Wanna-Have Content Sells...When It Gets Personal

In the never-ending campaign to convert users of free Internet content to paid subscribers one mantra emerged in the first decade of the Web: onliners will pay only for content that makes or saves them money…or involves sex. The rather lonely successes of WSJ.com, ConsumerReports.org, and Danni's Hard Drive in those early years stood as pillars of this wisdom. But as we have covered in this column with companies like AmericanGreetings.com, Match.com, and Classmates.com, that early model is beginning to shift. In addition to "gotta-have" products, consumers are starting to pay up for compelling, well-packaged "wanna-have" content. Nevertheless, selling wanna-have content requires more merchandising skills than many Web sites may have.

If paid content has a veteran who has seen the model work across many categories, it is Jonathan Lewin, CEO of eMeta, which has provided both the fulfillment back end as well as consulting services to the likes of New York Times Digital, Financial Times, Hoovers.com, and many others. Lewin believes that consumers are ready to open their wallets for content they want rather than need, and he points to the online version of the New York Times crossword puzzle ($5.95 a month) as a model of turning wanna-have into gotta-have product.

In addition to the daily puzzle, the subscription gives users a wonderful console in which they can get clues, access thousands of puzzles from the archives, play against the clock, and even compete against a friend. It's not just a puzzle; it's a tangible piece of software with exceptional functionality. It is the most successful paid content offering at NYTimes.com because users find "it is an important part of their lives," says Lewin. "That strong identification with the product makes it less of a discretionary good than looking at the weather."

eMeta is starting to move into the online gaming arena, trying to help providers of casual card and puzzle games move their audience from an ad model to a pay-to-play model. This is a notoriously tough nut to crack, because millions of users are used to visiting portals like Yahoo and MSN and playing a quick game of solitaire or Diamond Mine in exchange for fielding a small barrage of ads. Lewin advises clients that one of the key functions for gaining consumer identification with an online brand or editorial product is personalization.

Despite the old saw that your competition is only "a click away," users actually prove to be quite loyal to content providers like game sites, says Lewin, but publishers need to exploit that more effectively by deploying personalization functionality. Letting a user return to your site and see her most valued content—be it a game or a news category—establishes their identification with your site and content, and that can be leveraged into a sale. This is the Microsoft plan at its own MSN portal where the company recently unveiled powerful, new personalized pages at the same time it rolled out a premium subscription plan.

Even when publishers get packaging and personalization right, content sites need to learn more lessons from retail. "Marketing comes down to the number of times you can touch the consumer," says Lewin. Publishers need to leverage all of their online tools. On the site, "you want a lot of ways people can come for free," says Lewin. "They will not buy something they haven't used before." Trial offers, limited time access, etc. are absolute necessities online. You have to show the consumer the value. But don't stop there. Get that email address, so that you don't have to wait for them to return to your site to pitch them again or with a different product or offer that might suit them better. And if they don't want what you have to sell, they may know someone who does, so make it easy for the user to buy it as a gift.

Personalization not only applies to content but to the nature of the offer as well. Lewin remains a big believer in giving users multiple ways of buying into online products because users have so many different barriers to entry. Low monthly access fees are necessary for many users who don't want to commit to lengthy subscriptions, but the annual fee should reward customers substantially for that commitment. Annual NYTimes.com crossword subscribers ($34.95) enjoy more than a 50% savings over month-to-month buyers. "The perception of a deal is very important," he says.

Finally, personalization really matters when it comes to retention, keeping that customer happy by showing her every day that the content she is paying for will remain valuable and, especially, that she would miss it if it were gone. A personal home page (a la Amazon) is the perfect place to notify the user of new features and cross-sell opportunities, but also to include online community features, the people and relationships that really bolt a user to a site. 

People will pay for wanna-have content when they can feel it as their own, either because it is tangible and downloadable or because it is stamped with the user's identity.