Better alternatives to the metered model
Of all the paid content options media companies are experimenting with on the Web, the metered model makes the least sense to me. Metered models require a subscription (by the day, week, month or year) after a visitor opens a certain number of articles. Why would you randomly wall off access to the very customers who are showing the greatest affinity for your content?
Matthew Mitchell reinforces the point. The CEO of MediaPass, which sells subscriber solutions to publishers, told minOnline: "Would you really want to give someone who wants to be on your site zero reasons to be there simply because they don’t want to pay right now? … Each person that is on your site has the potential to eventually subscribe. Telling them it has to be that day 'or else' is generally not the most effective conversation to have with your users."
This hasn’t kept publishers from trying various metering options. The Worcester Telegram & Gazette launched its metering system in mid-August. The system puts up a registration wall after clicks on two pieces of staff-written content. Users have the option to fill out a free registration, which entitles them to 10 original staff articles per month, or to purchase a day pass ($1 for 24 hours), a monthly subscription ($14.95) or an annual subscription ($143.52, a 20% discount from the monthly rate). Print subscribers can register for full access to the site.
Tweaking the meter
Poynter Online’s Bill Mitchell explains how publishers such as the Worcester Telegram & Gazette are experimenting with meters that can be adjusted up or down depending on response rates: "If monthly unique visitors and page views are down, just dial it back to permit more clicks before the gate closes and the system requires registration or payment," Mitchell wrote, while adding: "Or at least that's the idea -- how it will really work remains to be seen."
The concept of a configurable meter certainly has its proponents, including Gordon Crovitz, co-founder of Journalism Online, the startup whose Press+ platform offers metering as one of several paid content options that publishers can tinker with. Crovitz described what he sees as metering’s benefits to Editor & Publisher:
"The core idea of the metered model for paid access is that users are able to view a certain amount of content for free before being asked to pay. Readers who visit the site less frequently can continue to do so for free, while those who visit often — whose behavior indicates they value access the most — will be asked to pay for full access."
For me, that’s not a benefit, it’s a problem – at least from the visitor’s point of view. Why punish your most loyal readers while letting casual users browse for free?
Incentives, not penalties, for loyalists
Publishers would be better off taking a page from consumer marketing’s playbook: Embrace your most enthusiastic and engaged customers by offering them special deals. These loyalists are more likely to pay for something they perceive as adding value – not penalizing them for their interest in your content.
It’s an approach that Macworld is pursuing with Macworld Insider, its new premium website offering. The service, priced at $39.95 a year (half that for print subscribers), is designed to tap into the Mac enthusiasts who frequent the Macworld site.
The service presents an opportunity for Macworld to generate reader revenues without walling off existing content that users are conditioned to receiving for free.
"We have very loyal readers, but they told us that walling off content would be stupid," Macworld VP and editorial director Jason Snell said during a phone interview last week. "So we decided to do something based on improving their site experience."
The annual membership taps into features that one might expect Mac enthusiasts would respond to: full-text RSS feeds of all Macworld content; a PDF archive of back issues (currently dating back to 2007); an option to disable all display advertising; a subscriber-only forum with “special access” to Macworld editors and other members; a free pass to the Macworld 2011 conference scheduled for January; and even a special badge that denotes “Insider” status on member comments.
Snell said the Insider service is designed to augment, not replace, existing print subscriptions (which number around 300,000) and the ad-supported website, which he said averages round 20 million monthly page views.
"We have a very successful online business that involves driving traffic and working with advertisers to get them in front of our audience – we don’t want to kill that," he said. "Insider is something that runs alongside, targeted at the most passionate visitors who want extra features."
Providing something of value that your most loyal audience members are willing to pay for could turn about to be a far better model for publishers looking to open the online spigot for reader revenues. Poynter’s Mitchell thinks it’s a no-brainer: "In an age when so much new value can be created by smart aggregation, linking and packaging, why pass up the opportunity to do so?" he wrote. "If you're going to ask previously nonpaying customers to start paying, why not give them all the incentives you can?"