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Paid Subscription Blogging, Part 1

  |  October 8, 2003   |  Comments

Will readers pay to read blogs? Can bloggers successfully charge subscription fees? Professional bloggers weigh in. Part one of a two-part series.

Blogs are in vogue. Two million bloggers commit their thoughts online. They have readership ranging between one person (if each reads his own work) to tens of thousands of persons per day. There might be a market in that range. Many bloggers are trying to subsidize their work by selling advertising sponsorships, quite a few as affiliates of Blogads or Google's AdSense. Yet when I prepared for a presentation at ClickZ's Weblog Business Strategies conference this spring, I was unable to find more than one professional blogger who earns a full-time income from ad support alone.

Will people pay to read a blog? Can bloggers successfully charge subscription fees? Can their publishing switch from free to fee?

I asked the opinions of several pioneers at commercializing blogs. Most bloggers are amateurs who write personal opinions about the day's events. These pioneers are reporters or editors who have earned their livelihoods by selling their writing. Now, they're attempting to use blogs for that purpose.

Patrick Phillips is publisher and editor of I Want Media, an ad-supported, free blog. Despite a loyal readership of media professionals who generate sizeable daily traffic, I Want Media doesn't generate enough revenue to provide Phillips a full-time income. Yet he's wary about charging for his content.

"I'm skeptical of the viability of paid subscription blogs and of paid subscriptions for most online news providers. Much of the news on the Internet is still available for free, so I am doubtful that a significant number of people would be willing to pay, no matter the niche," Phillips says, "At least at this point."

Another skeptic is Rafat Ali, publisher and editor of PaidContent, a free blog that won this year's European Online Journalism Award as News Weblog of the Year. He supports himself by blogging. What's he think about paid subscriptions? "The one-word answer to your question: maybe," is the reply.

"It is a difficult game," Ali says of professional blogging, "Anyone who said it would be easy to get revenues off blogs has neither done full-time blogging nor made any revenues in their life. Subscription blogs will remain a rarity, even within B2B. For consumer sites, it is almost impossible. The problem is you're feeding off other media sites for your material, which, by definition, isn't unique. "Within trade blogs, people may pay for a hybrid site like mine: a mix of blog and original reporting, with lots of context thrown in, and multiple (seven for my site) ways to access the content.

"Even then, the macro issue for 'nanomedia' remains: At this point, I have a decent revenues stream coming out of the site," Ali says. "Granted, it is not steady, as ad contracts for a small site like mine are short. Even if I want a steadier source of income, say subscription-based, I'd immediately be choking off a stream of revenue without a safety net. Bigger sites and companies with some funding can afford that. One-person blogs can't.

"On the other hand," he continues, "a trade blog has similar dynamics as trade magazines: reporting on the same companies who [sic] are also your advertisers. That creates conflicts, as I am beginning to realize. I've already lost three potential advertisers due to my reporting and am feeling that pressure. If I had a subscription stream, I would have been free from even inadvertent biases, from an editorial point of view."

Another issue Ali says he hasn't heard much about in the context of blogs but could be a problem is deep-linking to other sites. "Laws are still unclear and differ from country to country. How legal it is for me to bundle somebody else's content and sell it?"

He thinks the best blogging business model is diversified revenue sources. "Introduce a sort of charter membership scheme for companies in your area; sell monthly reports on sub-sectors, like MarketingWonk just started; develop affiliate revenues schemes on reports; try organizing focused events; and if you become some sort of an expert on an area, you may be able to get speaking fees and even consulting assignments (which I refuse, as a matter of editorial principle). Again, the trick is to balance all of these. That's an art more than a science."

Rick Bruner is chief of research for Marketing Wonk, a free, group Weblog for marketers. He agrees in principal the best market for paid subscription blog content will be among B2B sites, but he doesn't draw the line there.

"Commentary on industries is a dime a dozen," Bruner says, "but in our sector, no one else is doing extensive news aggregation across multiple content sources. For many non-tech industries, the collaborative blog format could be replicated relatively simply and deliver significant value."

"As for charging, my feeling is in all aspects of online publishing -- individual blogs, B2B blogs or 'traditional' online publishing -- it comes down to 'versioning' the content. A walled-garden approach to charging for all your content would be a disaster for all but a rare few kind of online publisher (e.g., porn sites or wsj.com). But many sites should be able to find some versions of their content people will be willing to pay for," Bruner opines.

"In the case of a B2B blog, it's probably a combination of unique and highly valued content as well as convenience that people would be willing to pay for," he says.

Bruner believes some non-business blogs might charge for some content. "When Clay Shirky wrote his piece a couple of weeks ago condemning micropayments, I planned a response essay that was going to cite Elizabeth Spiers [of Gawker.com]. She obviously has a passionate following. Were she to charge 20 cents for access to longer pieces once a week, she could make significant money."

Bruner's math goes like this: Gawker averaged around 20,000 unique daily visitors. Say 300,000 monthly, of whom 100,000 are regular readers. Say once a week she had a longer article for which she charged 20 cents. If 1 percent of the regular readers (1,000 people) paid 20 cents four times a month, that's $800. Not enough to quit a day job, but nothing to sneeze at for a blogger. Convert that into a subscription model ($1 a month, $12 a year), and the same logic applies. Add AdSense or BlogAds revenue, and you're approaching a living wage. She'd need to grow the audience and/or improve the conversion rate (or up the subscription price to $2 a month), and it could be real money, he calculates.

He believes Matt Drudge, Andrew Sullivan, Glenn Reynolds, Drew Curtis, Tony Pierce, and a handful of others could do the same. "It's not going to work for most bloggers, but those with significant followings and a good idea for value-added content; I don't see why it should be impossible," says Bruner.

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Vin Crosbie

As managing partner of Digital Deliverance LLC and publisher of the "Digital Deliverance" newsletter, Vin Crosbie advises news media worldwide about new media strategies and tactics. As adjunct professor of visual and interactive communications and senior consultant for executive education in new media at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, he teaches that wisdom to graduate students and media company executives. "Folio" magazine called him "the Practical Futurist." "Editor & Publisher" magazine devoted the overview chapter of its executive research report "Digital Delivery of News: A How-to Guide for Publishers" to his work. And his speech about new media to the National Association of Broadcasters annual conference was one of 24 orations (including some by President George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice, Hilary Clinton, and Barack Obama) selected by a team of speech professors for publication in the reference book, ">Representative American Speeches 2004-2005."

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