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Charge for Your Content? The Three Criteria

  |  June 18, 2002   |  Comments

Our new resident free-to-fee expert, Vin Crosbie, poses three questions. If you answer 'yes' to one of them, chances are your site can charge for access.

Consider the dilemma faced by Alan Abbey, the new vice president of electronic publishing at The Jerusalem Post.

His ad-supported Web site is perhaps the world's premier source of English-language news from Israel, generating over 24 million page views per month. Doesn't that sound like it should be earning huge banner advertising revenues?

However, almost 90 percent of his site's 1 million unique monthly users reside outside Israel, with 69 percent of them living in the United States and Canada. Except for some travel agencies, his primarily domestic advertisers don't greatly care about the bulk of his audience. They want Israeli consumers who can walk into their shops.

Alan's site expenses rise with his page views, but increased traffic isn't generating enough increased banner advertising revenue. He could, of course, hire an online advertising staff in the huge North American market, but that would be a proportionately huge and expensive endeavor for his relatively tiny (30,000 daily print circulation) Israeli publication.

So, what's Alan to do?

The answer is clear: Switch much of his site from free to paid access.

JPost.com fits two of the three criteria I use when consulting clients on whether to choose free or paid access: Is the content unavailable elsewhere? Are you the premier source of that content? And, can your content help readers make money or advance their careers?

Is Your Content Unavailable Elsewhere?

If it is, you can obviously charge for access. There are many incidental sources of some English-language news from Israel (such as The New York Times online edition, BBC News online, or CNN.com). There are many dedicated sources of Hebrew-language news from Israel (such as Ha'aretz Online or Yediot Aharonot-Ynet) But there are very few dedicated sources in English. Chances are, the 90 percent of JPost.com's million unique users who live outside Israel visit because they want to read news in English, not Hebrew. JPost.com is one of only two major sites with that content. Its audience should be willing to pay for access to such hard-to-find content.

Are You the Premier Source of That Content?

The only other major online source of English-language news about Israel is the English-language subsection of the Hebrew-language Ha'aretz Online. JPost.com's entire site is in English. That makes it the premier source.

Print-publishing business models are communicative: If The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) can charge $1.00 per edition, then the Austin Business Journal can also charge at least $1.00. If a business model works for one printed publication in a content niche, it can work for all printed publications in that niche.

However, online-publishing business models are associative. If a business model works for the premier online publication in that niche, it won't necessarily work for all online publications in the niche. The WSJ Online can charge $59 per year for access, but the Austin Business Journal's site can't.

The WSJ Online, ESPN, and Playboy.com can each charge for access because each is the premier title in its niche. That doesn't mean lesser sites for business, sports, or for-men can do the same. JPost.com is the premier English-language site for news about Israel. It should be able to charge for access.

Can Your Content Help Readers Make Money or Advance Their Careers?

The JPost.com's answer is probably no. For many business-to-business (B2B) sites and many business or investment-oriented business-to-consumer (B2C) sites, the answer might be yes. To charge for access, JPost.com needs a yes for only one of the three criteria.

Alan has begun to convert JPost.com to paid access by charging for subscriptions to what were formerly free e-newsletters. (Subscriptions to those now cost $19.95 for three months; $29.95 for six months, or $49.95 per year). He is in the process of converting much of the Web site to paid access. Like WSJ Online, ESPN, and Playboy.com, he'll still need to offer quite a bit of content for free atop the site. He knows consumers are more willing to pay for deep access once they've had a free taste on the surface.

Ireland.com encountered another example of the free-or-fee dilemma of the type JPost.com faced. As the world's premier site for Irish news, ancestral research, and Irish travel information, it was generating almost 25 million page views per month from 1.5 million unique users. Half (51 percent) of those users reside outside Ireland, beyond the site's domestic ad market. For the reasons I outlined above, Ireland.com this month switched most of its site from free to paid access.

If you've got content unavailable elsewhere or that can help readers make money or advance their careers or you are the premier title in your niche, chances are you can successfully switch your site from free to paid access.


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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