|Much of the talk of digital meters and other paid content models focuses on logistics: what's the right price, how many free views does a visitor get, how to handle social referrals, etc. But publishers tend to overlook two key elements that extend beyond the paywall itself: promoting it and supporting it.
Marketing and customer service are critical to building and growing a paid content business. That sounds obvious, but for the most part publishers haven't been very good at either since the dawn of the digital age. Adding meters or other subscription models to the digital experience increases the urgency to get better at both.
Publishers need to adopt some of the practices that consumer marketers use to attract and retain paying customers. It's safe to say that an acquisition strategy based on nagging won't work over the long term. That means spending real money on ongoing cross-platform campaigns that mix a variety of elements, including display advertising, paid search, email marketing, direct mail, and social media marketing.
Publishers need to emphasize identifying and nurturing potential subscribers over indiscriminant subscription promotions. Broad-based paid search and affiliate marketing programs, which may generate a lot of anonymous traffic but not many paying customers. Publishers need to leverage acquisition tools and data to help them find, attract and convert consumers to digital subscriptions.
"Most acquisition programs cast a wide net, but they're not designed to really qualify a lead before handing it over to you," said Chris Dailey, SVP of sales for eWayDirect, developer of CertainSource 2.0, a B2C customer acquisition platform. "When you're looking to get people to convert to subscriptions or renewals, it's all about finding the people who are most likely to buy."
The key to success, Dailey said, is the ability to read the "digital body language" of prospective customers to determine how engaged they are and where they are on the purchase path. Emails should be tailored based on these insights to ensure the right message is delivered at the right time. Continuous adjustments - to subject lines, body content, or the offer itself - are made based on each recipient's response (or lack thereof).
"The mindset must be more tailored to where each recipient is in the buying process," said Daily. "The cascade of emails is designed to plug into, at a micro level, how you're responding."
Data can also be used to personalize experiences - and paywalls as well. GigaOm's Mathew Ingram suggests five ways publishers can create "personal paywalls" in which users pay for access based on specific interests - including specialized content and exclusive access. I've long advocated this model as a way to reward your most loyal customers, instead of penalizing them by making them pay more than fly-by readers.
While marketing draws in new customers, superior customer service keeps them on board. That's why publishers deploying or experimenting with paid content platforms should also be investing in the back-office systems required to support their paying subscribers.
Publishers' customer-facing subscription management platforms have traditionally been woeful, dating back to print. Adding digital subscriptions to the mix has only increased the complexity, making it difficult for customers to link print and digital accounts or make other seemingly simple modifications. Even bigger brands like the Wall Street Journal still struggle to deliver a consistently positive experience. Want to cancel your WSJ subscription online? Trick question: You can't. (For security reasons, they say. Ha.)
Phil Clark, digital audience director for UBM Built Environment, a niche publisher that has added subscription tiers to its digital properties, told Journalism UK the biggest challenge with a paid model is that subscribers expect customer service "to be on a par with that provided by Apple or Amazon," adding that online access requires a higher level of service than print.
Tien Tzuo, founder and CEO of Zuora, a subscription-management platform provider, says the emergence of a digital "subscription economy" is requiring media companies to become less product-focused and more customer-oriented. The key, he said, is thinking about paywalls from the perspective of what the customer is getting out of the relationship.
Ultimately, a successful paid content strategy comes down to improving the user experience, not inhibiting it. Creating unique, entertaining, informative content is just the first step in the process to convince users to pay for that content - over and over again.