The Challenge of Online Publishing: Content Worth Paying For

This week, the business model discussion and debate continues. Next week, I promise, I’ll shift gears. But this is important…

This past weekend I got an email from fellow ClickZ writer Dana Blankenhorn, which reflected the views many hold:

“Readers are already paying for your content,” Dana wrote.

“They’re paying with the most valuable commodity they have — their time. When you demand their money as well, or demand more time as the price for giving their time, you’re demanding something that is less valuable than what you already have.

“There are many ways to monetize time and attention other than advertising,” he suggested.

“You can earn more time and attention by not just advocating the marketplace you represent, but helping to organize it. When you organize your marketplace, you will lead your readers further down the sales funnel. The further down the sales funnel you lead your readers, the more you’re ‘earning’ for your market partners from each transaction. Your challenge as a publisher then becomes to extract this value in creative ways.

“If you can offer your marketing partners sales, not just prospects, or qualified, educated prospects, not just generic click-throughs, don’t you deserve more money from those partners? Of course you do. You earned it. And you’ll get it.”

Well, I need to respond. So here goes.

Dear Dana,

A reader’s time may be valuable, but, unfortunately, it doesn’t pay the bills.

Most publications — and I’m talking here about for-profit publications, not side ventures or hobbies — have to pay their writers; their web designers; their ad-serving bureau; their network, sales rep, or rep firm; their editorial team; their programmers; their landlord; their utilities; their lawyers and accountants… While it is quite possible to launch and operate a very low overhead online venture — and ClickZ is living proof of that — for most operations, it’s quite difficult.

No doubt, advertising and sponsorships represent a significant revenue stream, and for many businesses (I would count ClickZ as among the fortunate few), that might be enough to live on. But you really need to play it smart: Get the right audience, a group of sponsors anxious to pay top dollar to get in front of them, and great content to keep them loyal.

As for “marketing partners,” let’s call it what it really is: cost-per-acquisition advertising. It means that you absorb all the risk so that a company can reach your audience for free, only paying when a sale is made, a subscription is placed, or a click goes through to a target destination.

The publisher — who doesn’t control the product, the message, the advertisement, the destination page, or the order form (which matters!) — is somehow totally responsible to deliver buyers to his or her “marketing partner.”

I don’t call that “partnership.” I call it risk-free, no-cost advertising for the marketer.

And I honestly don’t believe it’s the publisher’s job to deliver a sale while somehow maintaining editorial integrity. Are we retailers, or are we publishers?

If you truly believe in the wisdom of the ideas you propose here, I’d challenge you to take the web site and email list you have owned for a number of years now — A-Clue.Com — and make it a real business — a profitable one — under those guidelines.

While I would love to see the “free content” model continue on the Net, the drying up of VC and IPO money, which funded content development and the advertising that supported it, will cause either the collapse of that business model or the shift of costs to those who derive the benefit of good content: the readers.

As a loyal Salon.com reader, I am ready and willing to pay a subscription to continue to read Salon content every day. And I don’t mind a bit if that content also includes advertising. Salon writers produce great stuff, and I want the magazine not only to survive, but to thrive and prosper.

To produce that kind of commitment and loyalty among our readers will be the challenge for online publishers in the coming years.

If you can’t create content worth paying a few cents to read, you may not have a viable business.

Best regards,

Andy

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