Knowledge Bridge

Global Intelligence for the Digital Transition

Poor design is costing publishers valuable digital subscribers

After years of indecision over whether people would pay for digital content, a few high-profile success stories have given publishers hope that they can earn much needed revenue with paid content strategies. Many point to the Financial Times, the New York Times and the strategies of Piano Media in Slovakia as evidence that people will pay for digital content.

However, look beyond these standouts, and the picture is much more mixed. Fortunately, with more paid content projects being launched in the last two years, we now have the data to understand the factors that determine success or failure.

While it is easy to point to the size and resources of the New York Times and the Financial Times, they alone do not guarantee success. While pursuing a very different paid content strategy than the FT and the New York Times, The Times of London has not been as successful with its paid content model, and it is backed by the resources of News Corp. Away from the big beasts of Western Europe and the US, Piano Media works with many smaller publishers and has shown that size doesn’t necessarily matter.

As Tomáš Bella, CEO of Piano Media, said in our previous coverage of paid content, user experience does matter.  It is a point that Earl Wilkinson, the executive director and CEO of the International News Media Association, echoed in talking about the differences between success and failure in paid content strategies. Wilkinson said:

What media company executives tell me privately, across the industry worldwide, is the radically different performance in digital subscriptions has nothing to do with content or design. It has everything to do with a very poor user sign-up experience online.

Your audience expects the easy user experience and excellent customer service of major e-commerce sites, and if you can’t provide that, your paid content strategy will suffer.

Research and data are key

To deliver the best paid content user experience, both Piano Media and the New York Times used research and analytics to refine their approach.

Paul Smurl, Vice President, The New York Times Company, speaking at the Digital Innovators’ Summit in Berlin earlier this year, advised companies to “listen to readers and take their guidance”. It takes “rounds and rounds of research, in person”, he said.

For most companies and especially small independent news organisations, this kind of intensive research costs too much. However, this should be one of the criteria you use when evaluating a paid content company to work with. How deep is their research, not only generally about their own paid content products, but also what kind of audience research can they provide to you.

Wilkinson pulled no punches in criticising the poor user experience many news publishers provide when they are asking their audiences to pay for content.

The consumer expects Amazon. Instead, they are getting a clunky registration process that is the product of poor engineering.

And he believes the reason for such poor engineering is clear.

There are too many print people touching digital (and not enough digital people touching print) in the news industry. Either change the people or outsource this process.

Getting the user to the sign-up page

Of course, you first have to get a potential customer to your sign-up pagePageA document having a specific URL and comprised of a set of associated files. A…

As most publishers know, building a digital audience is relatively easy, but engaging that audience enough to be able to generate revenue from them is another thing. IPC media head of subscription marketing Beatriz Montoya said at a Media Briefing conference in London that the publisher was considering allowing readers access to some premium content if they left their email. Many other sites have added pop-ups that encourage readers to sign up for newsletters.

Email registration is the first step in engaging customers more deeply with your content and encouraging them to subscribe. It gives you a communication and marketing channel to your online audience, but when developing your multi-platform sustainability strategy, it is important that your digital marketing works in concert with your traditional marketing strategy.

Knowing your audiences better

The heavy use of data does not end in designing your paid content offering. In fact, while paid content and advertising are often seen as competing strategies, they are complementary. Digital paid content strategies are about deeper engagement with your audience and deeper knowledge about your audience, and that can be a very attractive proposition for advertisers.

Business Day in South Africa launched the first paid content strategy in the country, BDLive, earlier this year. They use a metered model, where digital audiences get some content for free before being asked to pay. It is similar to the approach used by the FT and the New York Times, and they have worked with Evolok to provide the sign-on and management system.  South African website The Media Online looked at progress at BDLive, including how it is leveraging deeper user data to improve advertising performance.

For advertisers, the subscription model relies on sophisticated analytic tools and data gleaned from user profiles and user behaviour to enable advertisers to construct clear, precisely defined campaigns with minimal churn.  Since its launch, BDlive has attracted a number of campaigns from major South African companies and sold sponsorship packages in a range of niche areas to both large and small corporate brands and public sector firms.

Keeping your subscribers

Of course, gaining new digital and print subscribers is one thing, keeping them is another. In addition to the success of the metered model, many publishers are coupling this with a bundled model, in which they combine print and digital or desktop, mobile and tablet apps in a single subscription. To make this print-digital bundling possible, it is important for news groups to make sure they have CRMCRMCustomer Relationship Management (CRM) is the set of business practices that…

The sign-up page may be turning away would-be subscribers, but Wilkinson believes that another reason for poorly performing paid content strategies is the poor integration of print and digital CRM systems.

Obsessed with delivering a perfect “print + digital” sign-up experience, publishers can’t get their back-end databases to talk with each other efficiently enough – and that back-end difficulty is getting translated to the front-end.

How many times have you gone to a website to buy something and stopped because the shopping or payment process was too difficult? That is what too many potential customers are finding when they try to pay you for your content. The industry has been focused on print and digital editorial integration, but Wilkinson is highlighting that commercial integration is just important.

As more publishers adopt paid content strategies, we now know that people will pay for digital content and we also are beginning to understand what determines success or failure. As you pursue your paid content strategy, remember:

  • Digital audiences have high expectations when it comes to ease of use. Use data and research to make sure you aren’t turning potential customers away.
  • Use the data you gain from your paid content strategy to deliver better results for your advertisers. This will allow you to grow your subscription and advertising revenue.
  • Make sure your CRM systems across print and digital work together so you can deliver the best customer experience to your subscribers regardless of the platform.

Article by Kevin Anderson

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