Ways to build a lucrative paid content business


With the dramatic growth of ad blockers in the last year, and the prospect of a significant drop in the available audience for display ads, there has been a far sharper focus on paid content models. So how can publishers navigate the maze of paid content options, from micropayments to metered access, subscription packages and membership schemes?

In recent years some publishers have been experimenting with charging for online content – whether that is bundling access to a digital replica magazine with a print subscription, or setting up a full online pay-wall. But for many it has been easier to create free to air websites and generate revenues through advertising and selling other products and services, from events to merchandise.

However, even The Guardian, long a proponent of free ad-funded content, has admitted that to  balance their books they will have to generate a third of their revenue from their membership scheme.

So how can publishers navigate the maze of paid content options?

Much depends on the nature of your audience and the uniqueness of your content. 

It is far easier for business-to-business publishers to demonstrate the value that their news, analysis and data can provide to subscribers. But in specialist consumer markets, it is possible to create packages of digital content that help enthusiasts get more out of their hobby or sport than they are prepared to pay for. 

Here are eight steps to consider in building a paid content business.

1. Identify your valuable content

Invest some time in understanding how your audience consumes your content, via analytics or interviews or a user group.  Then divide your content into:

Upgrade your analytics and spend time gaining insight into what content is read and where traffic comes from to work out what is most valuable.

Create flexible registration and paywalls on your site, ideally with a metered model so you can allow visitors to sample the premium content before committing.

2. Build a prospect database

Use your free/social content to market to people to come and visit your site, via e-newsletters, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter etc. This should include audio and visual content, and especially video, not just text articles.

Once visitors are on your site, tease them with the more useful, practical content that requires an email sign-up. In B2B markets this could be a report download, in consumer markets an enticing video or relevant guide.

Create a carefully crafted, editorially driven e-newsletter that links back to good (free) content on the site and helps build a reputation for quality.  Subtly mention the premium subs options.

3. Add digital value to print subscriptions

Consider how you can enhance print subscriptions with added digital content – maybe audio or video interviews, downloadable stats or data, or a discussion forum on the topics raised.  Encourage print subscribers to access this digital content, and test whether you can charge a higher rate for this enhanced content.

Some publishers have gradually reduced frequency on their print editions, putting more of their content online.

4. Develop a digital-only subscription

Over time you could offer a digital only subscription – maybe with a replica edition of print – which could also extend your international appeal. Test out marketing this on the website and via email.

It is easier for B2B publishers to make that final step to digital only as their content is consumed in a work environment. Ascential (formerly EMAP) have announced their plan to take magazine brands like Retail Week and Architects Journal 100% digital within 2 years.

5. Create a premium membership package

People like to feel they belong to a community, whether that is professional or based on a shared leisure interest.

So many publishers are renaming their subscription packages as “membership” and including exclusive events or networking alongside premium content.

In consumer markets this could also include special offers or product testing opportunities; in B2B markets access to conferences or webinars. The Guardian runs a series of tailored events just for its “members” so they feel they have exclusive access.

6. Explore data driven intelligence products

In B2B markets many publishers are developing digital data-driven intelligence products which provide high-level decision support for senior executives.

Health Service Journal have created HSJ Intelligence, a web-based resource which helps suppliers to the NHS understand who to target. This is sold at over £10k per subscription.

Celebrity Intelligence, from Centaur, provides an in-depth online directory of celebrities for media owners and brands looking for endorsements.

7. Create digital-only packages for emerging niches

Once you have a strong online presence and a good email prospect database, it is easier to create digital subscription products for emerging niches without the added investment of print products.

The Economist developed their paid-for mobile news app Espresso to target a younger demographic with a lighter version of their global analysis. 

Specialist consumer publisher DHP has created a series of paid-for video-based digital magazines to reach emerging niches within the fishing market.

8. Test pay-per-article options

Some of your audience will never pay for a full subscription, but they might pay per article. 

Blendle is a Dutch platform that has recently launched in the US with 20 newspaper partners. Stories are gathered from multiple sources and then readers can buy those they wish via an app. Pricing is 19-39c for newspaper articles and 9-49c for magazine stories.  Back in the UK, Parkers charges for a full review of a specific second-hand car make and model. 

So there are plenty of paid-content options for publishers to experiment with. The core skill is really understanding which content is particularly valuable to your audience and packaging it up in an enticing way.

If you have an interesting story to share about how you have developed a paid digital content business, please let us know.