Donn Friedman’s 10 Steps From Free to Fee

Many companies that decide to convert from free to fee fail because they skip or overlook important steps.

But Donn Friedman, assistant managing editor for production technology and new media innovations at the Albuquerque Journal, a 120,000-circulation daily newspaper, succeeded. Faced with converting his site to paid access more than two years ago, Friedman formulated 10 steps to take when converting free to fee.

Earlier this year, Friedman presented these steps at the World Editors Forum’s annual conference in Dublin and last month wrote a detailed report in the Online Journalism Review. With his help, I’ve adapted those longer reports into an outline of his 10 steps to take when converting from free to fee.

1. Convince Your Team to Charge

Give them the reason. “It could be as simple as you’re tired of putting more money into your Web site than you’re getting back,” said Friedman. “Or maybe market research is showing a decline in print readership, and you’re worried your site is ‘cannibalizing’ print readers.”

2. Decide the Details of Your Paid-Access Business Model

Determine which parts of your site will be free access, which paid, and how your customers will access them. Some options:

  • The home page is a tollgate that lets only paid subscribers pass (a model used by the Winnipeg Free Press).

  • The home page offers some free content and maybe the top-level pages of the sections below it. Only paid subscribers go deeper (a model used by many paid access newspaper sites).
  • Worthwhile and lengthy pieces of content are divided into pages, with only the first page offered for free (a model used by Business 2.0 magazine).
  • Only visitors who live outside your country are charged (The Times of London model).
  • Charge only for archives, or value-added or premium content
  • Offer trial subscriptions.

3. Decide on Prices

Will you offer one price for all access? Or tiered pricing that lets subscribers who pay more go deeper (a model used by the Financial Times)? Will fees be charged daily, weekly, monthly, annually, or at varying frequencies? Only once you’ve made those decisions can you decide what price to charge.

Price is a complex issue. Much of the solution depends on a site’s content and competitive situation.

4. Lock the Content

Will users be able to find unsuspected ways around your tollgate? “If you’re using an open-source Web server such as Apache, locking down content is no big deal,” said Friedman. “Using an open-source solution, an in-house developer or a hired programmer should be able to set up access in an afternoon or less.”

But if you’re not using an open-source server, you might need to contract with a third-party tollgate or microtransaction processing company, he advises. Remember to include almost everywhere ways for customers to retrieve username and password, to prevent paid subscribers from getting locked out.

5. Keep Track of Subscribers and Back Up Your Records

How will you store your subscriber list? Will the database need to interact with the company’s other records (product/service purchaser lists, printed edition subscriber lists, etc.)?

Create an automatic backup, in case the customer list in your site’s registration and payment system suddenly fails. Secure the customer list and payment records against outside hackers.

6. Get Their Money

You’ll need a way to collect and process payments. Most customers will want to give you credit card information via a secure Web server. Some might want to give you credit card numbers over the phone. Others might want to pay by mail or be invoiced. Will you offer choices or force one option? The best way is to accept payments any way customers want to pay.

“Make it easy for your readers to say yes to paying for your online content,” Friedman advised. “There are a million possible ways for them to give you their money — be ready to take it in whatever form they offer it.”

7. Provide Customer Service

No matter what, some of your customers will mistakenly enter wrong credit card information (e.g., credit card number, credit card name, or billing address) that can halt their transactions. Some might not have enough credit to complete the transaction. A few won’t be able to follow the instructions; what’s simple to one person is complicated to another. No matter how well designed the system, some customers will have problems.

Someone from your company will have to help them. Helpers should be knowledgeable and have the tools to deal with these problems and respond quickly. Will they respond by email, phone, other method, or all methods? All hours? Seven days a week?

8. Market Your Decision to Charge

After you’ve decided to charge, communicate why to your customers. Friedman’s Albuquerque Journal placed a pop-up on its site explaining why and sent customers email. If you charge for only limited sections of your site, clearly explain why and which parts can still be accessed for free. “Invited your customers to become subscribers and ask them what it would take to make your product valuable enough for them to pay for it,” Friedman said.

9. Test Your Setup

Don’t expect your paid-access setup to work perfectly the first time. Before launch, have staff try the system as if they were your customers. Make sure they do so from outside the company’s Web server and email domains. Then let more staffers, friends, and family use the system to ensure the first staffers’ testing didn’t miss anything.

10. Persevere

After launch, persevere. Be prepared to change things; live use by your customers will probably reveal problems your testers didn’t find.

Friedman said, “Even two years later, we continue to tweak our registration pages, our software, and the processes we use to communicate with our circulation department as different situations arise.”

Related reading

Vector graphic of a megaphone spewing out business themed items, such as a laptop, tablet, pen, @ symbol and smartphone