Remember when the digital content industry was convinced that audiences would never pay for content as long as they could get it for free? Gloom and doom were common among publishers that found demand for their traditional content formats declining, as more and more people went online to find information. And, yes, some publishers have failed. Others, however, are thriving in this new environment.
Take The Economist, for example. As Charles Cooper pointed out in an October 2015 Adweek article, The Economist-a publication that stems back to 1843-has not only weathered the storm, but is thriving: "The Economist more than quintupled its goal of getting 650,000 new prospects. It finished the campaign with 9,500 new subscribers. An additional 1 million unique visitors viewed Economist.com, generating an additional £500K in ad revenue. Awareness of The Economist in the U.S. soared 64 percent."
Those are impressive results, and they are results that other publishers are increasingly finding within their reach--if they are able to consistently deliver high-quality, unique, audience-centric copy that meets needs that aren't being addressed through the massive volumes of other information now readily available. In fact, it may be largely because so much content is now available that trusted content-such as that from The Economist-has somewhat of an edge.
The Year in Review
For content providers, 2015 was a year of testing, says Kathleen Greenler Sexton, CEO and publisher at Subscription Insider. She points to companies, such as Marvel Comics, that are launching apps; Time Warner and other companies experimenting with creative subscription models; the Chicago Tribune, which has announced that it is going to try out metered access; and the Baltimore Sun abandoning paywalls in favor of apps. These are just a few of the many examples of the kinds of models that publishers have been experimenting with.
The move to mobile was another continuing trend in 2015, with the numbers predicted to keep on growing. A Pew Research Center report published in April 2015 indicated that "64% of American adults now own a smartphone of some kind, up from 35% in the spring of 2011." That shift caused publishers to scramble as they attempted to convert the average consumer viewing experience from a traditional desktop view to a tablet and mobile view. The mobile move is not likely to diminish any time soon, as Statista, Inc. estimates the mobile content market will be worth $18.6 billion in 2017.
But determining whether all of these efforts are really working is critical. One area of focus for those attempting to drive commerce through content is analytics. Sexton says, "No longer can you just put your content out there and just have it all work; you need to be very aggressive and test your offers, test your pricing, and test your packages consistently to stay on top of the market."
That's not so different from what content creators should have always been doing. The only difference is that they're now doing it on channels in which they can generate immediate actions-and sales-if they're able to connect with the right audience, in the right place, at the right time, and, importantly, on the right device. That's one of the challenges content marketers faced in 2015-they'll continue to face it, along with other challenges, in 2016.
A Look Ahead
Sexton expects that the experimentation seen among content publishers in 2015 is likely to continue in 2016. "The great news is that the subscription economy is really growing rapidly. Consumers are very much used to paying for apps and subscriptions for a variety of services, including razors and coffee," she points out. "So if you've got great content and it's packaged perfectly for your market, you can have your customers pay for content. The discussions of whether all content should be free are over."
Analytics will continue to be a critical area of focus as organizations attempt to find ways to best monetize their content. Tyne Darke, an account executive at Matter Communications, says this analysis will become less focused on individual channels and have a more multichannel or omnichannel focus.
"In 2016, organizations will realize that there is no web and mobile strategy-only a customer-centric digital strategy, regardless of channel," says Darke. "There is no marketing data, sales data, and support data; there is customer lifecycle data. 2016 will be the year of maturation of digital strategy, when companies get serious about bringing together all that they know about who a person is, what they are trying to achieve, and how best to serve them with a single, continuous digital strategy."
Above all, of course, organizations producing content for sale need to continually find ways to monetize that content in an increasingly cluttered media environment. Gretel Going, co-founder of Channel V Media in New York, says that in 2016, "Micropayments will become an increasingly popular way to get readers, listeners, and viewers to pay for specific content-articles, songs, shows-rather than paying an umbrella subscription fee for a content provider they're not willing to commit to on a regular basis." She points to what The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post are doing with the Dutch company, Blendle-which licenses content from publishers and resells to audiences via micropayments.
Television content, says Going, will be increasingly moving away from an advertiser-supported model to a subscription model. "More and more TV content providers are moving to a subscription model. YouTube Red is the latest in a migration toward subscription content not supplemented by advertising revenue." She adds, "Buy Now buttons on interactive video ads make connected TV video ads actually shoppable, in the moment, offsetting the cost of advertising and increasing ROI."
To make it all work, though, content providers need to have a well-developed strategy, says Sexton. "If you're watering down your content-or if the same content is free as is behind a metered paywall ... -[you risk] cannibalizing your brand and cannibalizing your content monetization strategy."