Listen to What the Consumer Wants

I’ve periodically written about the plight of print publishers and their reluctant move to the digital world. One of the looming issues for these publishers when they make the transition to online content is how to get consumers to pay for it.

This all may be coming to a head in 2010. According to a study just released by the American Press Institute and reported on by eMarketer, close to sixty percent of member publishers are considering charging for content that is currently free. Twenty-five percent of them said they’ll have a paid strategy in place within six months.

Whatever plans publishers are concocting to charge for content may be worth little more than the paper their newspapers and magazines are printed on. According to a new report from research firm Forrester,  eighty percent of consumers say they are not interested in newspaper and magazine online content if it is not free. Only three percent say they would pay individually for each article read. This is a major blow to all those publishers (and there are a lot of them) who are toying with a “micropayment” strategy.

Forrester also asked the question: “If the publications you read were no longer available in print, how would you prefer to access that content?” Thirty-seven percent of consumers picked online access via a website. Fourteen percent preferred access via portable devices like mobile phones. Remarkably, ten percent wanted a relatively old-tech solution: to receive PDFs by email. Only three percent wanted to use eReaders such as the Amazon Kindle. Hmmm, that kind of puts a damper on the hoopla around eReaders, doesn’t it?

Forrester analyst Sarah Rotman Epps makes this point in reporting the results: “…one size won’t fit all – consumers want choice. There’s no one delivery platform, and no one pricing model, that will satisfy all consumers.”

The biggest problem for publishers of online content, then, is finding a magic bullet (not yet identified) to get consumers to pay for that content.

But there may not be one; in fact, advertising-supported content may continue to be the safest route for publishers. Let’s face it, Pandora’s box is already open. Consumers now get unlimited, free access, just by paying an Internet Service Provider, to virtually all the information they need. They’ve lived and breathed in an online world where a free Google search reveals just about everything worth knowing.

That’s why Rupert Murdoch, publisher of The Wall Street Journal and other newspapers, just weeks ago threatened to remove his publications from Google’s search index. Despite the fact that The Wall Street Journal has successfully implemented a paid online subscription service, a specific story can be accessed for free by non-subscribers via a link posted on Google.

While I’m not a big fan of Murdoch, I like The Wall Street Journal model for paid content. The subscriber has three different choices (per Rotman Epps’ point above): the daily newspaper in hard copy, the paid online version of the newspaper, or a combination paper/online subscription. The price difference is only about $15 between the newspaper and online version, which keeps the value of the online version high. The online version does offers some free content to a non-subscriber, but a subscription is required to continue reading most stories in full and get exclusive online extras.

One of the reasons it works is because the Journal’s audience is business people who are willing to pay for valuable information – but the paid content strategy is working, since the subscriber base for both the online version and the newspaper is growing. In fact, The Wall Street Journal is one of only two hard copy newspapers with positive circulation growth (the other is USA TODAY). Other publishers need to figure out how to offer information that is so highly valued that people want to pay for it.

It’s crunch time for publishers. As they wrestle with getting themselves out of the print world and into the digital world, they will face this challenge of finding a way to convince consumers to pay for online content. As the Forrester report suggests, however, there will be no single easy solution. If they want to survive, content publishers will need to do a better job of listening to what the consumer wants.


About Barry Silverstein

Barry Silverstein is a freelance writer/marketing consultant. In addition to writing for ReveNews, he is a contributing writer to, the world’s leading online branding forum. He is the author of three marketing books, The Breakaway Brand (co-author, McGraw-Hill, 2005), Business-to-Business Internet Marketing (Maximum Press, 2003) and Internet Marketing for Technology Companies (Maximum Press, 2003). Barry ran his own Internet and direct marketing agency for twenty years. You can find Barry on Twitter @bdsilv.

4 Responses to Listen to What the Consumer Wants

  1. […] Listen to What the Consumer Wants ( […]

  2. Scott Parent says:

    Great post Barry. Agree that this is something that all of us in the filed need to be talking about. For better or worse, people expect everything to be free on the internet. I think many would pay if there was an easier way than having to login to every site you visit.

    I don't think we've found the magic bullet yet, but at least we're having the discussion around it.