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June 13 2013

07:02

The newsonomics of Hearst Magazines’ one million new customers

Take this quiz. The era of paying for digital access (a.k.a. digital circulation or paywalls) is about:

  1. Getting more money out of core subscribers;
  2. Getting new money out of new subscribers; or
  3. Getting money any way you can.

Okay, 3 is a gimme. But 1 and 2 are very different strategies. While most newspaper publishers are leaning heavily on their long-time core bases by promising and delivering all-access, Hearst Magazines is taking a contrarian turn in the market. It’s a strategy that is largely at odds with peers Condé Nast, Time Inc., and Meredith, as well as most newspaper publishers. It’s betting almost wholly on new customers.

“We want unique paying digital customers,” says Chris Wilkes, VP for audience development and digital editions for Hearst Magazines. “We’re not interested in people reading print and digital together. We want people who are engaging with our digital products, and we’re attracting people who want to read in the digital format.” The company has experimented with a little bundling — at “fair” (higher) and not “ride-along” prices — Wilkes says, but that’s a minor part of the business.

He can now offer up one big seven-digit number to back up that strategy: One million paid digital subscribers. That’s the number of new subscribers Hearst Magazines was able to announce in May. Hearst Magazines president David Carey met that magic number just a few months behind his target. At one million, it’s still only about 3-4 percent of Hearst’s total print circulation — but it’s a milestone. The company is aiming to make 10 percent of its total circulation digital by 2016.

It’s not that Hearst is saying it won’t do all-access ever. But its reason for zagging while other zig is clear.

“It’s easier for us to pivot out of a paid model to authenticated than it would be for others to go the other way,” Carey explained to me earlier this year. In other words, Hearst can go all-access, but would do it at higher prices, reflecting dual value.

Those million subscribers are spread unevenly among 21 digital magazines. The biggest title is Cosmopolitan, with 175,000 paying digital subscribers, or 6 percent of its total circ. O, Oprah’s mag, is second at 108,000. The Food Network’s is third.

Carey’s big digital push encompasses a lot more than digital editions. The Hearst Tower is seeing lots of shake ups, new hires, and new projects. At the top, longtime COO Steve Swartz has finally moved into the CEO’s suite as Frank Bennack’s remarkable three-decade tenure has drawn to a close. He now heads a well-diversified private media company reaching into magazines, TV, newspapers and business media.

Hearst just hired digital native Troy Young as president of Hearst Magazines Digital Media. Young’s digital business associations — xoJane, ReadWrite, Refinery29, Spinmedia, and CrowdSurge — lead to this job where he’ll be responsible for “digital content, technology, operations, revenue, product, and business development strategies.” The company has now made it possible for advertisers to buy across its digital titles through Totally Global Media. Its two-year-old App Lab is home to 40 staffers. Its embrace of native advertising is recent, warm, and wide; it has just announced five new products in the field, and raised some editorial eyebrows as its magazine staff is writing commercial copy as part of their jobs.

Hearst’s strategy here is one to watch. There are good reasons (more on that below) why daily newspapers have opted to go for door number one and get more money from long-time subscribers while making new subs a largely second priority. But they know that’s a two- to three-year strategy. As 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 every single day through 2031, the older-reader market inevitably winnows and must be refreshed with new, paying customers. For daily newspapers, getting younger (yes, younger means under 55) readers to pay is mostly phase two.

So let’s see what Hearst learning, as it leads both newspaper companies in that quest and its fellow magazine chains as well.

There’s a lot to like about the demographics of the digital audience. According to the company’s data, the readers are 10-20 percent more affluent, 10 years younger, and more educated. Wilkes acknowledges that those good demographics may be skewed by early tablet demographics themselves, but they are directionally vital.

Make no mistake: The tablet is the linchpin here. How much of the reading of these magazines happens on the tablet? An amazing 98 percent. For many, the tablet is a truly becoming a replacement for the print magazine.

Wide distribution is key to gaining numbers; subscriber growth is now moving at about 10 percent a month. Hearst uses all the platforms out there, from the Apple, Amazon, and Android stores and beyond. It is also testing magazine aggregation: It’s an owner of Next Issue (“The newsonomics of Next Issue magazine future”), which offers dozens of titles at two price points, and it partners with Zinio (which just debuted its first multi-title offer).

The tablet, of course, has become the lifeline of the magazine, a bequest of Steve Jobs, soon to be refreshed by the changes coming in iOS 7. While the horizontal web page always proved an awkward fit for vertical magazines, the tablet is oh-so magazine like.

“It was a small novelty business [on the pre-tablet web],” Wilkes says. “We knew when the iPad came out, we would finally be able to build our business.” The iPad revolution completely changed the magazine industry’s potential trajectory.

Newsstand sales continue to crash — down 8.2 percent in the second half of 2012, in part, of course, because of the millions of tablets that readers are carrying into airports and on trains. (And soon, when the FAA finally relaxes tablet reading on takeoff and landing, the necessity of having a print piece packed away will lessen further.)

Hearst, while arguably leading the magazine pack, certainly has its own challenges. Its single copy sales lost 1.9 percent in 2012, even though its 2.3 percent overall circulation increase to 30.7 million stands out among its peers.

For the first quarter, print ad pages were down 4.9 percent for U.S. consumer magazines, though only 0.1 percent in revenue due to price increases. Hearst Magazines was up 6.6 percent.

Given the across-the-spectrum drop in print advertising, both Time Inc. and Meredith have recently laid hundreds of employees. Time Inc. is, of course, in turnaround — yet again. First up for sale and now to be spun off from Time Warner, it let CEO Laura Lang go after but a year of ongoing strategic review and seems significantly behind Hearst in digital innovation. It is now playing catch-up with notable hires for Time.com, but is climbing out of its indecisive recent past; ad pages were down 12.2 percent in 2012, though up 0.6 percent for Q1 2013.

It’s intriguing that Hearst has — so far — embraced a double-edged bundling philosophy. While it won’t, largely, bundle print and digital subscriptions, advertising is mostly bundled. If you buy an ad in House Beautiful or HGTV Magazine, you are paying for the whole rate base, including that three percent of the readership that’s tablet, says Wilkes. At this point, a buy is a buy, though, Hearst, like so many others, is going to town on all the new possibilities of customizing advertising for top brands. It’s not just those latest buzzwords, content marketing. It’s interactive ad creation. Advertisers who buy print can tweak their tablet ad to use its capabilities.

Wilkes notes a real movement in the ad creation business. Last year, he says, 85 percent of the ad customization done for the e-edition ads were done by his App Labs staff, with only 15 percent of advertisers, or their agencies, doing the tweaking. This year, brands or their agencies have assumed the work in about 40 percent of the cases, with the Apps Labbers doing the rest.

Wilkes anticipates the work will continue to migrate back to the advertiser. That’s a big lesson for all the publishers jumping into the agency business: As traditional agencies step up, increasingly fearing their own obsolescence, the custom/content marketing units of publishers will get more competition. Many inevitably will fall back to doing what they’ve long done: sell space. Those — nationally or locally — who see riches in becoming agencies — may find the going a lot tougher than it may be in 2013.

The pricing of the digital magazines is a big question and still a work in progress.

Magazines, which long used token reader payments just to print hundreds of pages of lucrative advertising, have a price problem. As John Loughlin, GM of Hearst Magazines, recently put it at MPA Swipe 2.0, “a magazine subscription needs to be valued at more than two venti cappuccinos.” Magazine publishers realize, just as their newspaper brethren do, that the challenges of digital advertising will only grow, as print ad pages decline — and that readers must pay more of the freight going forward.

On average, Hearst’s digital mags cost 30 percent more than their print equivalents, Typically, they are $19.99 for a year, $1.99 for a month. Buyers can pay for a single issue or per year, depending on the title. A majority opt for the annual sub.

“It’s not pricing up — it’s pricing back,” says Wilkes, meaning magazines need to regain value lost in the heavily discounted print subscriptions that can now be found in seconds simply by Googling.

It’s true that most of that 30 percent in higher prices never reaches Hearst, as it deals with Apple and others of its more than a dozen distribution points, many of whom take cuts in the 15-30 percent range as commission. Wilkes says that’s not the reason for the 30 percent upcharge — it’s meant to convey a new value for the tablet age.

Might the price go higher? Early data says it could. A magazine’s price isn’t among the top reasons readers buy — or don’t. As Hearst interacts with consumers and reads app reviews, it sees that customer satisfaction with the product is by far the key driver in gaining and keeping subscribers. “We’re not seeing much price sensitivity,” says Wilkes.

The pricing conundrum is at least two-sided. Magazines have a greater ability to draw in new subscribers. Getting someone to one-click for $20 is one thing. Getting them to commit — after cheap trial subs — to $200 to $300 for a year’s newspaper subscription is another.

So here magazines may have an edge at gaining new customers — unless newspapers can figure out cheaper subset products that may provide more saleable price points. The Wall Street Journal’s test with Pulse, on three cheaper products, may not be producing big results, but expect to see more such tests; The New York Times’ first-quarter earnings announcement about new niche paid products is one to watch here.

Yet newspapers’ weakness is also their strength. Their all-access plans have been front and center for a reason. On average, those putting all-access plans into place have increased subscription prices 40 percent, according to Press+, the leading supplier of paywall technology to the U.S. industry. Forty percent of $250 is $100. Newspaper publishers will tell you they’d rather increase rates for readers across the board than expect “onesie or twosie” new sales to propel their businesses and make up for ad loss.

The New York Times, now getting close to 700,000 digital subscribers and offering all-access to print readers is the best example of a daily having it both ways.

The bigger money that newspaper publishers are taking in makes magazine publishers envious. It’s important to acknowledge the differing cost bases of the newspaper and magazine industries — but still, the ability to yield significant new reader revenue has largely been a newspaper advantage.

Hearst Magazines, in reaching the golden million number, is the leader in new consumer magazine reader revenue. It has added, we can extrapolate, about three to four percent of new reader revenue to the mix. That’s impressive, but not world-beating. Literally, at $20 price points, or even $30 prices, they need millions of new readers — which is David Carey’s plan — to fundamentally alter publisher economics.

One further hope may be niche paid products. Hearst Magazines’ own experience with those may be cautionary. It has produced numerous standalone apps out of its shelter, food, and health properties, but is now de-emphasizing that development. Why? Too much noise in the marketplace, so too little return for the investment. Rather, it will concentrate on improving its digital editions.

There’s one more long-term business strategy playing out here. It’s hard to see in 2013, but it will enjoy high visibility by 2020. Hearst’s cost in printing and distributing magazines are 30-40 percent of its overall cost base, on a par with newspapers. As its readers cross over (“The newsonomics of crossover”), paying as much or more for digital as they do for print, profit increases markedly. At three percent of circulation today, or 10 percent in 2016, Hearst won’t be at crossover. Expect, though, that crossover to move more quickly for Hearst than for other publishers.

As it reaches 50 percent and more, it’s a new business, and strategies, like Hearst’s, may make even more sense in the rear-view mirror.

May 03 2012

14:55

The newsonomics of Pricing 101

When the price of your digital product is zero, that’s about how much you learn about customer pricing. Now, both the pricing and the learning is on the upswing.

The pay-for-digital content revolution is now fully upon us. Five years ago, only the music business had seen much rationalization, with Apple’s iTunes having bulled ahead with its new 99-cent order. Now, movies, TV shows, newspapers, and magazines are all embracing paid digital models, charging for single copies, pay-per-views, and subscriptions. From Hulu Plus to Netflix to Next Issue Media to Ongo to Press+ to The New York Times to Google Play to Amazon to Apple to Microsoft (buying into Nook this week), the move to paid media content is profound. The imperative to charge is clear, especially as legacy news and magazines see their share of the rapidly growing digital advertising pie (with that industry growing another 20 percent this year) actually decline.

Yes, it’s in part a 99-cent new world order as I wrote about last week (“The newsonomics of 99-cent media”), but there are wider lessons — some curiously counterintuitive — to be learned in the publishing world. Let’s call it the newsonomics of Pricing 101. The lessons here, gleaned from many conversations, are not definitive ones. In fact, they’re just pointers — with rich “how to” lessons found deeper in each.

Let’s not make any mistake this week, as the Audit Bureau of Circulation’s new numbers rolled out and confounded most everyone. Those ABC numbers wowed some with their high percentage growth rates. Let’s keep in mind that those growth numbers come on the heels of some of the worst newspaper quarterly reports issued in awhile. Not only is print advertising in a deepening tailspin, but digital advertising growth is stalled. Take all the ABC numbers you want and tell the world “We have astounding reach” — but if the audience can’t be monetized both with advertising and significant new circulation revenues, the numbers will be meaningless.

When it comes to dollars and sense, pricing matters a lot.

Let’s start with this basic principle: People won’t pay you for content if you don’t ask them to. That’s an inside-the-industry joke, but one with too much reality to sustain much laughter. It took the industry a long time to start testing offers and price points, as The Wall Street Journal and Walter Hussman’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette provided lone wolf examples.

The corollary to that principle? If you don’t start to charge consumers — Warren Buffett on newspaper pricing: “You shouldn’t be giving away a product that you’re trying to sell.” — then you can’t learn how consumers respond to pricing. Once you start pricing, you can start learning, and adjust.

We can pick out at least nine emerging data points:

  • 33-45 percent of consumers who pay for digital subscriptions click to buy before they ever run into a paywall. That’s right — a third to a half of buyers just need to be told they will have to pay for continuing access, and they’re sold. As economists note that price is a signal of value, consumers understand the linkage. Assign what seems to be a fair price, and some readers pay up, especially if they are exposed to a “warning” screen, letting them know they’ve used up of critical number of “free” views. Maybe they want to avoid the bumping inconvenience — or maybe they just acknowledge the jig’s up.
  • If print readers are charged something extra for digital access, then non-print subscribers are more likely to buy a digital-only sub. Why pay for digital access is the other guys (the print subscribers) are getting it thrown in for “free”? Typically, Press+ sees a 20-percent-plus increase in signups on sites that charge print subscribers something extra. That extra may be just a third or so of the price digital-only subscribers pay (say, $2.95 instead of $6.95), but it makes a difference. Consequently, Press+ says 80-90 percent of its sites charge print subscribers for digital access. The company now powers 323 sites and thus has more access to collective data than any other news-selling source.
  • You can reverse the river, or at least channel it. The New York Times took a year, but figured it out righter than anyone expected. It bundled its Sunday print paper (still an ad behemoth) with digital, making that package $60 or so a year cheaper than digital alone. The result, of course, is that Sunday Times home delivery is up for first time since 2006. It’s not just NYT or the L.A. Times which have embraced Sunday/digital combos. In Minneapolis, the Star Tribune began a similar push in November. Now, of its 18,000 digital-only subscribers, 28 percent have agreed to an add on the Sunday paper, for just 30 cents a week, says CEO Mike Klingensmith (“A Twin Cities turnaround?”). So we see that consumers may well be more agnostic about platform than we thought. Given them an easy one-click way of buying even musty old print, and they will. Irony: If you hadn’t charged them for digital access, you probably wouldn’t have sold them on print.
  • New products create new markets. 70 percent of The Economist‘s digital subscribers are not former print subscribers, says Paul Rossi, managing director and executive vice president for the Americas. That’s surprising in one sense, but not in another. Newspaper company digital VPs will tell you that they’re surprised to see how little overlap there is between their print audience customer bases and their digital ones. The downside here: Many print customers seem not to value digital access that much. The Star Tribune is finding a low take rate of 3 percent of its Sunday-only print subscribers willing to take its digital-access upsell. One lesson: The building of a new digital-mainly audience won’t be easy and will require new product thinking; it’s not that easy just to port over established customers.
  • The all-access bundle must contain multiple consumer hooks. Sure, readers like to get mobile access as well as desktop and print, and maybe some video. Yet some may especially prize the special events or membership perks they are offered, as the L.A. Times is banking on (and start-ups Texas Tribune, MinnPost, and Global Post have applied outside the paywall model). Some will like the extras, like The Boston Globe telling its new 18,000 digital subscribers, as well as its print ones, that they now get “free” Sunday Supper ebooks (“The newsonomics of 100 products a year”). Sports fanatics or business data lovers will find other niches to value — and ones that make the whole bundle worthwhile. Archives — and the research riches they offer — will prove irresistible to some. In 2012, a bundle may offer a half dozen reasons to buy, casting a wide net, with the hope that at least one shiny lure will reel in the customers. By 2013, expect “dynamic, customized offers,” targeting would-be buyers by their specific interests to be more widely in use.
  • While pageviews may drop 10-15 percent with a paywall, unique visitors remain fairly constant. We see the phenomenon of those who do hit a paywall one month coming back in subsequent months, rather than fleeing forever. “It may be the second, third, or fourth month before someone says, ‘I guess I am a frequent visitor here, and I’ll play,’” says Press+’s Gordon Crovitz.
  • Archives find new life. Archives have lived in a corner of news and magazine websites for a long time. They’ve been used, but not highly used or highly monetized. Now, courtesy of the tablet, and a new way to charge, The Economist is finding that 20 percent of its single copy sales are of past issues. Readers will pay for the old in new wrappers, whether back e-issues, or niched ebooks. The all-access offer can be much wider than cross-platform, or multi-device. It can extend across time, from a century of yesterdays to alerts for tomorrow.
  • News media is probably underpriced. Take the high-end Economist. CEO Andrew Rashbass — speaking to MediaGuardian’s Changing Media Summit 2012, in a recommended video — said that a survey of its subscribers showed that a majority didn’t know how much they were paying for the Economist. When pressed to guess, most over-estimated the price. At the Columbia (Missouri) Daily Tribune, an early paywall leader in the middle of America, a recent price increase to $8.99 from $7.99 has so far resulted in no material loss of subscribers. At Europe’s Piano Media, early experience in Slovakia and Slovenia is that price isn’t a big factor, says Piano’s David Brauchli. “Payment for news on the web is really more a philosophical mindset rather than economic. People who are opposed to paying will always opposed to paying and those who see the value of paying don’t mind paying no matter what the price is.” That suggests pricing power. It makes sense that publishers, new to the pricing trade, have approached it gingerly. Yet the circulation revenue upside may well be substantial.
  • Bundle or unbundle — what’s the right way? Mainly, we don’t know yet, and the answer may be different for differing audience segments. The Economist started with print being a higher price than a separate digital sub. Then it raised the digital price to match that of print — to assert digital value. It now offers all-access: one price gets you both. Next up: You can buy either print or digital for the same price, but if you want both, you’ll pay more. It’s an evolution of testing, and so far, it’s been an upward one.

Overall, this is a revolution in more than pricing. It’s a revolution in thinking and, really, publisher identity.

The Boston Globe’s Jeff Moriarty sums it up well, as his company aims (as has the Financial Times before it: “The newsonomics of the FT as an internet retailer”) to emulate a little digital-first company called Amazon:

I think overall publishers have to start thinking more like e-commerce companies. More like Amazon. You can’t just throw up a wall or an app and expect it to just sell itself. We’re still building that muscle here at the Globe, and some of our colleagues in the industry are even farther along. We have extensive real-time and daily analytics and are employing multivariate testing to try offers and designs to refine the experience that works best for each type of user.

Photo by Jessica Wilson used under a Creative Commons license.

March 29 2012

15:00

The newsonomics of 100 products a year

Try this: Call up your local newspaper or online news organization. Tell them you want to buy something and ask them what they can sell you? Of course, at first, they’d be non-plussed: Sell you something? Then, after giving it some thought, they’d say you can buy a newspaper or a subscription or a membership — or, maybe, an ad? Would you like one of those?

Those days — mark it — are coming to an end. We’re on the brink of news companies producing hundreds of products for sale each year. While digital technology hath taketh (the easy ability to make money on news distribution), digital technology also giveth back, with the ability to create hundreds and thousands of newsy products at small incremental costs. The bonus: News organizations will be able to satisfy groups of readers and advertisers (often disguised thinly as sponsors) better than ever before. Double bonus: The let-a-hundred-products-bloom revolution fits neatly with the all-out embrace of all-access circulation initiatives, which news companies in North America, Europe, and Asia now can’t seem to implement quickly enough.

Can we call this the ebook revolution? Maybe, but that’s probably too narrow. Delivery of new products to new audiences can take several forms. A text-only ebook, a shinier iBooks-enabled product with video, or an app with all the glorious functionality apps offer. It’s not the form; it’s the content, content that satisfies niches rather than serves masses with one-size-fits-all newspaper or magazine products.

Call it the newsonomics of 100 products a year, or just one way to envision a much bigger future.

The 100-product-a-year model is a much-needed growth model. We can see how it fits nicely with all-access subscriptions, and together we have two interconnected Lego blocks of a new sustainable news model. We have two essential parts of a crossover model (“The newsonomics of crossover”) that I detailed here a few weeks ago. The big, hairy challenges of accelerating print ad loss and onerous legacy costs remain, but at least we’ve got a couple of building blocks we didn’t have two years ago. By we, I mean those of us who care about news and great professional content.

Is it a big moneymaker? We don’t know yet, though we can extrapolate some numbers below.

It’s directionally right, though, for at least a couple of strategic reasons. The notion of 100 smaller products reminds us that so much of the new world is based on volume. Google has built a monstrous advertising business on hundreds of thousands of smaller advertisers, while daily newspapers reaped huge profits on relatively few bigger advertisers. Even as movie watching by streaming surpasses DVD watching, more money is still in the old medium. Streaming will monetize at a lower rate, but end up generating bigger dollars over time. The same thing is true in the digital music business. Selling lots of stuff to lots of people at smaller price points is something the Internet enables superbly.

Yes, there are definitely new winners and losers in movies and music, as there will be in news. Those who transition best and fastest will win.

Second, it’s in line with the strategic push to satisfy the hell out of core customers. As publishers have figured out that it’s the top 15 percent of site visitors who make the big difference in building the new digital business — perhaps paying for subscriptions, consuming many more pages than fly-by users sent by Google — core customer satisfaction is key. Ebooks deeper the relationship to that reader customer.

This 100-product-a-year model may fit as well with the new California Watch/Bay Citizen combo (“The newsonomics of the death and life of California news”), finalized Tuesday, as its does with The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Charlotte Observer, GQ, or Conde Nast Traveler.

Let’s take one example. On Wednesday, the Boston Globe launched “Sunday Supper & More.” It’s a cookbook. It’s New England. And it could be the beginning of a new franchise: Expect summer, fall and winter editions each year to join this spring debut. The Globe’s staff built it with Apple’s iBooks Author tool, so it offers video within it.

Want to buy it? Not so fast. Today, Sunday Supper & More is only available to Boston Globe print, all-access, and digital subscribers. So subscription — think “membership” (the recent riff of the L.A. Times new paywall intro) — is gaining new benefits. Surprise, says the Globe, you not only get our paper, our spiffy new replica-plus edition, if that’s what you want, and our mobile apps — you also get our cool cookbooks, with more to come.

The Globe will sell the book to non-subscribers — probably at $4.99 — but will decide the timing of that sale after next week’s Globe confab at which execs and editors will plot an ebook plan for the company.

“Events and ebooks will be the two biggest perks” of the new Globe subscription push, says Jeff Moriarty, the Globe’s VP of digital products. Beyond Sunday Suppers and a new spin on the Fenway 100 historical Red Sox book, we can picture the Globe soon mining its archives in both sports and features to provide new value for customers and a new leg of revenue. It experimented early with three books on its Whitey Bulger stories, and learned some lessons in pricing, distribution, and the technical creation process along the way.

The Globe has plenty of company in this push. We see Canada’s National Post committing to a couple of dozen ebooks in the coming year, again from hard news to features (“To learn what works (quickly), Canada’s National Post dives into ebooks”). Guardian Shorts is an early innovator; Politico is churning out four campaign ebooks this year.

Magazine publishers, faster than newspaper publishers to embrace the tablet as the next-gen platform, are also ahead of most newspaper publishers in ebooks. Vanity Fair’s done more than a half dozen, and its parent Conde Nast is hosting an explosion of more single-purpose apps in the iTunes Store, some unrelated to Conde’s magazines. Hearst’s Cosmopolitan is embracing ebooks, and now partnering, along with ProPublica — an early tester of ebooks — with Open Road Integrated Technology. Open Road Integrated Technology?

Well, it’s a book company, an ebook company juiced on the possibilities of our age. Headed by former HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman, the company is prototypical of a new group of middlemen. With book marketing savvy (cover design, marketing, distribution+), these companies are now feeding the emerging ebook marketplace. They are also partnering back for that old standby, print, as Open Road has done with book services company Ingram. In Canada, it was Harper Collins Canada that became the National Post’s partner in bringing news ebooks to market.

Just as the web has knocked many middlemen for a loop, it creates openings for new ones.

If you talk to publishers about ebooks, they are farther along in experimenting than they were a year ago. Yet some basic issues — producing the books, marrying them to commerce engines, placing them prominently in e-stores and more — are giving them headaches as they push forward. “How do we make the right offer to the right person at the right time?” one experienced exec asked.

The marketplace has been exploding (recall that Amazon announced last spring that its ebooks were now outselling its paper books), but those issues are setting the stage for a new group of companies, many staffed with graduates of the book industry, offering their help. Newspaper and magazine publishers are looking to the Open Roads for guidance.

Some are turning to their digital circulation partner, Press+. That company, which is powering more than 280 titles’ subscription commerce, says its system can handle the commerce and even help with identifying likely customers, based on tracked content usage, so its customers are just beginning to ply the ebook trade.

ProPublica general manager Dick Tofel opted for Open Road for the non-profit investigative publisher’s fifth and sixth books. He says the company will start producing a half dozen or more a year now and is now fielding calls from other publishers eager to get the benefit of his early ebook experience.

So far, ProPublica has put 90,000 ebooks into the market. The first couple were free downloads, but with the addition of new original introductions to work ProPublica had already published free online, Amazon and ProPublica agreed on test pricing of 99 cents and $1.99, and new revenue is rolling in. It’s small, but “pound for pound, it generates more than advertising,” notes Tofel, who is a Wall Street Journal veteran. And, of course, the incremental cost of creating ebooks is closer to zero, with most sales cost able to be a commissioned cost of sale.

As assistant publisher, Tofel oversaw the print books business that’s been a good Dow Jones sideline for a long time.

Those books — personal investing and more — are naturals for the ebook revolution now. Look for the Journal to experiment more with those titles, perhaps niching by life stage.

As news and magazine publishers look to this new revenue stream, here are six points to ponder:

It’s about product development: Yes, it’s editing, but fundamentally, it’s a mindset change for many publishers stuck in the one-size-fits-all world. Publishers either need staffers with new product chops or partners wanting to license publisher content and create the products for the marketplace.

Free the archives!: Digital archives have never been a big business for publishers, caught somewhere between Google and musty library connotations. Packaged archives — for specific audiences — can offer new life for older content.

Don’t think content; think problem solving: Publishers too often start with content. If we start with audience — college-planning students and parents, new mothers and fathers to be, bored cooks, and, big time, sports enthusiasts of all ages — we can see the motors of ebook publishing beginning to role. Think life stage, just for starters, and add the geo angle, and regional publishers can play.

Mining the database: As onesies and twosies, it’s fairly easy to pick content from publishers’ own databases. Think of bigger production cycle, going beyond the 100 a year, to a thousand, all niched products that could be semi-automated and templated over time. Better tagging of content for ebook usage then becomes a priority.

Ebook or app?: Early experimenters say let the content be your guide. The more multimedia, the better an app may work. Ebooks, though, can be sold through more distributors, while Apple continues to dominate the app business.

Pricing: What’s an ebook worth? If it solidifies a subscriber/member paying $300 or more a year, it’s worth a lot, even if it’s free. Think of the lifetime value of that subscriber.

To the right niche, some ebooks will be worth $1.99 and others — Retina perfect — will go for $19.99. Let’s take our 100 products a year. Let’s average 5,000 sales for each. Let’s price at $2.99 on average. That would be $1.5 million. Some books, though, could be blockbusters. We can play with this math and see where it goes.

For the ProPublicas, it’s a nice non-ad revenue stream. For other publishers, it’s at least a growing third leg of revenue (beyond ads and circulation) and one that may be nurtured into something significant. (Last fall, Will Sullivan offered a gaggle of reasons ebooks make sense for publishers.) As importantly, it can reinforce those two legs, pleasing subscribers/members with free (or discounted) perks and advertisers/sponsors who have new opportunities to represent themselves to niche audiences. That’s a pretty good combination, and one that publishers will soon embrace, just as they lately have all-access digital circulation.

February 16 2011

16:15

Take that, Cupertino! Google undercuts Apple’s subscription plan with a cheaper one of its own

Back in 2009, we broke word that Google was working on an e-payment solution for publishers that would be based on its Google Checkout platform. Google’s proposal (pdf) to the Newspaper Association of America said that the company’s “vision of a premium content ecosystem includes”:

• Single sign-on capability for users to access content and manage subscriptions

• Ability for publishers to combine subscriptions from different titles together for one price

• Ability for publishers to create multiple payment options and easily include/exclude content behind a paywall

• Multiple tiers of access to search including 1) snippets only with “subscription” label, 2) access to preview pages and 3) “first click free” access

• Advertising systems that offer highly relevant ads for users, such as interest-based advertising

Google’s got plenty of targeted advertising options (#5), and First Click Free is old hat by now (#4). But Google took a big step toward fulfilling the rest of that vision (#1, #2, and #3) today with the announcement of Google One Pass, “a payment system that enables publishers to charge consumers for articles and other content.” And coming on the heels of Apple’s less-than-publisher-friendly subscription announcement yesterday, Google’s alternative may seem like a breath of fresh air.

First, Google is selling flexibility. No requirement to offer the same deal through a Google One Pass payment system as through other means — which means bundling with print subscriptions is a whole lot simpler than with Apple. Print customers can enter a coupon code to get free access to a website. Want to try a metered model, or experiment with putting more, less, or different content behind a paywall? No problem. It’s device-agnostic — so if you want to sell an all-access, all-platform subscription, no problem there either. (It’s also a micropayment platform, for the few still living who believe in per-article micropayments as a viable model.)

Second, as Lee Shirani writes in the announcing blog post: “With Google One Pass, publishers can maintain direct relationships with their customers and give readers access to digital content across websites and mobile apps.” That sentence isn’t detailed any further in the initial announcement or docs online, but it sure sounds like a nice way of saying, “We’ll let you keep all the customer data Apple isn’t letting you have.”

And, most key of all, Google isn’t demanding the 30 percent cut Apple does. The announcement doesn’t share cost details, but the FT is reporting Google will take 10 percent of any subscription revenue. So selling a $15/month subscription via Apple would net $10.50 versus $13.50 via Google.

The announcement’s a lot to digest, but three quick thoughts:

— With the timing, it’s easy to see One Pass primarily as a competitor to Apple’s subscription plans. But note that the focus is primarily on web access, not app access. (Note that the word “Android” — Google’s mobile platform — is mentioned nowhere.) While mobile apps get a shoutout in the announcement, Google notes that it’ll work only “in instances where the mobile OS terms permit transactions to take place outside of the app market,” which likely means it’ll only work in Android apps, which are still a secondary priority for most news orgs, for better or worse, and where getting users to pay anything for apps has been a challenge. At least for the moment, One Pass is more of a direct competitor to Journalism Online’s Press+ than it is to Apple. It’s an infrastructure play.

— Frankly, I’m a little surprised Google’s even taking 10 percent. The transaction costs themselves shouldn’t be any higher than what Google Checkout regularly charges, which is 2.9 percent plus 30 cents a transaction (plus volume discounts). Sure, building and maintaining the record-keeping system for subscribers and the tools for distinguishing free/paid content will cost something. But Google’s consistent model has been to undercut paid competitors by making good free offerings, and I’d have thought just keeping the Checkout fees would have been the play, to soak up as much of the market as possible.

— What Apple is selling publishers is not just an easy payment system — they’re selling the 160 million user accounts with active credit cards attached. That’s about 70 million more than PayPal. How many of you have a credit card on file with Google Checkout, which has struggled to gain relevance and market share?

February 10 2011

15:00

The Newsonomics of overnight customers

Editor’s Note: Each week, Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of news for the Lab.

It’s a new epidemic of digital-pricing strategery, to borrow a fading term, now breaking out within the newspaper executive suites of the western world. Rupert will soon be charging 99 cents a week for The Daily, and dozens of dailies are laying out digital payment plans to be put into effect this year. Some are hiring top-drawer consultants to parse the many possibilities and run the odds of success before they throw the dice.

The questions are many. Do I charge print subscribers anything extra for digital delivery? If so, how much? If I add a fee for print subscribers, is it opt-out or opt-in? Do I offer a day pass or week pass, or just stick with monthly and annual subscriptions? If I put up a wall, where do I place it? Do I restrict content access by type — allowing free access to classifieds, commerce, and commoditized national and global news, but keep the somewhat proprietary local stuff locked up? Do I let readers read some — maybe 10 or 20 pages a month — of their choosing before making them pay to go further? How many bundles should I offer, and what’s in them?

We’re in uncharted territory. We know very little about consumer behavior when it comes to paying for journalism because the old, steady, entrenched models worked so well for so long that they barely changed over decades. Then the Internet came along and publishers felt compelled to give away their work for free — a subject to be featured in many psychology dissertations to come — as they abandoned, for a 15-year period it appears, a two-legged (advertising + circulation) business model.

A year from now we’ll have lots of data, parsed by all of us every which way from London to New York to Memphis and Augusta to Dallas to San Jose and Modesto, and then we’ll see what works, what doesn’t, and indeed, what “works” means in dollars (and pounds) and cents.

For now, though, the paid plans consist of commonsense, conjecture, conventional wisdom, consultant graphs, and, I believe, some fascinating assumptions about human psychology. On the eve of the launches of more paid offers, let’s examine four of those assumptions underlying this new era.

Let’s call it the newsonomics of overnight customers, which is our first psychological model, and one that I think may turn out to be the most promising.

Our four psychologies:

The psychology of the overnight customer

In north Texas, if you’re a Dallas Morning News subscriber, you’ll wake up sometime after March 1 (the loose date for the debut of the company’s digital paywall), and find that you no longer have a split identity. Though for 15 years you’ve been a “subscriber” for print and a “user” for online, you’re now just a customer. You pay your $30 or $33.95 (the new price as of Jan. 1) a month, and you get seven days of the Morning News and access to the Morning News’ new digital bundle, consisting of desktop/laptop, smartphone, and tablet availability.

That’s right. You’re no longer a “user”, a hateful term if ever one were invented, or a “visitor,” or a brother from another digital planet. Overnight, you’re a customer again.

In this psychology, a news company has put a value on what it produces. You, the customer, now are being shown that value. Maybe a year, or two, or three, from now, you perceive that value — forgetting all about those days of “free” — and value your relationship to the Morning News’ news, whether you access it by paper, phone, tablet, or TV screen.

The big hope: When you are ready to forsake pulp itself, you’re accustomed to paying for digital — you’re a customer of all, clearly — and do so without thinking twice. (And if the Morning News can save big bucks on not having to print and deliver a paper to you, and tens of thousands of your neighbors, it can significantly cut costs, increase profits, and maybe grow its news-gathering capability.)

We expect that after The New York Times’ finishes its own (higher-priced) pricing strategy, it, too, will offer print subscribers digital access as part of the coming “All-Access” bundles. Journalism Online says that about half of its newspaper clients will offer print subscribers no-extra-charge access to digital, while the rest will tack a small upcharge onto print bills.

This psychology, I believe, offers elements of a winning one. Why? It begins to change the artificial split between print and digital consumption. Most likely, it slows down — only temporarily, but every year makes a huge financial difference to news companies — print loss. Bundle it all together — print + digital — and there’s less incentive to drop print, even your use is declining. Less loss in the short-term helps retain print ad revenue, which is still 80 percent or more of all newspaper company ad revenue.

Secondly, it sets up publishers for the hastening print-to-tablet transition. If the kind-of-print-like tablet convinces readers to move away from print more quickly, the more they’ve been accustomed to paying for tablet digital, the less likely they are to balk at paying just for tablet digital.

Journalism Online cofounder Steve Brill will tell you that the company still urges publishers to charge something extra for digital access, even a $1.95 or $3.95 a month, often a 60 percent or more discount compared to what digital-only bundle buyers will pay. Whether you ask print subscribers to pay a small amount for digital access or give them access “free” as part of their print subscription (they still have to register for the restricted access even if no new payment is involved), they’re as likely to sign up for digital access, he says. If that holds, a small, incremental price itself may not be that much of an issue with print subscribers. Those that want it are as likely to pay for it as take it for “free,” as a new digital customer. It’s a way too early to know if that will be the case, but it’s one metric that should be at the top of publishers’ watch lists.

One way or the other, though, print customers are becoming digital customers, quickly. One key lesson here: It is newspapers’ print subscribers and regular readers who should be the likeliest to maintain their loyalty (and show the most willingness to pay of all potential audiences). In a sense, this is a back-to-the-future scenario, redrawing that big “circulation” circle as it was, but now including digital access.

The Forrest Gump psychology

Is a news site just a bunch of chocolates? If so, how important is it to allow would-be news customers to sample the wares before making them open their wallets? If you let them sample, can they sample all the treats, or just half the box — and which half?

Morris Communications’ Augusta Chronicle, partnered with Journalism Online’s Press+, now gives readers 25 pageviews a month before the paywall comes down, giving them access to the whole site. Dallas Morning News digital readers will find that most local stories — other than widely covered local news — have a small “D” symbol, indicating restricted access content that only print or digital subscribers can get access to. In Memphis, the current plan of Scripps’ Commercial Appeal is to start charging in the second quarter, but only for mobile access, while the website itself remains free.

Sampling is a big question. Print subscribers, who tend to be older, know what they are getting, while less habituated readers, who tend to be younger, may need to develop a habit. If sampling of the key, unique, proprietary stuff is made difficult, then how likely are news sites’ to develop a next generation of paying readers?

The psychology of the maze

So what happens when digital visitors bump into paywalls? Remember TimesSelect, and how disorienting that seemed to be to many. It makes people anxious to bump into a wall. Publishers hope that those who bump into walls (after 10-20 pageviews a month), and don’t pay, will come back the next month, and be more likely to pay then. Michael Romaner, head of Morris Digital, which has rolled out an Augusta-like model in Lubbock and plans six more similar rollouts by July 1 (and the rest of the company’s titles by the end of the year), says early data shows that 25 percent of those who ran into the wall paid up. Again, that’s very early data. Let’s see if that 25 percent number holds in Augusta and elsewhere, and what the tracking of the 75 percent — how many go away and never come back? — shows. How many just keep sampling, and are ad-monetized, but never fork over circulation dollars?

The psychology of the psych-out

Maybe news companies are overthinking all of this. Maybe they’ve psyched themselves into believing the world of free news content has really and profoundly changed — with little supporting evidence, other than a number of one-time news apps sales. It’s true that the metered systems, pioneered by the Financial Times and at the core of The New York Times’ and Journalism Online’s models, aren’t bet-the-company strategies. They are designed to keep the engine of growing digital ad revenue humming, allowing 80 percent or more of digital customers go on their merry non-paid ways, while turning those heavier digital readers into digital customers. If they succeed, they’ve picked up a new digital revenue stream, maybe laid down the first pavement to tablet utopia, and maintained a commitment to a digital ad future. All that combined may be just a middling success in revenue, though, as print (see both recent McClatchy and Gannett reports) ad revenues remain stubbornly negative.

If they fail — and that means losing more traffic due to paywalls than they anticipate — then news publishers have once again too strongly believed their own conventional wisdom and will pay the additional consequences.

December 16 2010

15:00

The Newsonomics of all-access — and Apple

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

Don’t wait for the white smoke to waft over America’s tech consumer Vatican, the Cupertino headquarters of Apple. The electronic elves are too busy shipping Christmas iPads, and figuring stock-option payouts based on 2011-12 sales projections. Those projections, newly minted by eMarketer, call for another 50 million iPads to be sold in the U.S. alone over the next two years, atop the eight million they think will sell by year’s end. (Other manufacturers would only sell another 20 million tablets in the U.S. over the same period.)

The white smoke? That would be the signal to news and magazine publishers of how Apple is going to allow access to the tablet kingdom. We’ve seen lots of debate, quasi-information, and mixed signals out of Apple about how digital subscriptions will work, including who will keep which revenue and who will partake of user data, the new digital gold. Apple execs talk regularly to publishers, under threat of severe NDA. Those discussions and the back and forth of dealing with Apple on how apps must be configured to get approved are described as an exercise in Kremlinology — trying to divine how things are really working and will work, without actually being told.

After talking with numerous people in and around the tablet/apps industry, I think we can divine the 2011 policy and clear away the smoke and mirrors. Simply put, this is what the de facto Apple policy on digital news subscriptions appears to be:

  • Publishers can charge their digital readers for tablet — and smartphone — subscriptions, and keep the generated revenue stream.
  • Publishers can offer “free” apps in the Apple store — iTunes for now, iNewsstand maybe not too far away.
  • Publishers must — and here’s the rub — restrict browser access is some form. In other words, you can’t simply charge for digital content on the tablet and the smartphone and let it run freely wild through a browser. The pay models may not have to be the same, tablet to smartphone to browser (that’s unclear), but publishers can’t two use two opposite approaches and use the iTunes stores an initial access point to gain customers and keep all the resulting revenue.
  • Publishers must do their own authentication of users and their own e-commerce outside the Apple interface, to make the program work.

Importantly, numerous news players are acting on the belief that the above will be the policy, given their conversations with Apple. If that seemingly de facto policy becomes formal — with the announcement of the iPad 2? — it will have far-reaching implications. In fact, it gives a rocket boost to the “paid content” (meaning new streams of digital reader revenue) revolution now in front of us. Why? It marks the convergence — maybe the ratification — of three big things happening as we enter 2011. Put them together, and you have the Newsonomics of all-access.

Number one: The tablet. It’s a reader’s product, and therefore a news publishers’ dream. Longer session times. Longer reading forms embraced. A greater willingness among consumers to pay. Print-like advertising experiences — and rates. All of those results, reported privately by the big news companies that are first to market with tablet products and also in a user survey just released by the University of Missouri’s Reynolds Journalism Institute here, are preliminary. (More on the recent Roger Fidler-led Digital Publishing Alliance conference, at which I spoke, here.)

As the iPad moves from Apple lovers to mass market, those numbers should moderate. Yet the very nature of the tablet is telling us that digital news reading isn’t what we thought it was — only a Kibbles ‘n Bits, check-in-on-the-briefs-and-scoot reading experience. It looks like a lot of what we thought were huge changes in news reading behavior may have had as much to do with what the nature of a computer (desktop, laptop) reading experience, and not with a change in the nature of humans themselves. We’ll see, but meanwhile, it looks like a good fifth of the country will have a tablet by 2014.

Number two: That paid content push. 2010 has been prologue, as The New York Times took the year to lay extensive plans, connecting pivotal technology, and Journalism Online traversed the country (and lately other continents) preaching from the pulpit of the Holy Church of Freemium and the practice of metering. Don’t erect a paywall, like News Corp. did in London with the Times; start the meter, track it, and charge accordingly. That’s the Financial Times model, and the one The New York Times and Journalism Online cite as a bible, along with learnings from The Wall Street Journal’s freemium experience, a pivotal education for JO principal Gordon Crovitz, who served as WSJ publisher. The digital reader revenue payment was born out of abject frustration, as publishers concluded that digital advertising itself would never support the large news enterprises they wanted to maintain. They were tired of unicycling into the future; digital reader revenue restores the “circulation” leg of the business, providing (in the abstract) two strong legs to stand out going forward.

Number three: The arrival — finally, o Lord — of the news-anywhere, multi-platform, multi-device world that we’ve been envisioning for more than a decade. For more than a decade, it was a print/online world, in the minds of publishers. Now it’s a print/online (desktop, laptop), smartphone, tablet — and soon Apple TV for news — world. That changes everything in how product is thought out, created, presented and sold.

Put these three phenomena together — a multi-platform world in which the tablet becomes a prime part of daily news reading, reading that will be partly charged for — and you have the shiny new business model of 2011: all-access. I’ve written about all-access and exhorted those publishers with high-quality, differentiated news products to embrace it (see The Newsonomics of the fading 80/20 rule, on Time Warner moves). Now, the forces of the times seem to have conspired to bring it forward and make it dominant.

No, there has been no announcement of a warm all-access embrace, but consider:

  • It’s the model used by the paid-content champ FT (“The Newsonomics of FT as an Internet Retailer“) and The Economist.
  • It’s the model just embraced, without fanfare, by The Wall Street Journal, which had throughout the year priced each new digital platform separately. In its recent announcement of an Android tablet product, it said: “A full digital subscription is available for $3.99 per week, which provides access to WSJ Tablet Edition for Android and iPad, WSJ.com, and WSJ Mobile Reader for BlackBerry and iPhone. Current Journal subscribers receive full access to the WSJ Tablet Edition for free for a limited time.”
  • The New York Times model will follow the same across-platform approach when it launches metered pricing early next year.
  • And, it’s not just the big guys. Take Morris’ Augusta Chronicle, a new Journalism Online customer, which just went metered– and all-access, including its upcoming tablet product in the subscription bundle. Expect to see other Journalism Online customers — a few dozen to start — follow this model next year, along with a number of other dailies that tell me they are planning a similar approach.

The big idea? Cement the relationship with those readers who really want your news, delivered by your brand, global, national or local. Say simply: We’ll make it easy for you to read the news however, wherever, on whatever you want and offer it at a single bundled price. Expect three basic offers: Everything (Print + all digital forms), Print Only and the Digital Bundle (probably including the odd cousin of the digital group, the e-edition), plus some by-the-device (iPhone, iPad, Blackberry, etc.) pricing. It’s certainly not a news-only idea, as Netflix, HBO, and Comcast build out the same model.

It’s a tablet-fed, Apple-polished tablet do-over, and for many news publishers, really a do-or-die effort to reassert brand and product value, reassembling a new business model and building what will sooner-than-later be a digital-mainly business. Will they succeed? Some — those with substantial product offerings that are not commoditized — who move the meter dials smartly, picking off the top five percent or so of their mostly digital visitors for payment will. In a twist on the now-legendary Jarvisism: Charge the best. Market ads to the rest. (And don’t scare them off with a paywall.) Other legacy publishers have cut too much to make the new math work, and still other newer publishers will find all-access works for them as well.

There are many more twists, turns, issues — many of them requiring technology lacking among many publishers — and obstacles yet to work through, but we’ll get to those into the new year. Apple’s own role certainly won’t be to remove itself from the new equation, but to find numerous ways — iAds anyone? — to harvest value.

For now, consider all-access the model to be tested in 2011.

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