I often think about how hard it is to get people to pay for written content online. It seems to me that there are very few people who have figured it out.
The biggest and most obvious hurdle, is that there is literally so much information available for free now – on virtually every subject you can imagine.
The internet has made it possible for anyone to reach a large audience for free. This is good for those looking to consume content (even though discovery is now an issue) and for those who had previously struggled to get their content in front of others. It’s now easier and cheaper for both of these groups.
However, if you are a business which used to rely on revenue from print content, you find yourself in the middle of being disrupted.
There’s no doubt about it, getting people to pay for written content is very hard. If it were easy, we wouldn’t be watching many of the big guys so obviously struggling to figure it out.
That said, I believe people will pay for written content online. But, it will depend on figuring out what is the best way to get people to actually pay for it.
Below are some of my thoughts on how to get people to pay for written content online:
Publish awesome content
It sounds obvious, but above everything else you need to publish awesome content.
People need to love reading it. People need to look forward to it arriving. People need to think about it for days after. You need to make people happy, move them, improve their life, teach them new things, stir up joyful memories etc.
It’s actually very hard to do this and if you do achieve it, you’d be surprised at how easy it is to drift away from it.
You might get tempted to just get content out of the door for a tight deadline. Perhaps you fall into the trap of quantity over quality. Maybe there is pressure from advertisers, bosses or shareholders to change your content strategy. You may feel the pressure to monetise to early. Maybe you just get lost in the hoopla of running a business and start to forget what you stand for.
Never forget that ultimately awesome content comes first.
The old business models don’t work
Advertising and sponsored content worked for print, but don’t work as well for online. They may have 15 years ago, but advertisers have since become more savvy around return on investment.
Just showing you can provide lots of eyeballs and clicks isn’t enough, and unless your audience is utterly gigantic (twitter, facebook, google), advertising probably isn’t going to sustain your business.
I actually think this is a good thing. Advertising is at odds with providing people with good content anyway. It’s a very hard balancing act to get right and it normally jars the reading experience. I think consumers put up with it in the print world because it was the norm and the costs in producing and distributing a print magazine were easy to understand. It just was, what it was.
That’s not the case with the internet and there are far too many places where you can now consume fantastic written content and not have to fight through a bunch of crappy ads / advertorials all over the place.
It’s kinda sad to see people still trying to flog the old models hoping for equivalent success – my local newspaper being one of them. They are a total mess. The advertising overpowers the content and in many cases, actually obstructs the content. In fact, their adverts even mislead and rip off their customers (Get Ripped Without Exercising With This Incredible Stack & Strange Fruit Burns 2 Stone – Sold Out In Most Stores etc.) Talk about a good way to lose readers.
Cambridge Evening News website – Poor design and overpowering (and misleading) advertising at it’s best.
Go to their website on your phone and it gets worse. They do have an app, however it’s literally images of the print edition which are buyable through in app purchases.
The content doesn’t really appeal to anyone in their 20’s or 30’s either – perhaps even 40’s. It’s like they’re stuck in some type of time warp, hanging onto an ageing (and shrinking) customer base. They aren’t in tune with what type of content people want (and will pay for) and how they want it.
It’s the same content, same business model – just thrown onto the web / mobile in an ugly fashion. The end result is inevitable.
When it comes to monetising written content, there is going to have to be some degree of experimentation and risk involved in getting to the right solution. The Prison problem is a good example of some different thinking in this area.
You have to charge less
Content providers are going to have to get their head around the fact that they will need to charge less online – much less. Thats a hard one to stomach when your revenues are declining and you’re used to customers having a value of X.
What needs to be remembered is that the opportunity to reach a far greater number of people at significantly less cost makes this possible.
The music industry is the best example of where this has happened. It’s cheaper to buy music online than it used to be to buy CD’s. And it should be, because the distribution is less complicated and cheaper.
Having the balls to make this decision and push forward with it, is both scary and risky. Really though, what choice do you have? In most cases, customers literally won’t pay the old prices. So, you can either dig your heels in and stick to your old price points (and eventually lose your business) or adapt.
People pay for what they are deeply passionate about.
It’s scary how much money people will spend on things they care deeply about. The more content providers can tap into what people are passionate about, the better they will do.
If people are very passionate about something, it’s so much easier to get them over the line for a purchase. Sometimes they will pay even if they are drawn into only a particular part of what you are offering.
I think this is why Crossfit Journal seems to be successful. I subscribed for a year, literally for one article I particularly wanted to read. I love the movement and am passionate about my health. I really wanted to read a particular article and I was sure there would be others throughout the year I would also like. If I was ‘so, so’ on fitness and crossfit, I would have hesitated at the point of purchase I am sure, and not gone through with it.
I noticed the other day that The Onion has turned into a subscription site with a paywall. I think you get to read X number of articles for free per month, and subscribing gives you full access. I have no idea if they are / will be successful, but my gut tells me it won’t be.
No doubt it’s a very funny and popular site, but at the end of the day it’s a humour site. They are not tapping into something people deeply care about. My guess is that a hardcore, loyal part of their audience will sign up, but it won’t get much traction beyond that. I’d love to know how it is panning out for them.
Go deep, not broad
It’s hard to build a loyal, active following (which can then be monetised) around something that is very broad. I just don’t think it will connect with people enough for them to stick around and pay.
Going deep and tapping into a niche is a better idea. If you do a great job at providing content people think is really good within a niche, you will be blown away at the type of audience you can build. It can become almost cult-like. High engagement and open to paying for something valuable to them.
Monetising too early can kill your content business. Do whatever it takes to avoid being in the position where you are forced into it.
It’s best to focus on just publishing awesome content and building a fantastic community around it who love what you do. From there, you can slowly bring in the right monetisation model.
If you’re readers really do love what you do, they will adjust to having to pay something for it or will buy something else from you.
The other thing about waiting to monetise is often the right model will be easier to see once you have actually built something you are happy with.
Customers need to see the value
Being able to charge money for content has always fundamentally come down to offering value.
People will take the price you are charging and immediately do all types of calculations and comparisons in their head to determine if they feel comfortable paying you that price.
If you want someone to pay you $9.99 a month, people need to feel like they will get at least that much value from it every month. And often they will compare what you charge with other things they spend the same amount of money on.
Many of the very successful subscription services do this well – spotify, netflix etc. Their customers very happily pay a monthly fee because the value they get each month, far outweighs what they pay. And when they compare that amount to what they pay for other things (or used to pay), it looks like awesome value.
For example, a spotify monthly subscription fee is roughly comparable to a trip to McDonalds. It’s cheaper than one album used to cost. People use it every day and people get really passionate about their favourite music. It’s an easy purchase for most.
Passion can help to get people over the line, but fundamentally people need to see the value in subscribing to something. Will it make me feel better? Will I get joy and happiness from it? Will my life be improved? The more obvious that is to people, the easier it will be for them to pay for written content.
Community is important
Groups of people are getting around products, people and companies like never before. It’s happening on all types of platforms such as twitter, facebook, instagram, blogs etc.
If you can bring people together into an active community, you’re far more likely to be able to monetise your audience.
Peer pressure starts comes into the mix. People won’t want to be left out of being able to discuss paid content with the rest of the community. You’d be surprised at how much value people put on being given an environment to make friends on subjects they are passionate about. All of these things make it much easier to get people over the line and pay for written content online.
A good example which is personal to me, is AtLarge Nutrition.
Before I launched AtLarge Nutrition, I built a bodybuilding site called Wannabebig (funny name I know!). It was a mixture of articles and a forum in which people could discuss bodybuilding topics and just hang out. It grew to quite a nice size and even though I decided not to monetise the content directly, the power of the Wannabebig community was instrumental in the growth of AtLarge Nutrition.
Many of our long-time AtLarge Nutrition customers were Wannabebig members who loved what they had learned and the friends they had made on Wannabebig. In fact, often Wannabebig members were our biggest sales force, recommending our products to other members on the forum.
Long form Content
I think long form content is really interesting.
At the moment, short online articles are making books look long-winded and not a particularly good return on investment of time. Non-fiction books tend to draw out 4 or 5 points into over 200 pages. The vast majority could put their points across in just 5,000 or 10,000 – hell, even 20,000 words. Sometimes I think people write a lot of words because writing a book is a personal goal for them.
Short, online articles tend to be free. You pay for non-fiction books.
I think there is room in the middle for long form, online content. Something that takes 20-30 mins to read and is packed with the value / learning you might receive from a book. I think that would really stand out.
They could be one part of a subscription offering or sold on a one off basis. I think I would pay in both of these scenarios for high quality, long form content.
Paul Graham’s Essays are a good example of long form content. Some of the longer ones can take 20-30 mins to sit and read properly. The ratio of ideas to words is very high. You can tell they are well thought out and a lot of effort has been put into crafting the final version you see. The content for me is amazing and I get a lot of value from each one. Sometimes I feel more inspired and other times I realise something big.
If Paul charged $20 for each new article he wrote, I would pay it in a heartbeat because of the value I get from them.
Personalities over brands
We’re seeing the power shift from brands to people.
A lot of this has to do with how the internet has made it easy for individuals to reach and build audiences of their own, inexpensively.
If you wanted to learn about fitness 10 years ago, your only real source was books and magazines, which tended to be controlled by one or two companies. Now if you want to learn about fitness, you can go directly to the leading fitness professionals who are sharing and selling content independently and building a community themselves, through their own websites.
You can see this happening on all types of subjects – cooking, travel, venture capatilism, fashion, technology etc.
For me at least, it’s easier to connect and buy into a person over a brand. It feels more personal and genuine. The content feels higher quality and unbiased (politics tend to get in the way and influence things at companies).
This is something that news / journalism type companies are not leveraging enough. Instead of trying to build a following purely around their brand, they would be better off to build it through a number of popular, highly respected personalities.
The old guard shouldn’t be trying to figure this out
Ok, I want to say this upfront, I’m not being ageist.
But, the disruption is happening today. It’s todays (and the futures) technology which is disrupting things. It’s todays generation that isn’t being properly understood.
So the reality is those who will figure it out are likely to be millennials.
I have a suspicion that there are still way too many people with suits and grey hair trying to figure things out, particularly in the companies which are being disrupted. I say this because of the mixture of denial and unimaginative strategies we can see playing out in public.
The startups that are disrupting the established, bigger companies are being run by twenty somethings. Twenty somethings are now building billion dollar companies. They are switched on to technology. They know what their generation wants, because they are in it. They are ready to take the right risks. They are brave. And they are smarter and more capable than twentysomethings ever used to be.
I’m not saying they should come in and replace everyone, or hired and be given carte blanche.
But, whoever is running the established companies, they need to hire the best of this generation and give them the autonomy to solve these problems. They also need to not be afraid to move people out who are in denial or resistant to change.
I’ll finish by simply acknowledging that getting people to pay for written content online is both tough and also a big opportunity. I think we’ll see some big success stories in the future and they may not look like what we expect them to.