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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Why publishers see a future in a DTC/advertising hybrid model

December 13, 2018 | By Chris M. Sutcliffe – Independent Media Reporter @chrismsutcliffe

After a brief hibernation, the era of direct to consumer revenue (DTC) is back and booming. Over the past six months, paywalls have sprung up around areas that used to be free and become smarter about who they let through. Paid newsletters are booming, even emerging around topics like cryptocurrency. Podcasts have gone members-only, membership models have undergone a Cambrian explosion and emerged vastly more disparate, and new funding methods for “slow journalism” outlets have come into being.

It’s a far cry from the distant days of 2016, when nearly every news publisher was rushing headlong into distributed publishing on social channels, relying primarily on the reach of the platforms and their ad networks to deliver significant revenue. Now, following some high-profile casualties of that publishing model and the “Trump bump” reviving interest in subscriptions, direct to consumer revenue is the name of the game for many publishers.

The value of a subscriber

The benefits of regular revenue straight from audiences are obvious and mutually reinforcing: Compared with other sources of digital revenue, the number of players is small, so less gets taken out of the value chain between consumer and publisher. At a time in which the digital advertising space is overcrowded (and dominated by two or three players), it’s no surprise that publishers would prefer to earn revenue directly from one consumer over sharing a tiny piece of the ad pie.

Consequently, one paying subscriber is worth many times that of a consumer monetized through advertisers. According to Jasper Jackson, digital editor of the New Statesman, which went behind a paywall in March of 2018: “One subscriber is worth many thousands of digital readers that you’re only monetizing through advertising. I’m pretty certain that subscription revenue is a better funding mechanism for good journalism, and particularly for the kind of journalism we do.”

Are subscriptions the right move?

That is also the contention of News UK around its subscription-based news products. Alan Hunter, head of digital for The Times and Sunday Times, said that while the industry has been in the grip of the chase for advertising revenue through scale, the pendulum is now swinging back the other way:

“When we first introduced subscriptions, people thought we were crazy. For a long time we’d go to conferences and people would pat you on the back and say ‘Oh I’m really sorry about this’, but if you look back on it it seemed very logical that journalism costs money and you have to pay for it one way or another.”

Subscription history

Similarly, many of the larger English-language newsbrands have a history of DTC revenue from their time as physical newspapers, when a significant proportion of their revenue came from subscriptions. Many of those organizations were in the early stages of figuring out how to convert digital readers to a similar system years ago, before they were seduced by the appeal of digital ad revenue through platforms.

Small wonder then that as the promise of digital advertising revenue failed to materialize for quality content producers, they have transitioned back to subscriptions and memberships to sustain them. It does mean trading a large proportion of the scale that comes from existing as a ‘“free” ad-supported publication. Jackson says that “pure reach is a wonderful drug.” However, for publications that have the requisite reputation and audience to make it work, the trade-off is worth making.

The New York Times, for example, reported 2017 subscription revenues of $1 billion early in the year. It also reported annual average growth of almost 50% for its digital subscriptions since the paywall was introduced in 2011. Based in the UK, The Financial Times is close to having 1 million subscribers, almost 80% of them digital.

The Guardian, too, has made direct-from-consumer revenue a core tenet of its plans for the next few years. And a strong showing from its membership scheme to date suggests that engaged audiences might be willing to pay for content that is nominally free from a brand that they feel an affinity with.

Subscriptions: not just newsworthy

Nor is the drive to direct monetization of users limited to newsbrands. Consumer-facing titles are introducing new membership tiers to generate more revenue from core audiences. And, while it’s now reportedly struggling to make it work effectively, even Google’s YouTube is feeling the pressure from OTT services like Netflix to introduce its own subscription-based premium video packages.

While these brands have a strong legacy to lean on, some digital pureplay brands are transitioning to hybrid advertising-membership models. Quartz, for example, has launched a membership model based around a partial paywall and the ability for its members to talk directly to editors and journalists, a perk that is also in effect to a greater or lesser degree at the Guardian, The Times and The Atlantic. Meanwhile, BuzzFeed, which was the poster child for scale, social distribution, and branded content revenue for years, has also launched a membership scheme … with mixed response.

DTC takes work

However, these shiny new opportunities for DTC revenue come with new considerations for publishers. Outlets like The Times are investing more in tech to reduce churn, since research from The Financial Times demonstrates that it costs four to fives times more to attract new subscribers than to retain existing ones.

The propensity to pay for online news is still relatively low outside the Nordic countries. according to the latest Reuters Institute Digital News Report, only 16% of people in the US currently pay for news online, and mainly to liberal leaning newspapers (though the proportion is increasing). That suggests that there is currently not enough digital subscription revenue going around to support all the outlets that are transitioning to direct reader revenue.

Risky business

Despite these new challenges, publishers have taken note of the fate of outlets like Mic and Mashable, whose strong valuations in earlier years belied an over-reliance on social distribution to achieve scale and indiscriminate digital advertising revenue. Subsequently, their respective collapses have galvanized other publishers to seek to transition to direct to consumer revenue.

Despite that, most digital publishers are not seeking to abandon other sources of revenue entirely. Many media businesses recognize that advertising can still provide a significant source of revenue. Jackson from the New Statesman explains: “Digital advertising, if you do it well, cleverly, can bring in significant revenue. There’s also an argument that pure reach is a very good marketing tool for print sales.”

In the future, then, it’s unlikely that direct-to-consumer revenue will entirely supplant advertising revenue as the primary means of monetisation for digital publishers. Instead, both will continue to play a role in publisher business models based around a wider variety of revenue streams.

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