What news organizations are learning as they refine their digital pay models

Now that the logic and financial benefit of digital pay plans has been broadly (but not universally) accepted at newspaper companies, a second generation of issues and solutions is emerging.

Listening to the final session at the American Society of News Editors Convention last month on paywalls, I had a sense that the conversation has moved well past the basics of whether or not to charge. And the new discussion comes with its own vocabulary: end runs, free samples, foul balls and protein versus potato chips.

The first three terms are variations on a theme: the potential subscriber needs to have a good sense of what he or she is getting and be approached with an artful soft-sell invitation to pay up.

George Rodrigue, managing editor of the Dallas Morning News, which offers select digital content at a premium price, put it this way at the ASNE session: “We decided early that we were for a hard premium wall in concept … but you need to let them in to sample stuff.”

That is a particular issue at The he Dallas Morning News and the Boston Globe, whose bostonglobe.com is a high-end separate offering while the well-established boston.com remains free: How do you know whether you want to pay for the new premium site until you can see what is in it?

The popular metered model works, in part, because it is a sampler of content, self-selected by the potential subscriber, that gives a good idea of what full access would provide.

I see the same purpose in allowing end runs — a.k.a. workarounds — to protected content. Why can you still view most Wall Street Journal and now Boston Globe stories by pasting the headline in a browser? It is a get-acquainted offer in miniature.

The pillar of the New York Times’ labyrinth of marketing approaches and offer formats is a 99-cent first month of access plan — pretty darn close to a free sample. That sets the stage for gradually escalating the price but establishing a pay-something principle upfront, Tim Griggs of the Times explained at a separate American Press Institute/Poynter event in May.

The Times also scored with a promotion at launch in March 2011, identifying 100,000 heavy digital users and giving them nine-months access courtesy of a sponsorship by Lincoln Motor Company. At the end of the trial, more than 50 percent were converted to subscribers.

Both the Times and Gannett, which has phased in digital pay plans at its 81 community newspapers, do extensive advance research on customer attitudes and reactions to specific offers. Gannett’s Maribel Wadsworth told the ASNE group that it led the company to allow “foul balls” — views beyond the paywall threshold “that are not your final out.” For example, requiring payment for access to a story that a reader comes to via social media may be the wrong time for the ask; invoking it for the second, third or fourth read in one sitting will make more sense to the prospective digital subscriber.

As time goes on, a working definition of what’s worth paying for is being refined as well.  That certainly includes access on as many platforms as the individual wants, “experiences” as well as straight news reports, and tailored offerings for tablet and smart phones that fit the context of where, when and why the devices are typically used.

But there remains the question of what content to showcase. As Rodrigue put it: “Are we driving readers from protein to potato chips?” Conceding that a slideshow of Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader tryouts was among the top trafficked stories ever, he said that paying readers want more serious content as well.

Wadsworth reported that Gannett research supported the same conclusion. Part of the advance work on digital pay was to survey readers in each of the 81 markets trying to define a few topics readers cared about passionately and would pay for.

The expectation, she said, was that food might be big in Shreveport, camping and hiking in Fort Collins, and so on. The surveys did find some of that, but number one on the wants list in most markets was investigative/accountability reporting — “the top passion thing and by a wide margin,” Wadsworth said.

Extensive pre-testing can also yield insight on fine points of deal offers. For instance, Gannett found that two-for-one (buy eight weeks get eight weeks more for free) was more appealing to prospective subscribers than a 50 percent discount (get 16 weeks at half-price).

My sense is that plateaus — the tendency of new digital subscriptions to flatten out after an initial growth spurt — will remain a challenge as digital pay plans mature. Nor does there appear to be consensus about whether free access to all digital platforms for print subscribers, which has worked at the Times and elsewhere, is better than an upcharge for multi-platform users.

Also, I see a bit of paradox around brand as applied to building a base of digital paying subscribers. On the one hand, the robust response seems to back the truism that many digital news consumers prefer and seek out a trusted brand. But if the digital offering has a very different name — for instance Mlive.com for Advance’s Michigan websites — does that undercut the brand connection for prospective subscribers?

While the paywall movement continues to gather steam, the exploration of alternatives has not exactly shut down. Just last week, Google biographer John Battelle and columnist Mathew Ingram proposed a hybrid of micro-payments and crowdfunding in which articles would be priced individually with the cost falling as more readers accepted the offer.

Maverick John Paton’s Digital First is experimenting with a survey asking for user information rather than money as the gateway to protected content. Or the ticket to entry, offered to publishers in a new product called Content Unlock, could be watching an advertising video.

But the majority view now seems to be broad buy-in to the fundamentals of digital pay strategy: it can be a source of added circulation revenue and a way to tap into a new group of subscribers; it can bolster rather than cannibalize print; and it can be done with minimal damage to traffic and ad sales.

An optimist might even argue that the paywall movement, not yet three years old, is so new that establishing a wealth of experience in best practices is ongoing and will yield a bigger payoff in another year or two.

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  • JSteveJ49

    I like the number of options being considered. My problem is that I read a lot of different news sites — I could pay $10 a month to the NYTimes, but then WashPost and LATimes also want $10, as does my local Gannett paper, so I’d be looking at paying $40 monthly. I’d much prefer the option of watching an ad instead. Also, why not give me free access to a news site if I in turn tweet a link to the article I’m reading to at least 1,000 followers? Or let the site’s advertisers access my blog or my wife’s web site or my twitter feed or Facebook page or even sponsor my e-mail — let me access their network in exchange for allowing them to access mine.