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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Free to Innovate: Experimentation in Fee-based Media Models

February 20, 2014 | By Michelle Manafy, Editorial Director – DCN @michellemanafy

For a time, free looked like the only option for the media business. The model seemed to be a veritable free-for-all. Because, despite digital content consumers’ insatiable appetite, models that made this all-you-can-eat buffet profitable—or at least as profitable as offline legacy models—remained elusive. The upside of the rise of free was that market pressure caused many media businesses to experiment with monetization methods and, in many cases, they have diversified their revenue streams, strategies, and organizational structure which makes them more resilient in the long term.

Yet contrary to the seemingly overwhelming tide of free, many media organizations sustain subscription-based models. In fact, according to research conducted late last year, 95% of OPA members have an ongoing subscription based strategy. And these strategies are far from stagnant.

Subscription Model Starting Point
While its longstanding subscription business makes it one of the industry’s paid content poster children, the Financial Times continuously pursues the development of new offerings that maintain customer affinity and feed the bottom line. When considering a new premium offering, FT.com managing director Rob Grimshaw suggests that you first focus on “what is unique or different about your product. Then he says, “take advantage of the flexibility that the web environment offers. You don’t have to put up a gigantic blank door on the site that says ‘pay to enter.’ The web offers many ways to do these things: You can build sampling in, you can use freemium models.”

Though Michael Crosby, COO of The Deal says that a subscription based initiative “is no different than any business idea,” he suggests examining the market and look for a problem that exists. Then ask “Can we provide insight or analysis the fills that gap?”

Sarah McConville, Harvard Business Review Group VP and HBR Press publisher, also approaches the development of subscription offerings from distinct value propositions. However she says “we always start with audience. For whom are we developing this? What job are they hiring Harvard Business Review to do?”

Innovation and Experimentation
As Grimshaw points out, digital media provide an opportunity for a great deal of flexibility and experimentation with pricing, offerings and customer experience. At FT.com, they not only view subscription models as a revenue stream, they are a means to better understand, serve and retain customers. “Subscriptions create a direct relationship with your audience,” he says. “You learn so much about them including demographics, onsite behavior and other information that can be very powerful from a marketing and advertising point of view.”

Financial Times Fast FT App ScreensOne insight that he has put to work for FT.com was that “engagement is absolutely critical to the success of subscription models.” This engagement imperative was a driving force between the company’s Fast FT product, which provides a continuous stream of “intelligent first-response to the news.” While the creation of a near-real time news culture marked a shift for the FT, Grimshaw says it has paid off with those visiting Fast FT spending ten or more minutes on the site.

HBR has also made a significant change in approach over the past year by offering “All Access” as its primary offer to subscribers. Readers can access their Harvard Business Review subscription in print, online, and via your iPad, and access to the current issue as well as the online archive of 50+ years of HBR articles. McConville says “we were really pleased to see that, in a time when many media brands are cutting subscription price and offering more content for free as a way of maintaining circulation levels, with “All Access” we’ve been able to add more subscribers, and increase the price with this subscription. Harvard Business Review’s 1H13 AAM Publisher’s Statement was the highest paid circulation level in HBR’s history at 260K. “

At The Deal, Crosby says they focus on helping readers come up with “ideas for their next deal through our editorial insight.” Realizing that these readers will then want to figure out how they might have a connection with someone who will help them make that next deal, The Deal launched a subscription offering called “Connections” that does just that.

Subscription Success Strategy
To create a content product that pays, Crosby says you must have an “obsessive focus on the user experience” Understanding how it fits in with their daily workflow is the starting point that will ensure that a user “needs to have your service.”

One piece of advice McConville says it is essential to align the editorial and commercial stakeholders in a shared understanding of how offerings serve subscribers. However she also suggests “bringing in the skeptics, listen and take them seriously.”

Grimshaw agrees that much can be learned from peers and your own team. However, he suggests that one of the best ways to foster innovation in subscription content offerings is to “look outside of the boundaries of the publishing industry.” He suggests looking at the retail industry, gaming, and others pioneering the space to find inspiration for the next generation of subscription innovation.

You Might Also be Interested In:

Q&A with Rob Grimshaw, Managing Director, FT.com on Subscription Model Success

Q&A with Michael Crosby, Chief Operating Officer, The Deal on Subscription Model Success

Q&A with Sarah McConville, VP of Marketing, HBR & Publisher HBR Press on Subscription Models

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