It’s time to put readers at the center of your paid content model

Insider magazine coverThis article was originally published in The Insider, PressReader’s leading edge magazine covering the latest industry trends and top insights about navigating through publishing in a digital world.

 Serving a people-powered planet

I think most people would agree that trying to stop the print revenue hemorrhaging with digital advertising is like slapping a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound.  In 2015, that wound grew into a cancer that some fear is poised to tear apart the very fabric of the world wide web.  The growing epidemic of ad blocking, malvertising and fraud is much more than a wakeup call for publishers; it’s a ticking time bomb.

Fueled by advertisers and publishers who put a mad rush for elusive profits before people, the industry is now paying the price for treating the web like a dumping ground for their digital debris.  So many media executives still do not seem to understand that people now own the web, not brands, and those people have the power to dictate what they want and don’t want in terms of media.

What they want 🙂

  • Frictionless access to quality content (editorial and advertising) at the right price
  • An engaging, educational and entertaining experience

What they don’t want 🙁

  • Barriers to access (e.g. regional restrictions, paywalls)
  • Poor online experiences (e.g. intrusive and low-quality advertising, security loopholes, slow page loading and invasive data tracking)

Traditional paid content models are not reader-centric

The good news for magazine and newspaper publishers is that people’s appetite for news has never been greater.  But the conundrum still faces them every day – how do they monetize the masses when the willingness to pay for digital news is trending in the wrong direction?

Willing to Pay for News

I have to give credit to publishers who are experimenting with a number of different paid content models to try and find the magic bullet.  Unfortunately, they’re not seeing the returns they hoped for.

  • Metered and hard paywalls

Publisher paywalls have largely plateaued.  Even the poster child of paywalls, The New York Times with one million+ digital subscribers, has seen its growth flatten in recent years.

NYT paywall

The Times’ goal is to reach 2 million digital subscribers by 2020.  At its current 20% growth rate they will make that.  But I can’t help but think that the willingness-to-spend for digital content downward trends will continue, making paywalls just a short term good news story even for the iconic publisher.

  • “iTunes for news”

Blendle received a lot of fanfare in 2015 and showed some promise in select European countries, proclaiming they’d reached ~500K users. But ask most industry pundits and you’ll probably hear that they love the micropayments company, although they don’t expect it to succeed in North America due to the wealth of free content and competition on this side of the Atlantic.

  • Newsstands (Google Play, Amazon, Zinio)

Apple shut down its newsstand; Google isn’t far behind; Zinio is trying to reinvent itself.  No one has ever made this model work.  Interestingly publishers love distributing their content through newsstands because they look and act like the physical kiosks of old.  They just can’t give up on the print paradigms of the past – to their detriment.

  • Freemium | premium

Often credited to Hulu, this freemium (with ads)/premium (without ads) model has been adopted by a few publishers (e.g. Bild) who are trying to recover their losses from the ad blocking pandemic. Unfortunately, this solution creates competition between ad revenue and subscription revenue where the only answer is compromise (it’s one or the other, not both) –  not a recipe for success in the long term.

  • “Netflix for news”

Having been part of pioneering this popular all-access content model in 2003 (before Netflix, Readly, Magzter or the likes of Next Issue/Texture even existed), I can tell you that as much as readers love the model, the monthly subscription costs demanded by publishers are far too high for the digital masses.

Certainly there are readers – let’s call them news junkies – who are willing to pay to access to the whole universe of content, but they are a niche market with little growth potential.  I like to compare them to the music aficionados who still purchase vinyl records – a highly discerning crowd, but not a market loaded with money.

Clearly it’s time to disrupt today’s paid content models. Give readers what they want and publishers will discover the secret to monetizing the masses.

Someone has to pay

I am a strong believer in journalistic excellence and an advocate for its compensation.  But I also believe readers shouldn’t necessarily be the ones doing the paying.  Sound crazy?  It’s not so far fetched when you think about it.

Businesses have been sponsoring access to printed magazines and newspapers for many decades in hotels, cafes, clinics, offices, lounges and on airplanes.   Why should it be any different in digital?  It shouldn’t.  In fact, if anything, the B2B relationship between businesses and publishers should scale exponentially, providing significant value to their users and revenue for themselves.

Introducing the “sponsored access” model

Every consumer-centric business on the planet is feeling the effects of disruption, whether that be technology- or business-based.  Music, movies, TV, hotels, libraries, restaurants and travel are all feeling the heat from the likes of Spotify, Netflix, Expedia, Airbnb, Uber, Lyft, et al.

Traditional businesses know they can’t compete on cost, so they are desperately looking for ways to differentiate themselves and create loyal relationships with customers, patrons, employees and visitors through value-added services.  A number of hotel chains are already creating new millennial-friendly brands (e.g. Radisson Red, Tru by Hilton) to provide them with the Gen-Y experience they desire.

A unique service gaining serious momentum across all industries worldwide is sponsored access to premium content because it provides unique value to their highly diverse target markets, and it makes dollars and sense to them.

It's time to put readers... 4

Today, thousands of customer-first businesses such as Qantas Airways, AccorHotels, Uber, Silversea Cruises and McDonald’s, to name just a few, are sponsoring unlimited access to PressReader’s 5,000+ magazines and newspapers, making it an integral part of their customer relationship strategy.

The business model is simple. It costs nothing for publishers to join and when someone (i.e. a sponsor such as a hotel or airline) pays PressReader for content read by their hotel guests or airline passengers, PressReader pays the publisher.

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Sponsored Access Paid Content Business Model (HotSpots and Airlines)


PressReader HotSpots allow businesses to offer their customers, patrons, employees and guests complimentary access to publications on the PressReader network through the businesses’ designated WiFi areas.

It’s a win-win-win situation all around:

  • Readers get the desired frictionless access to quality, trusted content and an engaging, educational or entertaining experience for free;
  • Businesses are able to offer unique value to their customers in an eco-friendly way, saving money while growing brand equity and loyalty across all demographics;
  • Publishers can instantly serve a massive audience of hundreds of millions of people they couldn’t possibly reach on their own, growing reach, audited circulation and revenues.

Barriers to entry are high

Sponsored access at a global scale is a huge opportunity, but creating partnerships with thousands of businesses and aligning their needs with the world’s media is a mammoth undertaking with major challenges:

Technology challenges

It’s pretty easy to build an aggregated site of magazines; they are dozens of companies doing that today with more popping up every month because issues are published intermittently, allowing time for manually processing of feeds.

But to process thousands of daily, weekly and monthly newspapers and magazines 24/7/365 requires sophisticated, automated content processing solutions you can’t buy off the shelf like Adobe DPS.  The technology takes years to develop and financial investments to continually enhance and maintain it – it’s a system that is extremely difficult to replicate.

Partnership challenges

For sponsored access to succeed at a global scale, thousands of partnerships need to be negotiated between businesses and publishers.  Not only do the relationships need to be fostered, there must be seamless integration between the publishers’ content and the business’ back office systems, apps and customer experience strategies and tactics.  They must align.

Embarking on this is not for the faint of heart; take my word for it – been there, got the airline points to prove it.  And it would take years for publishers to build enough relationships to start to reap any rewards on their investment – time publishers and businesses just don’t have in world where the only constant today is disruption.

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Seamless integration between partners is essential

Marketing challenges

Although the opportunities are great with sponsored access, it is no Field of Dreams.  Just because a business offers access to premium content doesn’t mean people will come.

To build awareness of the partnership with users, companies must promote it before, during and after the customer has connected with their business.  This includes physical (e.g. hotels), regional (e.g. municipalities and events) and virtual venues (e.g. loyalty programs, websites and apps).

market premium access everywhere

Market premium access at every touch point

Meanwhile publishers must market their content to existing and new readers. Let your loyal readers know that you understand what they want and need.  In-publication native and glossy advertising are excellent ways to reach readers who already know you.  Outstream video and non-intrusive online advertising on all your digital properties is also good.

Advertise within paid content service itself to draw the attention of new audiences through primary carousel placement in the app and glossy or video ads between articles.  And don’t forget to exploit the power of the partnership with cross-promotional advertising.

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Advertise content and cross-promote with partners to grow audience

Think and act like a start up

Well-known speaker, philosopher, author and founder of Omega Vector (an organization that teaches the art of Self-Knowledge), George Addair, once said, “Everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of fear.

I think that quote is very appropriate in the publishing world today where fear infiltrates almost every aspect of the business – fear of disruption, fear of ad blockers, fear of cannibalization, fear of brand irrelevancy and, let’s face it, fear of extinction itself.

Too many are still caught up in the glory days of print when brands ruled the media and readers read the news editors curated for them.  It was a “publisher knows best” domain that has since been overthrown by the ME generation, but too many publishers refuse to see the writing on the web.

This myopic mindset is repelling readers and causing rifts in the business-publisher relationship with media execs who still insist they have the right to dump printed media in front of hotel rooms and on jetways.

Is it hubris?  Is it ignorance?  I don’t think so.  I think it’s just an industry paralysis propagated by fear.

If I had a wish for 2016, it would be that publishers would start to think and act like a start up, reach for what’s on the other side of fear and embrace the enormity of the possible for their readers and themselves.

I know…it’s not easy, but as they say, nothing worth having, ever is.



IGOR2Author: Igor Smirnoff is the Chief Commercial Officer of PressReader in Richmond, British Columbia, Canada.