and need. A recent Forrester presentation by VP James McQuivey showed that Americans actually pay boatloads of money for media. In 1976, the average American was paying about $29.58 a month for content. But in those days, we paid mainly for things such as concert or show tickets, LP records, or magazine subscriptions. This year, we are spending $228.54 a month per household for our media. But the lion's share of that outlay is for "access" (broadband, cable TV subscriptions, DVD rental subscriptions). The problem for the individual content brands is that many consumers already feel that they are paying for the content itself, when generally what they are paying for is access to the content.

Technically, McQuivey argues, this has always been true. "In the past, that access happened to be gated analog constraints like books, vinyl, theaters, and newsprint. As a result, when we paid for anything, it appeared that we were paying for content, not access." But now, the overwhelming majority of content access fees are going to cable, broadband, wireless data plans, and subscriptions such as Netflix and Xbox 360 Live memberships. In this new world where content is tied so closely to devices such as set-top boxes and portable players, McQuivey says, "Whoever controls access commands the highest share of revenue."

In this model, both potential revenue streams, advertising and premium fees for specialized content, are depressed by fragmentation and a lot of revenue sharing.

It is really a two-pronged challenge, however. Not only do many consumers feel they are already paying for media, but these fat pipe platforms themselves have also resulted in media consumption habits that are anathema to payment. When it comes to news especially, the basic metrics around taste and brand loyalty spell trouble for paid models. The latest annual Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism study on the state of media found that 65% of online news consumers do not have a site that stands out in their minds above others. Only 35% of us have a "favorite site." This is an issue not only of what we will pay for but also of what we have come to value in content. Even among those who said they have a favorite, 82% say they would find another site if their favorite started charging. Media moguls get used to the new reality. Sure there is brand loyalty-gossamer-thin brand loyalty.

And this is the problem for big media. They are more interested in leveraging and preserving the perceived value of the one thing that clearly is in decline: that overarching brand. Instead, they need to start finding people's true passion points and building content and new brands around them. We have already seen glimpses of how this works, although not always via paid models just yet: when AOL incubated this out-of-nowhere that is now a household name; when a publisher such as United Business Media spun out a brilliant digital-age think tank at; at a jobs site such as, which focuses only on listings of $100,000 or more a year in salary; and at a conservative news site such as, which sells premium subscriptions to health and wealth newsletters to its audience because that is what they will pay for. Pay walls around "trusted branded content" aren't the answer. Product development is.