The subject of pay-to-play content models comes up a lot in these pages. It's certainly the crux for established content sites making the fee leap of faith, not to mention new sites about to hang out their signs. Pricepoints and level of consumer acceptance seem to be anyone's guess. Is there a trend or isn't there a trend?
It's like waiting for my parent's dog to eat her dinner. She stares at it for a few seconds then walks away, then comes back, then walks away. She'll eat it, but never when we're looking. We just notice suddenly that it's gone. Contrary to popular imagery, dog dinner is a non-event. I'd have to walk away and come back a few times before I got psyched up enough to eat that dry, smelly, diet stuff, too. Stick a tender filet in her bowl, though, and she'll gobble it up without a second thought. I'll bet she'd even do a trick or two before we let her eat it.
What about content that's not in a dog bowl? Well, some sites enjoy strong brand recognition and credibility and watch as consumers instantly sign up to subscribe. Others, whether because they're new or simply don't have an immediate hook, wait impatiently as consumers take more time to think about the content purchase.
Is it this simple though? Does it really have to do with the type of content offered? One person's fast food is another's gourmet meal. Yet if the Web had something for everyone, which it does, then everyone (or close enough) would find payable value at their favorite sites. Obviously, this is not how things are going.
So we're stuck with picking out the few examples of media sites that actually bring in revenue from their subscription models. I say "stuck" because WSJ.com, ConsumerReports.org and a few select others seem to enjoy poster-boy status among the subscription model crowd. Is it fair to hold them up as examples? Are we comparing apples to oranges? We cannot draw the conclusion that because WSJ.com has subscription success then every editorially- driven content site should, too. If brand recognition and credibility were the end-all be-all then the Web should be populated with more success stories than we currently see.
Yet we should hold these sites up for closer inspection. A content site's success should not preclude it from a thorough benchmarking. Content is varied and as mentioned earlier, just because a newspaper site has a large subscriber base doesn't mean that a short film site should have the same success. But we shouldn't get bogged down with the content. We should be looking at the process. Steve Smith comes to this same conclusion in his excellent cover article "The Free Lunch Is Over: Online Content Subscriptions on the Rise" on page 18. Yes, we may have to examine the "usual suspects," but what we should be looking carefully at are the ways in which sites are "retooling content offerings and merchandising strategies."
So, yes, it is fair to hold these guys up as examples. They're the ones experimenting and aggressively hunting down new opportunities to stay in the game. They may have a bit of a head start with an established and familiar brand, but their initial hurdles and gambles were just as intense and relevant as the next site's.
Not all sites should attempt, or even deserve, to set up subscription models. Much of the content on the Web is useless and certainly not worth spending money on. So a blanket statement proclaiming that all content should be paid content is inappropriate. Though sites that have a viable product—useful and credible—could, and should, learn from those that have made inroads into the wooly subscription landscape.