Advertising, paywall or a bit of both?

GigaOM posted the audio to a fascinating session at last month’s paidContent Live conference. In it, there’s a great insight/throw down by Bob Bowman, CEO of MLB, Advanced Media. Right around the 15-minute mark Bob calls those that read metered sites such as without subscribing, rooting around their 25 articles/month limit are, “professional freeloaders” of no interest to advertisers. He goes on to state that gets 4X the CPMs for ads served to their paid subscribers than the CPMs served to free, logged out users.

Bob’s argument is that media sites that have a paid audience are more valuable to advertisers. While the audience of subscribers may be smaller than the audience of drive-by readers via the social web & Google – it is the subscribers, the true fans, that are more valuable to a media company. While CPMs on non-paywalled sites are driven downwards by the infinite number of impressions on the public web, subscription audiences get better CPMs because advertisers know that subscribers have a relationship with the site on which they are running their ads. There is an opportunity to further increase CPMs by taking an editorial interest in making sure the advertising compliments, not competes, with the editorial, making the advertisements even more relevant.

Screenshot from Recurly, popular subscription management service.

The challenge for a subscription site is how to gain new subscribers. You will always have churn so you need new subscribers to come in and replace those that are lost. Free sites do not have this challenge. Paid sites always have a bar that new readers will have to clear to read their content and the broader question is how much do you show before you require a potential reader to pay? Give too much and they don’t realize the value. Give too little and they never scratch around enough to try.

WSJ on Jaguar

One innovative method a desirable subscription site such at the can try to bring more potential subscribers in the door is to have the occasional open house where paywalls are dropped and the public invited in to poke around. According to the presentation from where the slide above was pulled, advertisers have been pleased with the campaign delivering 126% of the impressions anticipated. While the profile of those that see those impressions may not be as well-defined as the logged in subscriber, they are still an attractive segment of aspirational readers and therefore suitable proxy for the core audience. I have not heard of other publications using this same tactic and how effective it is in gaining new subscribers. A paidContent piece written about the Open House concept suggested that the benefits may be primarily for advertisers but I’d be interested to hear how effective they are in gaining new subs as well.

Christina Hendricks & Johnnie Walker

I watched Mad Men last night and as I DVR’d through the latest three episodes it struck me that the regular spots of Lincoln and Johnnie Walker featuring Roger Sterling and Joan Holloway blurred the lines between content and advertising. The brands are as much a part of the identity of the series as the characters. The two compliment each other perfectly so it makes perfect sense to have them underwrite each episode in just the same way it fits that Jaguar would invite me to enjoy 24 hours with The Wall Street Journal.

Something to watch.

Is Next Issue the Spotify for Magazines?

Over the weekend I posted a question wondering why no one has done what Spotify has done for music and Netflix for movies. The fact that no one has stepped in to offer a bundled subscription for another “old media” type, the magazine & newspaper, seemed like an opportunity to me that made economic sense.

Yesterday, Next Issue, a company that had been doing exactly that on the Android platform jumped up with the launch of their iOS app which brings together all you can read from almost 40 magazines, for one monthly flat fee.

The publications are from their investors Condé Nast, Hearst, Meredith, and Time (full list of magazines on offer and their parent companies are listed on paidContent). Their basic plan is for $10/month while for $15/month you get access to additional “premium” magazines such as The New Yorker, People, and Sports Illustrated.

Now that the solution is here, would you go for it? The reception seems mixed. A shortcoming that my colleague at GigaOM has noted is the lack of social features. The web has forever changed the way we read. Both in how we discover what to read and again in the way we share what we’ve read. I think I saw Dave McClure wearing a shirt once that said, “If you can’t share it, it doesn’t exist” – this is the future, this is the way to growth.

It’s not clear to me how Next Issue will be able to roll in social into their subscription-only product. As with other paywalled sites, sharing of Next Issue articles will not work unless they get creative because subscribers will know that they’re sending out dead end links to their non-subscriber friends.

Social sharing will work if enough people can access what you’re sharing so a network effect kicks in. This is starting to work with Spotify because they have a free, ad-supported subscription so all you need to do is register and install the app to listen. The hope is that after enough listens, you’ll get hooked on the product and up-sell to their ad-free subscription product.

Without sharing, there will be no social discovery. Without social discovery, you’re stuck with what’s on the newsstand shelf and how the articles are presented to you by each publication. This is the way it used to be, this is the way to stagnation.

So how can Next Issue grow it’s subscriber base so that social sharing can kick in and drive further subscriber growth? I suggest two options.

1. Create an ad-supported freemium client that lets those that follow links put out by Next Issue subscribers get a taste of the product. They have a 30-day free trial but it requires a credit card, that is too high a barrier, it needs to be totally free and dead easy to install. This is probably not an option as there is almost no reason to convert to a paid subscription if such a free product exists. That leaves the next choice,

2. Do a deal with a major brand such as American Express or Microsoft to underwrite enough subscriptions as a membership benefit so that you get an install base large enough to encourage broad sharing between subscribers and a community of “haves” that are sufficient to encourage those without to sign up either with the sponsor or Next Issue directly.

The future is with sponsored subscription bundles. Not only for Next Issue but for Spotify and Netflix, all these services will take off when the media buyers put together deals which pay for these memberships. I have a bunch of United Airlines miles but would much rather use them to pay for my Spotify subscription than another cramped trip in a tin can on an airline.

Sponsored subscription bundles. That’s my big bet. It’s the future of the subscription business model and the future of brand advertising.

Subscription Bundles

Very interesting experiment over at the Chicago Tribune.

The Chicago Tribune will at last begin charging for its online content through an innovative scheme that will also give readers access to a premium package of third party content, the newspaper has told paidContent. Under the plan, readers will see selections from the Economist and Forbes magazines included in a new paid section, which will also include Tribune content that has been newly designated as premium. – paidContent, June 26th, 2012

Bundles are the obvious way to add value and therefore charge a premium. This is common in the print world. The Japan Times did a deal with the International Herald Tribune and would include several pages of their international coverage within their weekly paper, the Wall Street Journal makes it’s business news and Weekend Journal available for other papers to license.  I’m not talking about the AP, Reuters, or other wire services that make a business from licensing their content – I’m talking about visibly branded bundles where the reader recognizes they are getting two publications for the price of one.

I’m sure I’m missing something but I can’t think of an example of this happening online with any premium news sites. Sure, Yahoo bundled in brands such as ABC and CNBC into, that’s not what I’m talking about – I am talking about instances where a group of online publications get together to share subscription plans so their customers get the benefit of multiple brands with a single subscription.

I’m interested in this because it’s the next step in something that I first wrote about last year. Once you have the concept of a subscription bundle, the next step is to get sponsors to underwrite these bundles.

But the most visionary thing and something I keep coming back to is’s vision of the next generation internet. It’s a world where brand “alliances” pool together to subsidize content producers. A world where, “chips talk to chips” without a middleman to make the free flow of content seamless and automatic. In this new world, a collection of devices will marry themselves to a library of content and work seamlessly together. – this blog, Feb 23, 2011

Imagine a perk for all American Express Platinum members that includes annual subscriptions to,, the iPad app for the New Yorker, Spotify, and a Netflix account. Maybe they give you an iPad as a bonus for signing on today. Wouldn’t that be a compelling benefit? That would speak to me better than free access to airline lounges or free hotel room upgrades.

Besides iTunes or Amazon, is there a business out there pulling together online subscription bundles that isn’t tied to hardware?

Further Reading

Chris Dixon describes how subscription bundles maximize revenue.

NYT puts their best behind a gate

TimesSelect, a new package being launched by in September, will restrict access to some of the best known columnists to only those with a subscription key. For either $49.95/year or free with a home-delivery subscription to the print newspaper, readers will get an account to TimesSelect which will give them unfettered access to the likes of Krugman, Friedman, and Dowd.

It’ll be interesting to see if keeping these writers behind the subscription wall will lead to a drop off of references to their material on blogs and, as some claim, a drop off in their ability to set the agenda for the day.

Perhaps. In an interview on, Martin Niesenholtz says their looking to also launch an affiliate network of sorts to drive people to and hopefully sign up for a subscription of their own.

We also hope to roll out an affiliate program so the long tail can create a revenue stream for itself. If you’re a blogger who uses a lot of Times Op-Ed content in your blog you can continue to (by subscribing to TimesSelect)… and, through an affiliate network, extend that to their base and they can make money on the backend off that. We think the blogosphere needs more revenue streams.”

It’ll be a delicate balance but if they do it right, they might be able to recreate that economic model that works so well for them in print. One reason to get a paper such as the New York Times is to get their editorial perspective on the events of the day and share them as a point of reference If you’re a blogger that enjoys amplifying these perspectives to your readers and drive your readers to also sign up for the online edition or home-delivery, then you should be able to subsidize your own subscription.

It remains to be seen if the demographics of their readership is still right for this balance to play out online. Is a Paul Krugman or Maureen Dowd enough of a draw or has the curve shifted to the point where people are already drawn away towards some of the newer writers of the day that are not going to be drawing a paycheck from an established brand.

This September the wall will go up and we’ll see if the Times’ magnetic pull can draw others inside and make it a sustainable business for the Times and its affiliates.

Opinion pieces have their most value immediately after they’re published (when the piece is fresh and original) for about a day or two and then once again, several months later, when they serve as a a useful reference point for historical perspective. These same pieces have their least value in the in the time between, say after they’re a few days old until 3 months out.

Restricting access during the period when these pieces are the most valuable will drive subscriptions to TimesSelect. It makes less sense to keep these pieces under lock and key throughout the time when people are mildly curious to see what all the fuss is about and have the time to sample a frequently referenced article without having to commit to an annual subscription. I would prefer to see the program re-jigged so that TimesSelect members get first dibs on grokking the perspective of the day but after 48 hours the doors are open for any and all up until the 3 month mark when they drop back to a view which restricts non-subscribers to only the first few paragraphs.

This new system would allow to extract maximum value from the work of their best authors (in order to keep their far-flung bureaus open for business) while also providing grist for the bloggers and general public to amplify and discuss stories in the public realm for a good three months. Open access to popular pieces for a three month period would help move low cost advertising inventory and allow for the fence-sitters to properly experience the quality of the Times’ news stream should they later decide they want to get access to this stuff prior the 48 hour embargo for non-subscribers.

Call it Kennedy’s Rolling Window of news & perspective. The cheap seats only let you see what’s directly in front of the window while subscribers get to see not only what’s coming down the pike but also dig back and review what’s gone by. Each time you see a story fly by that you wish you could have read sooner or wanted to read later, you’ll be fingering your credit card and thinking about the value of that $49.95 subscription.