From content as destination to content as sales support, the state of content commerce is shifting as content providers continue to look for ways to monetize their offerings. In a digital environment where content drives engagement, there are certainly opportunities for content providers to benefit, but the opportunities are vastly different than they have been in the past.
Minal Bopaiah is an analyst and the editor of Subscription Content, (formerly Subscription Site Central) based in the Washington, D.C., area. Bopaiah also recently published "2013 Online Subscription Benchmark Report," an update of her inaugural 2009 research in this area. Subscription, membership, and paywall sites have traditionally received less attention than other segments of the larger paid content industry, says Bopaiah. However, this has begun to change, she says, with strong growth in both the acceptance and presence of these types of sites. In addition, she says, tablet and mobile innovations have led to the growth of digital subscription publications.
THE YEAR IN REVIEW
"For a long time now, actually, subscription paywalls, or online subscriptions have been doing well in niches like B2B publishing," says Bopaiah. "Anyone catering to business, as well as financial news, had an easier time selling those subscriptions." Now, though, she says she is seeing an uptick in the B2C (business to consumer) market-particularly for general news and consumer interest content.
"At the same time, with the advent of the tablet, there are a couple of publications that are sort of bypassing websites and going digital without a website," she says, pointing to The Week as one example. "The content on its website is categorically different from what's in their magazine and in their app."
Bopaiah says she is also seeing a rise in premium content. "The use of this ‘freemium' model is really taking off where people might have a free blog, but then they offer premium services on top of it." This model, she says, performs well in both B2B and B2C. Another trend is an increase in subscription access to databases and directories.
A LOOK AHEAD
Two major trends gaining speed in 2013 and likely to continue into 2014, driven by consumer needs, are curation and automation, says Avi Savar, founder of the social agency Big Fuel and author of Content to Commerce: Engaging Consumers Across Paid, Owned, and Earned Channels. While curation has been around for some time, it's snowballing in a big way, says Savar. "I think it's becoming more and more evident that one of the best ways to win in content is to curate," he says. Content providers have a big opportunity to help consumers get past the noise-and convince them to pay for the convenience. "Some of the big winners that will start to appear are folks that are starting to use technology and automation to help surface the most valuable content for people at the right time," says Savar. Closely tied to this is the use of automation to deliver that content to consumers who are likely to be interested in it at a time and place when their interest is most heightened.
In 2014, says Savar, consumers won't be finding the content, the content will increasingly be finding them. "What I tend to call ‘walled gardens' are coming down," says Savar. "The traditional methodology of publishing was about creating really great pieces of content and then having people come to your site to consume that content. Today, and in the future, the discovery of content has changed dramatically-it's not destination-oriented anymore." As a result, he says, publishers will need to "bring those walled gardens down." Publishers, he says, "will need to figure out how to monetize their content through advertising and other means that allow for their content to travel."
Bopaiah agrees. "People don't really find content by searching for content through Google," she says. "They happen to be on a site and then get recommended or get exposed to other content that may be related." That doesn't mean, though, that the concept of paying for content is going away, she says. "People are going to see it more as a digital subscription rather than a paywall and a gateway," according to Bopaiah. "Our benchmark report in 2013 found that the industry is about an $18 billion a year industry for subscription websites."
As consumers are driven more through recommendation engines than search, Bopaiah says, there will also be an increase in targeting them through ads that appear on sites they visit that are driven by their engagement with previous sites. This is called behavioral targeting.
Search will be far more individualized, with results tailored to past search history. "Content sites are going to have to be a lot savvier, and not necessarily in SEO," she says. "From all of the case studies that we have found, some traditional methods can work much better." For instance, she points to in-house sales calls for B2B publications and email marketing as growing trends that are generating good results. The Economist, she says, spends 40% of its marketing budget on direct mail, but only in the U.S. market-none in other markets. What this means, she says, is that "publications are going to have to really tailor their approaches to the ways in which their audiences engage with their content."
"You will have to understand how your audience engages with your content to know how to approach them," she says. Her research suggests that subscription sites are considering a wide range of options to monetize their content from new SaaS services (84%), to new print books and directories (75%), live events (52%), ebooks (48%), additional or new subscription sites (46%), webinars (41%), and new tablet/mobile apps (35%).
As tablet and smartphone use continue to grow and Google continues to adjust its algorithms, 2014 promises to be a year where content providers will need to continue to stay on their toes to ensure they are maximizing opportunities to not only get their content in front of consumers but also to find new ways to monetize that content.