The past two years has seen the emergence of a previously taboo concept in online publishing: Paid for content. Online publishers the world over have unwittingly created their own Monster of Frankenstein by offering premium content to anyone with an internet connection and the savvy to navigate the World Wide Web. As more readers have migrated online, many print publications have found themselves without a viable business model. Online publishers, though, continue to grapple with the financial demands of 24 hour news rooms and generating a meaningful profit.
The shift in media consumption has been augmented by the explosion of digital and social media, which has engrained a culture of fast, free-flowing (and free) information sharing among web users, leading to thought leaders like Malcolm Gladwell positing the hypothesis that “information wants to be free.” A fine example of this is the online micro-blogging platform, Twitter.
So online pay walls have risen to prominence as online publishers search for a workable revenue model.The practice has been widely adopted in the UK and the USA, with big online brands like thetimesonline.co.uk implementing a pay wall.
Local digital publishers are watching and waiting , biding their time before taking the plunge into wholesale pay walling and, critically, learning from the mistakes of overseas online destinations before deciding on the viability, shape, size and colour of any pay wall solution.
Holding company of iafrica.com, Primedia Online is one such local publisher. As South Africa’s oldest online news portal, iafrica.com was ahead of the curve in terms of making a shift toward online publishing.
The reality is that social media, blogging, mobi platforms and cheaper bandwidth have created new competition for previously established online publishing destinations. The digital market is growing rapidly and unless publishers mirror that growth, their market share will fall.
I believe iafrica’s continued success rides on a set of editorial principles and not on knee-jerk mechanisms like hastily erected pay walls.
Before publishers even ponder the possibility of erecting pay walls, they ought to first drive loyalty and engagement from their readership. My battle plan goes something like this: Develop quality content that’s unique and exclusive with its own distinctive personality (versus the “sanitised” content of other news portals), and the readers will come. By pursuing a “good user experience” and nurturing an “engaged” audience, I believe the portal will continue to thrive.
One can’t argue with quantifiable figures and iafrica.com has maintained its aggregated position as a top-five online destination for the past 10 years. Between January and May 2010, iafrica.com recorded an average of 3 112 862 unique visitors a month, up 17 per cent from the same period last year. Moreover, 85 percent are returning users, while 15 percent are new. This statistic is key, and it demonstrates that my mantra might be bearing fruit, with the portal delivering a great balance between generating new readers while maintaining a large and loyal readership.
Critically, growth in readership has translated into growth in advertising revenue. iafrica.com has recorded an increase of 5,67 percent on the same period in 2009, while its network partner sites have reported an increase of 13,69 percent up on the same period in 2009.
What’s the link? While the industry quivers under the triple threat of a global recession, a fundamental shift in media consumption away from paid content, and an explosion of innovative and competitive media platforms, iafrica continues to grow.
It goes back to loyal readership and the tailoring of content to keep them happy. The rise to prominence of some of South Africa’s most popular blogs shows the importance of a loyal reader in this day and age. A loyal reader is there by choice and a loyal reader trusts their publication to “clutter-bust” effectively by sifting out the information they don’t want. Ultimately, a loyal readership puts a publisher in a strong position when it comes to attracting advertising and negotiating the revenue particulars.
The same applies to the company’s policy on advertorial. Marry the campaign with the audience, never sacrifice your audience for the campaign. But it would be naive to suggest that a time for pay walls or similar kind of revenue model will never come for iafrica.
If or when iafrica does erect pay walls around some products, I see social media platforms as the ideal way to market premium content. It’s no longer simply about consumption, but rather communication between our news and the audience – these platforms are the ideal enabler.
TMOL Ed’s comment: Whatever your feelings on the WikiLeaks debacle, publishers should be paying attention to one thing specifically: It’s not just “secrets” that a large sector of the online community feels should be free. It’s software and information too. My belief? If you charge for it, they won’t come . . . just one person needs to pay and can then “hand it out” to all the rest. You want good business sense, you opt for hybrid publishing. ~ DB