Print, pay-walls and potential – monetising online media

You only have to look at the success of sites like MailOnline, the Daily Mail’s web offering, to see that the general public’s appetite for news is as strong as ever (especially when it comes to celebrities!). Figures posted earlier this year revealed the website saw 129 million unique users in May – far outstripping its closest rival The Guardian (83 million), which is often heralded as the shining light of digital media.

The web offers endless possibilities for media owners, with an almost unlimited audience just a click away, and the ability to add depth and excitement that most print titles struggle to match. But, following yesterday’s news that the Sun’s online figures have plummeted since putting up a pay-wall, one thing is clear – the majority of consumers don’t want to be charged for it.

The problem is that they’re just not used to paying for content online. Huge free media libraries like YouTube and extensive coverage from the likes of the BBC – whether you pay your licence fee or not – mean consumers expect everything, they expect it right now, and they don’t expect you to ask for anything in return. Add Twitter and Facebook into the mix and it’s pretty simple to get what you want without paying a penny.

So, what can publications do to monetise their online offering?

  • A pay-wall can work, but content must be better than anything you can get elsewhere for free. The problem here is that there are plenty of others doing brilliant things and charging nothing, so paid-for sites must go far above and beyond
  • Know your audience – it’s no coincidence that pay-walls for the Times and the FT have been a success, and not necessarily a surprise that the Sun’s wasn’t. An affluent readership is likely to be more open to paying for an always-on service
  • With brands cutting back on advertising budget, selling space is no longer the easy option – one consideration for publications is to cover breaking news immediately online, followed by exclusive, in-depth articles in print the next day

But that’s just food for thought – it will take real innovation for media outlets to turn page views into pounds. There will no doubt be a few who will do it very well and see their online content completely replace print, but there will be just as many who fall by the wayside. In my former life as a journalist working on a daily regional title, it was in equal parts upsetting and frustrating to see the paper I’d delivered as a 13-year-old haemorrhaging readers every month by failing to properly embrace online.

That said, although it’s a scary time for the UK’s traditional press, it’s also a very exciting one. Already, forward-thinkers like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who bought the 135-year-old Washington Post in August, are evolving traditional news brands with business models that will see them thrive in the modern digital world. I’m intrigued to see how changes like this transform the media landscape in the coming years.

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