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July 28 2011

14:00

The newsonomics of Netflix and the digital shift

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.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings says he is surprised that customers weren’t more upset with Netflix’s digital shift. After all, he expected more upset, in his role as a pioneer, early in the game of forcing the digital shift. That’s the kind of digital shift now confronting news companies, so Netflix’s customer experience and strategy is highly relevant.

Hastings is quite clear in that strategy, telling investors on Monday:

“Believe it or not, the noise level was actually less than we expected, given a 60 percent price increase for some subscribers. We knew what we were getting into, we tried to be as straightforward as we could, and that has worked out very well for us.”

When Netflix shocked everyone by pricing way up DVD-by-mail subscriptions — up to a 60-percent increase — that’s what he was doing: forcing the digital shift. The digital shift is what Hastings wants to happen faster. Right now, 60 percent of his 25 million subscribers are DVD takers, and the majority of the revenue is on that side of the business. He knew when he started the business that he would start with DVDs, but that the long-term business was streaming (“Six Lessons for the News Industry from Reed Hastings“). He just had to wait for the rest of the world to catch up to that vision.

The economics of his business is clear. Charge consumers less (for now) for streaming ($7.99 a month) — and profit more. As he shifts the business, the cost of revenues has already decreased almost two percentage points in a year, from 64.6 percent to 62.8 percent. Lower cost of revenues means higher cross margin, and that’s what investors have loved about the company.

In the new strategy, we can see how Netflix can both push the digital transition faster and manage the DVD decline better. We can assume that the digital customer is worth more in profit to Netflix than the digital customer. Then, Netflix wants to take out as much of that cost infrastructure (Post Office, warehouses, associated customer service) as possible, as fast as possible. Differential pricing is one way to do that.

In the meantime, if we as consumers really want those DVDs, we’re going to pay significantly more for them, in the neighborhood of $16-20 a month. The Netflix analog customer, used to holding the hunk of burning love in his hands (and increasingly aware of the spottiness of Netflix’s streaming choices, even as they grow monthly), now has a tougher choice to make. Netflix has a better way to manage its business.

DVD-by-mail used to be the whole operation. Now with two years of successful streaming, it’s becoming simply one part of a streaming-focused company.

It’s now a division “within Netflix, with a  P & L”,said  Hastings in an earnings call. “We think it will be a small investment in its growth and sustainability, and we’ll figure that out over the next several quarters. The DVD can last a long time as a successful platform. Growth [of the DVD business] would be overstating it. It will shrink slowly rather than rapidly with a little operating investment.”

We can hear the great resonance in this transition for news and magazine publishers. First the principle: Spend your time on tomorrow, not today. For print publishers, that means moving as much of the thinking and as many of the resources to digital as possible — now. How about making “print” a division of a news(paper) company?

Netflix’s experience is early, and directional for news and consumer publishers. What Reed Hastings is essentially saying is that once a company has figured out its route to digital business model success, it doesn’t want to dally, straddling too long the old and the new. That’s tough, expensive — time- and mind-sharing-consuming. Better to get on with the transition.

For publishers, the path is not yet clear, but at least in the age of the tablet and of mobile generally, they now see the rough outlines of a route. While for Netflix, that route is a simpler single consumer revenue stream proposition, it is more complex for publishers.

The greater complexity for newspapers and magazines involves their two-part business model. The first part is similar to the Netflix consumer transition, though with differing twists.

Newspaper publishers started this process several years ago, saying, “Let’s have these print customers pay more of the freight of creating and delivering print.” Since then, community dailies that used to cost a quarter a day have tripled to 75 cents, and The New York Times goes for $6 on Sunday. They have priced in more of the cost of that expensive newsprint, ink, and delivery.

Now, this year, we’ve seen added in the charging for digital access. We’ve begun to see the answer to this question: How much will consumers pay for digital access? That’s still uncertain, though early evidence is coming in from The New York Times, Time Inc., and Journalism Online experiments, among others. In newspapers and in magazines, we see the interim play: the bundled, all-access subscription — pay us once and get both analog and digital, print and pixel. That’s a move for more consumer revenue in the short-term, but also a longer-term pricing play to get pure digital revenue as readers give up print.

Imagine 2020, and the always-out-there-question: Will we still have print newspapers? Well, maybe, but imagine how much they’ll cost — $3 for a local daily? — and consumers will compare that to the “cheap” tablet pricing, and decide, just as they doing now are with Netflix, which product to take and which to let go.

The print world ends not with a bang, but with price increase after price increase.

These economics of transition have a second, big piece for publishers that Netflix doesn’t have to worry about: advertising. With advertising accounting for 70 percent of newspaper revenues worldwide, the huge question for publishers is how much ad revenue they can make from purely digital customers. In the U.S, newspaper publishers know they make more than $500 a year on a Sunday print subscriber. With reduced digital product cost (like Netflix’s reduced cost of streaming), newspaper and magazine publishers won’t need the same level of revenue, but they will need a substantial part of what they are getting today. Those economics are just being modeled now in 2011, as the promise of higher-priced and higher-value tablet (and smartphone) advertising looks like it may be real and buildable.

Magazine and newspapers aren’t yet ready to more forcibly shift the audience in the direction of digital-only.

Timing is a big question here. Reed Hastings is flipping the Netflix switch more heavily toward digital, even though fewer than half his revenues are yet there. For newspaper publishers, with no more than 20 percent of their overall revenues in digital, the time may be one to three years away.

When publishers flip that switch — pushing customers more heavily toward digital — they want the force to be with them, not against them. The news and feature businesses are different than Netflix’s. Yet the strategies involved — make the old business a division, model out the new business model, move to it as quickly as you can once you’ve got it figured out — all apply. In mid-2011, Netflix is a canary in a (circulation) coalmine, with lessons to be learned.

Image by Laura Fries used under a Creative Commons license..

November 18 2010

15:00

The Newsonomics of news anywhere

[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.]

Facebook isn’t trying to replace Gmail or Yahoo Mail — it’s just trying to bring a little order to our world, right? This week’s Facebook Messages announcement is stunningly simple, and in line with the next phase of the web, both overall and for news.

Take MSNBC’s description of Facebook Messages:

Instead of dealing with the dilemma of reaching people via e-mail or direct message or SMS, all of these will be combined, so that you’ll be able to reach someone the way they prefer to be reached, without you having to think about it. ‘All you need is a person and a message,’ said Andrew Bosworth, director of engineering for Facebook.

That’s the next web (r)evolution in a nutshell. It’s a unified theory of messaging. And it can be easily extended into the unified theories of TV, movies, shopping — and news.

Make a few substitutions, and you’ve got “All you need is a person and a movie,” or “All you need is a person and a shopping list” or “All you need is a person and the news.” For news creators, and aggregators, it’s a big thought that will be play out more dramatically in the tablet-inflected world of 2011. Only those who grok its meaning and execute properly may make digital reader revenue a reality.

In short, it’s about simplification, about interconnection, about consolidation, and it’s a principle that is beginning to — and should — form the foundation of the much of the next-generation thinking about the news business.

Though we’ll continue to see a panorama of new digital services and products, much of the early digital vision has been built out. We may live in a find-anything-anytime-anywhere world, but it’s also a digital fumbleathon, as we bounce from mobile apps of three distinct platforms, mail and preference settings, interminable demands for passwords, multiple hard-to-combine “friend” and contact lists, Twitter decks, Facebook walls, RSS feeds, preference popups, security hiccups — not to mention TV remotes and cable guides that seem like visitors from a distant analog planet.

Facebook Messages says: We get it. We’ll make it easier for you to keep in touch with those you want to stay in touch with. We’ll see how well Facebook delivers on that promise, but it’s the right one for our age. We can see its echoes multiplying.

On Wednesday, HBO announced that its HBO Go initiative will make HBO available through digital devices for its cable channels subscribers by year’s end. That initiative is part of parent Time Warner’s TV Everywhere push, which likewise says: You paid us once. Now get what you paid for wherever you want it. It’s the unification of the premium TV business, as cable companies are starting to see unprecedented churn, given piecemeal availability of programming through the Internet, legally or illegally.

Comcast is making a similar promise, as it newly announced app promises to connect up its customers’ experience. The app’s functionality is rolling out over time, but will ultimately allow viewing of all Comcast’s Xfinity content via devices, plus provide programming services, such as remote DVR taping, and let an iPhone replace that dreaded remote — borrowing a little bit from Tivo, a little bit from Sonos.

Netflix, of course, grasped the concept earlier, as CEO Reed Hastings has noted (“Six Lessons for the News Industry from Reed Hastings“): “We knew that the DVD business was temporary when we founded the company. That’s why we named it Netflix and not DVD by mail. We wanted to become Netflix.” Netflix’s current promise: “Unlimited TV.” You guessed it: one relationship with the brand, and you get what you paid for however you want it.

Where are the news promises? Well, the first generation has been Yahoo News. Remember your first time seeing all those wondrous headline links from the BBC, the Post, the Hindu, and CNET all in one place? First-generation aggregation was cool, but we haven’t really progressed much beyond it, though we’ve seen nuances, with personality added to aggregation (HuffPo) and some regional aggregation (Seattle Times, TBD.com). We’ve seen some good smartphone apps and a few new iPad apps. Come 2011, we’ll begin to see more News Everywhere experiences.

The first big one in the U.S. should be The New York Times. The Times will launch its metered pay system early in the year. If tech issues can be solved, expect paying customers to get access — aiming toward seamless, but likely with a few wrinkles — across devices, an intending-to-be-unified reader experience. The Times’ Martin Nisenholtz explained recently: “It’s not just about the website anymore. It’s about all of the brands where you can read the Times…it’s about the website, smartphones, the slates, iPad…it’s a hugely different world than it was five years ago.” So, the Times will say give us a single price, and we’ll let you read about you want of the Times where you want, recognizing you across digital experiences and — nirvana — allowing you to keep track of what you’ve shared and read, and with whom, without you having to recall whether you sent that story to your best buddy on your iPhone.

I’ve called that approach All-Access, and I think it’s the news industry version of TV Everywhere. So far, the best example of all-access pricing is the Financial Times, upon whose experience the Times’ model is built. Its “newspaper + online” top-of-the-line subscription allows full digital access plus the paper for one price.

The Everywhere notions seem friendly — and they have to be consumer friendly to be successful — but they’re actually quite darwinian. How many entertainment and news brands will we pay for? Only a handful, probably, especially at premium rates. So in the news business, that battle means only a few brands win the reader revenue sweepstakes, unless a Hulu-for-news proposition (AP’s digital rights clearinghouse expanded; a second life for Rupert Murdoch’s Alesia?) succeeds big-time.

To win, news companies will have work on the principle of the Field Theory. No, not the unified field theory, though unification of message and of service is fundamental. It’s the Sally Field Theory, which you remember the 1984 Oscars speech: “I’ve wanted more than anything to have your respect…I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!” Well who wants renewed respect than newsies? Who keeps talking about the trusted brand relationship that newspapers have long had with readers?

If news companies want to “own” the news customer (and be able to mine his data deeply), then they, large or small, newly minted or history-encrusted, have to bring their games to a new level. For the Times (or the Journal), the current breadth of content may be sufficient, if the execution manages to bring a little delight of ubiquity to paying subscribers.

For local news companies, the bar is probably a different one. Yes, they’ll have to put their tech development in high gear (many are woefully behind on tablet apps, just as the devices explode under this year’s Christmas trees), but they’ll also have to up their local value proposition. That means not just repurposing their own staff’s local news output, but really reaching out to community blog aggregation, broadcast partnership, working Yelp-like guide magic (probably through partnership) and/or creating a new level of digitally enhanced local shopping experiences. It’s unclear how much limited local news across devices is worth to news consumers.

News Anywhere, or unified news, or All-Access, whatever we want to call it, demands the singular focus, product development and messaging that Netflix, HBO, Comcast, and Facebook are bringing to it. Those are all skills that have been problematic in the news industry. Yet, here we are, in a new age, in a mobile news age about to unfold, giving the journalism, and journalists, another chance to get it right.

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