Understand your audience for better monetization

8 September 2016
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Publishers have begun to realize that “traditional” digital content monetization approaches are under pressure. This is due to various economic, social and technological factors within and outside the publishing industry. Therefore, the key to successfully monetize their content is to experiment with different models and constantly evolve.

One way or another – new differentiated approaches

“Metered” Paywalls, which let readers see a few free articles before asking for payment, have worked at some large and prominent papers like the New York Times, and specialist ones like the Financial Times.

The Guardian only recently changed its mind of keeping all content free. Earlier this year the Guardian expanded its membership-based program, and offers content to paying members that isn’t available to non-paying readers. News Corp. executive Raju Narisetti once called this system a “reverse paywall”. Instead of penalizing your most frequent customers by having them run into a credit-card wall, you reward them with extra benefits. The most loyal members get access to exclusive things.

The German Bild Zeitung shows a more classic advance. It currently offers limited access to select articles on its website. Bild+ subscribers however, get full multi-platform access to all articles.

Le Monde teases its premium content and lets readers decide whether they want to buy that single article or join a full subscription. Unsubscribed users only have access to non-premium content. During a trial period this year Le Monde, as well as Le Parisien, Le Figaro and L’Equipe asked their online readers to deactivate their ad blocking browser extension or purchase a full subscription to keep reading. This successful campaign resulted in 20 percent of Le Figaro readers to whitelist the site.

Tear down that paywall (a bit)

David Pemsel, CEO of the Guardian, says that the main reason for opposing a paywall is that it wants to expand its influence, not restrict it. This might explain why the Sun reversed its paywall decision and took it down. It had lost a huge proportion of its readership to competitors like the Daily Mail. And that meant it could not be as influential.

Sometimes newspapers have chosen to drop their paywall for audience development. The Financial Times offered a temporary “paid trial” which provided unlimited access for a month. The intention behind it being to build a reading habit which transforms readers into paying subscribers.

The Wall Street Journal has tried before to “fish in other news outlets’ waters”. The Journal has lowered its paywall in response to failing during a scheduled maintenance update. And when hackers brought down again two weeks later, the Wall Street Journal again lowered its paywall and promoted the drop as a way for Times subscribers to sample a competitor.

One size fits not all – understanding what the reader needs is key

While there are many methods to monetize online content, there is no such thing as a “one size fits all” solution. Digital content is one of the most consumed “goods” in the online marketplace. However, despite decades of debate and promising starts, no model has successfully gained traction. One of those ways is a hard paywall, obviously. But that approach is fundamentally inflexible, and it treats every reader like every other reader.

Limiting access would have made it inherently difficult for a newspaper like the Guardian to engage in “open journalism”, where a reader becomes part of the process.

After all, publications need to figure out what their readers want and need; finding the right equilibrium of monetization and growth in readership.

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