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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.

April 26 2012

13:30

May 19 2011

16:00

The newsonomics of the missing link

Picture Pre-Tablet Man (or Woman). Let’s go back to the time before Palm Pilots, at the dawn of consumer digital civilization itself, a time of AOL, Prodigy, and Compuserve. Hunched heavily by the analog world on his shoulders, Pre-Tablet Man has slowly begun to raise his head, through successive innovations of laptops (!), pocket-sized cellphones, smartphones, smarter phones and early e-readers. Now, as we enter Year 2 of the iPad era, it seems like our digital man is almost standing up straight. The digital world has moved from geek chic to consumer commonplace. Our digital devices have become on/off appliances, no manual necessary.

In this evolution, the iPad is so far our human pinnacle, though it will be followed by wonders to come. It also marks a signal change in digital usage, and especially in digital news consumption. I think of it as the likely missing link in the digital news evolution. It’s a link that, out of the blue — or maybe out of the darkness — has offered news companies, old and new, the unlikely (last?) chance to get a new sustainable business model.

We’re now approaching the second half of this highly transitional year, with its multiplying paid circulation tests, continuing print revenue declines, and greater re-focusing on digital ad sales. As we do, let’s look at the newsonomics of the tablet as the missing link. Let’s do that in light of what I think are the six major realities confronting news companies at mid-year.

1. Reality: Print is in permanent decline.

That’s what 21 consecutive quarters of decline (year over year) in U.S. newspaper print ad revenue tells us (“The newsonomics of oblivion“). Consumer magazine revenue has moved barely positive, but is still substantially below pre-recession levels. Print is there to be milked, as long as it can, in the digital transition. Fewer newspapers are being sold, and they are thinner and thinner.

The tablet link: The tablet is a print-like replacement for newspapers and magazines. Publishers privately report (and an increasing spate of reports from Instapaper to RJI to Yudu) that tablet readers read the tablet much more like the newspaper than the way they read news websites. Longer session times. Longer stories. Early morning and evening reading. Pre-tablet, publishers had no potential replacement. Yes, smartphones have been a great check-in short-form reader, but that’s more of a traditional online-like behavior. Now they’ve been given a gift by the technology gods.

Caveat: The tablet is print-like, but it’s not print. It’s a new medium, first inviting — and soon demanding — that publishers make use of its interactive, video-forward, and smooth-as-silk social sharing capabilities. If publishers persist in “going slow,” sticking with cheaper-to-produce replica tablet products, they’ll squander the tablet replacement-for-print opportunity, as new market entrants from the AOLs (including flag-in-the-local-sand Patch) to the Bay Citizens surpass them.

2. Reality: Online engagement is inadequate.

The tablet link: The tablet offers a way to re-engage readers, a corollary to the tablet’s replacement potential. The biggest problem for news publishers isn’t (a) that the digital ad world only produces pennies on the old ad dollar, (b) the low share of digital ad revenue they get, or (c) a changing cabal of digital startups from Yahoo to Google to Apple that are stealing their business. Their biggest problem is online engagement.

News producers work in a world of massive cost, funding well-paid newsrooms and all the legacy supports from advertising to finance to circulation. That investment made a lot of sense when readers really engaged with their products. Consider that in the heyday, your average newspaper would command 270 minutes (4.5 hours) of attention per household per month. Consider that online, the average engagement time is five to 15 minutes per month.

So, if early tablet reading patterns persist, publishers could find themselves on the road to re-engagement. The possibility: short-form, headline-and-blurb desktop/laptop reading may have been the news industry’s nuclear winter, with a greener spring on the horizon.

Caveat: It’s still way early to know whether more engaged reading patterns will last. I believe they largely will, but that publishers will soon find themselves fighting for engaged minutes with whatever successful aggregators emerge from new crowds of Flipboard, Pulse, Zite, Trove, Ongo, and News.me, just to name a few. Ventures like Next Issue Media address may address destination buying, but not product aggregation in ways that consumers have shown they love. Aggregation won Round One of the web, as individual publishers lost. We may be seeing history repeating.

3. Reality: Google juice is wearing thin.

The tablet link: The tablet is driven more by direct traffic, by apps, and by direct browsing than by search; early publishers results show a healthy majority of tablet news visitors coming direct, unlike the online experience. Search isn’t over, but it’s being pushed aside as the beginning and the center of our online news activity. Publishers never found Google juice all that nourishing; it provided lots of calories, but too little muscle tone in new direct revenue created.

Caveat: Again, this is early behavior. While Google juice may stay thin, Facebook and Twitter juice are getting tastier, and will, in part, replace Google as important referrer of potential new customer traffic.

4. Reality: The only big growth is digital.

The tablet link: The tablet may be the path to getting print-like ad revenues.

News publishers have one story to tell, and that’s what we hear in quarterly reports and increasingly infrequent interviews: the growth in digital ad sales. The New York Times touts that 24 percent of its ad revenue is now digital, with McClatchy and Gannett just below 20 percent. Journal Register CEO John Paton talks about the digtital EBITDA his company will be able to throw off by 2014. At the same time, digital ad growth isn’t coming close to making up for print ad decline at most companies.

With current high ad rates, approaching print ones, high national advertiser and ad agency focus, tablets may be a great ad platform, unlike online or smartphone.

Caveat: Newspapers current earn more than $500 a year in Sunday revenue from print subscribers. Can tablets, if they replace print, ever come near that number?

5. Reality: Digital circulation revenue essential is essential to a new sustainable business model.

The tablet link: Consumers appear willing to pay for some kinds of tablet content. Imagine the paid proposition today without the tablet. Selling online/print? That’s a tough proposition. Print/smartphone? Well, maybe. The tablet gives publishers a much better value proposition to offer readers. All Access — including tablets — may prove to be a winning proposition.

Caveat: Early paid experiments aren’t producing much digital circulation. Why? In part, the tablet-wow products are in their infancy, and engagement remains too low. If too few readers bump into the pay wall, even fewer will pay up.

6. Reality: The News Anywhere Era is becoming real.

The tablet link: The tablet is a part of this new News Anywhere expectation. Getting news wherever we are has moved from something cool to something expected overnight. News Anywhere has offered a new playing field and a new value propostion that publishers can offer readers. In the era in which Netflix, HBO, and Comcast offer Entertainment Anywhere, news publishers have been presented a model — an All Access model — that readers can easily grasp.

Caveat: Readers grasp the model — and have high expectations. That means news publishers must more quickly satisfy those News Anywhere habits, properly formatting for each device and understanding how consumers are using news differently on their iPhones, their iPads and on their desktops. Most are simply not yet prepared to take advantage of this revolution.

Image by Bryan Wright used under a Creative Commons license.

January 28 2011

15:30

January 27 2011

16:00

The Newsonomics of do-over

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.

You remember do-overs from your childhood, right? On the playground, something went awry in a game, and you just called do-over: Reset the game, reset the clock. It’s one convenience of childhood that seldom makes it way into adult life. Yet that’s just what newspaper company owners are hoping to do in 2011. I thought of calling this post “The Newsonomics of inflection point,” but that seems too high-minded. Do-over is more apt to the emotions undergirding decision-making in early 2011.

Tuesday, in speaking to a group at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication, one graduate student heard my description of the paid-content landscape and asked a great, simple question: “I don’t understand why now, after news being free all these years, publishers now want to be paid for it. Why now?”

Indeed. Why now?

There are two reasons, I think. One’s economic, and it first got big, public voice at the Newspaper Association of America session in San Diego, two years ago this month. There Rupert Murdoch and Dean Singleton laid down the gauntlet: Google was stealing content, and readers needed to start paying. It was a public expression — pushed to the forefront by the deep recession — of what had become a private realization; the exchange rate of print ad dollars for digital ad dimes didn’t seem likely to change. Simply, there wasn’t — as far as the eye could see — enough money in digital advertising to sustain large news enterprises, long-term. The other reason is emotional: What we do is valuable, so people should pay for it — though as the grad student pointed out, most of the reader payment has gone to paper and distribution costs, not to feeding journalists.

If 2009 was a period of emotional as well as economic depression for those in the industry, 2010 was one of simmering hope, which the glimmer of tablet emergence stoked. Now, in 2011, we’ve got a convergence of factors beginning to create a new sense of where traditional news publishing may go. They may, collectively, provide an inflection point, a point at which the news industry sees itself differently and consumers are suddenly confronted by numerous paying choices. Together, these factors offer a newsonomics of do-over, the ability to unwind what many call the original sin of giving away news content for free, and creating a new business model for how news is distributed and paid for.

There are four factors that have pushed us to this point, in early 2011:

  • Tablets certify the mobile, news-anywhere era: Until recently, if you asked publishers what business they were in, they’d tell you the newspaper business — and online. It’s been a two-part business, anchored in print (still 85 percent of all revenues) and moving at glacial speed “online,” meaning desktop/laptop. The smartphone began to change that mindset, but hasn’t produced significant new revenue for news publishers, even though they’ve made efforts to create some smartphone products. It’s been the emergence of the tablet, with its promise of real new revenue, that certifies what I’ve called the News Anywhere model. Arthur Sulzberger’s outlining of that manifesto Sunday at the Digital Life Design conference in Munich is as good a statement of it as any: “Wherever people want us, we must be there. That’s our commitment to be there on the devices, including paper — paper’s fine — devices and paper for as long as people want.” Now all news publishers, some pushing forward at warp speed, others being pulled along, are moving into a true multi-platform world.
  • A metering system that says you can have your cake and eat it, too: It’s not a paywall, it’s a hurdle, says Journalism Online. Set the hurdle at 10 or 20 pageviews a month, and 80 percent or so of your visitors will never even see it. Capture half the rest of those frequent visitors, and you’re started a new digital reader stream. And, by the way, if you do it right, your digital ad revenue can keep on growing — that’s your own major hope for any ad growth at all — because your traffic won’t decrease by any more than 10 percent. In a nutshell, that’s The New York Times’ strategy, as well.
  • Apple’s push and shove: Unannounced, publishers are moving forward with what Apple has told them. Apple is pushing them to align their web access strategy with their tablet strategy, saying if you want to retain direct customer relationship and revenue, you can’t offer all this stuff for free on the desktop and just charge for the tablet. That’s the push, and the strategy is shoving publishers, both salivating for tablet revenue and afraid that the tablet will hasten print readership decline one way or the other, to align their access strategies, from print to desktop to smartphone to tablet. That’s all-access, and it’s coming to be the prevailing industry model.
  • The rise of public equity: PE owners, as evidenced by their rising influence at MediaNews, are now pushing their publishing enterprises to innovate faster, embrace mobile, and get busy with new revenue streams. The all-access, news-anywhere model is a natural for them as well, offering the potential of enough new money to build new companies of sustainable profitability — and that’s their only ticket to cash out by 2015.

Put it altogether, and the do-over looks eminently reasonable.

Yet it’s no slam dunk, and we’ve got to wonder how the theory will play out in practice. The tests are now coming fast and furious. The Wall Street Journal has switched to multi-platform, all-access pricing recently. The New York Times will do the same soon, adding its meter. News Corp.’s The Daily tests out consumer willingness to pay for a new, native news product, while Ongo seems to have stumbled out of the gate with an underwhelming presentation and too small — and haphazard — a list of initial news suppliers as it asks news consumers for $84 a year. The Dallas Morning News will lead U.S. metros into this new world. Journalism Online will power a good five to six dozen newspaper sites — most are metered, most getting ready for the tablet — by mid-year, as well.

Though it all makes good economic sense to the industry, some — how many? — consumers find work-arounds more appealing than publishers expect. As daily publishers have cut back and back, we’ve seen an explosion of new news content, from top-drawer regional startups to hundreds of native hyperlocals and Patches to great niche sports sites and more entertainment and lifestyle feature content (hello, Demand Media IPO!) than anyone can stomach. There’s lots of free news content still out there, and planning to be out there, from the Reuters and Washington Posts to the GlobalPosts and BBCs and U.S. public radio stations/websites. It will be fascinating to see how the non-paywall news suppliers organize themselves — consortiums are in discussion — to offer alternatives to this very do-over strategy.

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