Publishers Discuss How To Build Successful Paid Content

How can publishers build a subscription or membership product? Ask your readers to pay. That's from David Grant, associate publisher at the Christian Science Monitor, speaking Monday on a panel at MediaPost’s Publishing Insiders Summit.

The panel tackled the issue of developing a subscription or membership-supported business at a time when publishers are increasingly putting up paywalls and asking readers to support their organizations. It's in response to an uncertain digital advertising environment. 

Grant said the Monitor “explicitly” appeals to readers “all the time,” informing them of the publication's mission “to make your life better, make you smarter in less time.”



Since launching a subscription newsletter last year, the Monitor has gained 10,000+ subscribers. Readers will value content when a publisher ascribes value to it by asking them to pay for access, Grant said. The Monitor's appeals to readers to subscribe (and responses to readers' replies) “come directly from humans,” such as the publication's own editor-in-chief or Grant himself.

But the first step to a subscription or membership-supported business is having a brand or product that is an important part of readers' lives, panelists agreed.

Chris Krewson, vice president, strategy at Spirited Media Inc., which publishes local-focused sites like Philadelphia-based Billy Penn and Denverite in Colorado, said: “It’s not necessarily about being comprehensive, it’s about being essential to a certain audience.”

According to Havas Group's "Meaningful Brands" study, if 74% of the brands we interact with disappeared tomorrow, “nobody would care,” Grant said. 

“So how are you going to be in that other 26%? We started with that question: What would the world really miss if the Christian Science Monitor went away? What makes you distinct? What are people coming to buy? What is your real true value proposition? It’s not quantity of stories, or a comprehensive news experience. It’s our distinctive take on what’s going on, and making it as easy as possible to consume it,” he said.

Bill Allman, Chief Digital Officer at Smithsonian Enterprises, said his company is preparing to create its own paid product. He asked: Is a successful subscription or membership model built by creating exclusive content that readers think is worth paying for? Or leveraging existing content in a new way that gives it value?

“It’s not so much selling [readers] new products as it is selling them the value of what we’re offering,” said Julianne Markow, Chief Operating Officer at membership-supported Voice of San Diego.
Krewson added: “What we’re learning through membership is it’s a little bit 'Just ask for it’ and a little bit ‘Tell them why you’re worth it.' "  Spirited Media Inc. is a start-up also built on a membership model. Both publications are affiliated with News Revenue Hub, which supports organizations in launching membership programs. 
Publishers need to market their value to readers more, Krewson said. “Everybody sucks at talking about themselves."
The Voice has found an interesting way to reach potential new and local members — reaching out to arts and culture organizations in the San Diego area to do an “audience list swap." 
The Voice will advertise for those organizations, and in return, ask them “to send out testimonials” to their membership, asking them to check out the Voice’s Culture Report and “contribute to another nonprofit in town.”
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