This article discusses the importance of reader registration to build a successful reader revenue model in the publishing industry. It compares the robust business model of print publishing to the broken advertising-based online publishing model. The article argues that publishers need to shift to a content-paying model and focus on reader registration to collect valuable data, build a direct relationship with their audience, and provide targeted offers and promotions. The article concludes by suggesting that publishers should experiment with payment methods and content quantity to convert identified readers into paying readers.
Throughout much of the 20th century, the print industry enjoyed a remarkable and robust business model that was established as early as the 1830s. This model proved to be highly successful and resilient, allowing the industry to thrive for decades and build some of the greatest brands and media empires. By its very nature, it was diversified, predictable, and sustainable. Your revenue also scaled as your readership grew.
Allow me to briefly explain, back in those good old days content wasn’t free. It was paid for by the cover price of the newspaper or magazine. You could of course buy your content in a transient way on your way to work or become a subscriber through an elaborate network of 3rd party vendors (otherwise known as newsagents).
As if this lucrative commercial model wasn’t enough you could also charge companies to advertise at the back of your newspaper for a single column inch! If you themed the days you could expect sales to go up as people would pay to find jobs, buy cars, buy houses, and see what's on at the cinema. If you throw in a lucrative branding proposition on the front page and the following right-hand pages you have a publishing business model to dream of.
A case for a direct revenue model
You see that's essentially the problem with today's online publishing model. It took one particular area (the display advertising bit) and tried to build a publishing business. The thing is web pages are much easier to build than print pages and as such supply soon outstripped demand and the ad yield began to fall almost overnight.
The brave ones or wealthy ones depending on your point of view could see this and switched to focus on the content-paying model many years ago. The FT launched a metered paywall as far back as 2007, New York Times in 2011, and The Telegraph in 2012.
The issue for ordinary publishers then as is now is that they are caught between the reliance on an ever-weakening advertising model facing seemingly permanent headwinds and a sound strategy to focus on a content-paying model. Or at least one that actually works.
Direct paying users are for sure harder fought but one of the main advantages of reader revenue models is increased stability. Unlike advertising, which is affected by market and sentiment fluctuations, reader revenue models provide a more stable and predictable source of income.
By charging users for access to content, publishers are less reliant on advertising revenue and have more control over their finances. This allows them to invest in their content and provide readers with a higher-quality experience. It’s a symbiotic process that feeds the heart of the publishing business.
Reader revenue models also provide publishers with greater flexibility. With advertising, publishers are often at the mercy of advertisers and must tailor their content to fit their needs. With reader revenue models, publishers have more control over their content and can focus on providing value to their readers.
Importantly premium news content should not be at the mercy of advertising stakeholders otherwise how can it hold them to account? Society thrives when there are checks and balances and it simultaneously begins to erode when trusted news brands agree with whoever is paying them the most. It’s a slippery slope at best.
Now most publishers I’ve spoken to know what I’ve just said thus far in this article. They know the ad model is broken, and they know the reader revenue model is stable and preferable. What many still don’t know is that in order to have a successful reader revenue model you need an even more successful reader registration model.
When it comes to reader revenue, one of the most important parts of the funnel is reader registration. In fact, without reader registration, it's almost impossible to build a successful reader revenue model.
First and foremost, reader registration allows publishers to collect valuable zero-party (declared) data about their readers. This includes information such as demographics, interests, and behavior. With this data, publishers can better understand their audience and personalize their content and marketing efforts accordingly. This leads to higher engagement levels and a more loyal audience. Push that data into a DMP/CDP and you supercharge your ad business as well.
In addition, reader registration allows publishers to build a direct relationship with their readers. By collecting email addresses and other contact information, publishers can communicate directly with their audience and provide them with targeted offers and promotions. This leads to higher conversion rates and, ultimately, higher revenue.
Furthermore, reader registration is often a prerequisite for accessing premium content. When readers register for a site, they are often given access to a limited amount of content. To access more content, readers are required to make a content purchase. This creates a sense of exclusivity and value, which can be a powerful driver of reader revenue.
Finally, reader registration is built with a persistent ID such as an email or mobile phone. As it is consent-based by design it passes the privacy legislation hurdle as well as being more powerful than a cookie at attaching important attributes to over time.
If you broke down your entire readership into four funnels you would begin to see how they work together and how you can move from one basket to the next.
Those four baskets are:
Anonymous Readers - These people consume your content for free but presumably are exposed to ads
Identified Readers - These people register for your premium content in exchange for consent-based identity and possibly additional attributes
Paying Readers - Experiment with this group with payment methods and content quantity. Per the article, per section, per day. Add it to your phone bill, or digital wallet. Just don’t ask for too much upfront. It only leads to stagnation.
Subscribers - They have gone on a journey of being anonymous to identified to paying and they have enjoyed their experience so now give them an offer that makes them feel special and is great value.
If it doesn't feel like you’re in a race well you need to get your running shoes on quickly because you are and that is the race to identify your readers before your main competitor does. Failing to identify your readers can have serious consequences. If you are unable to collect valuable data about your audience, you won't be able to tailor your content and marketing efforts to their needs and interests. This can lead to lower engagement levels, reduced loyalty, traffic drops, and ultimately, lower revenue for advertising and reader revenue.
In contrast, a competitor publisher who has identified more than 50% of their readers over the next two years will be able to better understand their audience and create content that resonates with them. This leads to higher engagement levels, increased loyalty, and ultimately, more revenue. If you don't prioritize reader identification, you risk falling behind your competitors and possibly never catching back up for a decade.
Print has long passed its prime and digital has brought us new opportunities. What print did better from the get-go was a superior publishing business model. It’s time for digital publishing to implement those sound protocols across the content landscape.
Publishers need a direct paying business model at the heart of their online business. Reader identity is central to that premise. Think of every reader as a potential lead and focus on great storytelling and the reader experience. This is the pivotal catalyzing moment publishers and journalists need to reassert themselves as being as essential to society as government, food, transport, or energy. Stop competing with Google, Amazon, or Facebook for ad dollars and compete for the attention of your audiences with great content.
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