Trends in Publishing, Advertising and Paid Subscription Model

The economic downturn is hitting everyone hard. Online content models and advertising is one of the harder hit areas. Long before the beginning of the market freefall, advertising revenues began declining. Evidence shows that, while print and television advertising is declining at an incredible rate, online advertising is not faring much better. The saving grace in online advertising is that, while it is declining, it is declining at a lower rate than offline advertising.

However, it is still declining.

The days of making money online via advertising would, by most accounts, seem to be over and with it comes the question, “How exactly do we make our industry profitable again?”

Conventional wisdom suggests that there are two models. The first is the advertising model. The second is a paid subscription model. Though we have been brainwashed to expect free at every turn, part of me wonders if a paid subscription model would work better. Surely, readers are willing to pay a small fee for access to valuable content?

For my part, I am considering a switch to a paid model. It is my belief that the content found here is worth paying a small fee for. In exchange, such a model would eliminate advertising and would probably be in the neighborhood of $5 a month. But I want to talk to you first.

Does this make sense to you? Would you be willing to support the emergence of a new model that benefits the larger community and how content business models evolve for a low price?

Published by

Aaron Brazell

Aaron Brazell is a Baltimore, MD-based WordPress developer, a co-founder at WP Engine, WordPress core contributor and author. He wrote the book WordPress Bible and has been publishing on the web since 2000. You can follow him on Twitter, on his personal blog and view his photography at The Aperture Filter.

21 thoughts on “Trends in Publishing, Advertising and Paid Subscription Model”

  1. There’s always the concept of “premium content,” and funny enough it’s the online pornographers who’ve been able to tap this model. They offer enough to entice people to sign up, which in practice (else they’d be out of businesss) is enough to cover the costs of all the freeloading visitors who are happy enough to just ogle pictures.

    What would I pay for at Technosailor? Instructionals on industry practices, how to do business as a freelancer, etc. Will I do it for $5 a month? Sure, but that’s relevant to me, enough to make me ok with paying $10 a month. If it helps me make more money and save money on liability or lost leads, the cost to read valuable info at Technosailor is worth paying for.

    Not everything has to be free.

  2. @TechnoSailor:

    As with almost any product or service, customers will pay if they perceive value. In general, they will pay up to the value they perceive or up to the price of the nearest competitor’s offering. I think the same basic economic theory applies to blog content.

    Do I pay to subscribe to magazines? Yes, and I generally renew until I no longer receive value higher than the subscription price. Would I pay to read your blog if I viewed the content as valuable? Sure, I would. Would I pay to read your blog if a competitor offered (what I perceived to be) the same or very similar content for free? More than likely I would not.

    In the end, value of a brand is all about competitive differentiation. The uniqueness of your content will be your secret sauce.

    The problem with translating this economic theory to the blogosphere is that every reader has a different value curve. The pricing scheme which nets you the most aggregate revenue might not be the one that gets you the most subscribers. In the end it will be up to you to define your real motivations for the effort, develop a market positioning strategy, and test the price elasticity accordingly.

    Best of luck and feel free to reach out if I can help you with ideas!!

    Respect,

    @JeffreyJDavis
    President & COO
    http://www.agy.com

  3. Maybe I’m reading you wrong, but you’re lumping yourself in with newspapers and TV and I think that’s a fundamental flaw in your logic.

    Newspapers, TV, and magazines have an established business model, which is based on subscriptions and advertising, as you pointed out.

    Blogs never had an established model. A small percentage of bloggers earn enough money to pay their bills by advertising and affiliate sales. But you asked “how do we make our industry profitable again?”, and my answer is “it never was. Some people just lucked out”.

    I think the problem is that the TV/Newspaper/Magazine tried to push their content online while still relying on their dead tree business model. At that point they’re competing with thousands of other sources with nothing to differentiate themselves but price. But you can’t ask the question backward, like you did.

    There are very few sources of information I’d consider paying for on the Internet. If one source started charging, I’d be able to find the same information, for free, from somewhere else.

    I think that the ebook-like model is underappreciated. Ignore the whole MMO space, and you have an untapped market. O’Reilly has very valuable ShortCuts that tell you a lot about a very specific piece. Peepcode does training on very specific rails tasks. I’ve bought a couple of PDFs on sourdough bread making — not a collection or recipes pulled off the Internet, but a guided lesson in how to do it. The $20 or $30 I spent in total was more than worth it. I wouldn’t pay a cent to read the guy’s blog though.

    I wouldn’t pay $5/month to hear what Aaron Brazell has to say — sorry about that. However, if Aaron decided to write a 20 page report on a specific topic, or gave a detailed guide on how to extend WordPress in a certain way, people might pay $10, $20, or more.

    It’s hard to tie a value to a series of blog posts. It’s much easier to assign a value to a single piece of work that solves a particular problem that I have *right now*, and the blog history lends credibility to the author.

    I think the blog business model will be along the lines of “give away some of the content for free to build credibility, sell the hardcore information”.

    Sean

    1. Sean, I’d agree with you if we were talking about news. Why pay for premium news if you can get it on CNN, the New York Times or Engadget. Opinion, perspective or expert analysis is not something you can get just everywhere.

      1. It goes for more than news. Think of how many pay sites you reach trying to find the answer to a smaller problem, and how often you’ve paid them (never) vs going on to the next item in the SERPs. On the flip side, think of how many times you were trying to get up to speed on something, and how many searches you had to do to get there because a single, quality document didn’t exist (free or paid)

        In terms of opinion/perspective pieces, there are so many out there that I’m not sure I’d notice if I lost one because it went behind a pay wall. That said, I don’t read blogs for opinion — most of the times I’ve unsubscribed from a blog is because there was too much opinion.

        Expert analysis is where I’d agree with you on. However, I still think that you’ve got the product/demand thing backward. If I’m in the market to pay for expert analysis, I’m looking for something specific. I’m not going to throw money at a bunch of people and hope that one day they churn out what I’m looking for.

        In the end, the free market will determine whether or not your opinion is worth a subscription. I can’t say I’d subscribe myself, but I’ll still follow your twitter feed ;)

        Sean

  4. Let me share a few other thoughts, at least from the other side of the coin, that I have considered while reading the previous comment. There already are paid writers out there, and they’re called columnists. And these columnists have to tailor their message according to what would sell, as directed by the editors. There are bloggers in the political arena who have been taken in by local publishers but they remain free to rag on in their personal blogs because of the freedom this affords these writers.

    Aaron, do you, as Technosailor, want to maintain this blog constantly trying to see which posts or which topics would net you the best income? The free content you have provided here? Consulting is tough work and freelancing too, but consider that you are in far greater position of power to monetize your brand AS Technosailor without trying to make a dime off the very thing that’s helped you build that reputation. In my blog’s heyday I’ve been tempted to run ads on the damned thing, and I just realized that I don’t want to. My freelance market is smaller than yours but I built it by being me, the One Fine Jay, one free blog post at a time. You have done the same.

    And this, sir, is my schizo argument that everything on Technosailor should be free. :)

    1. I’ve been running OTB for over six years now and have done reasonably well at attracting links and eyeballs. But I’ve never really made any money aside from advertisements. I don’t know how to do that with a general interest political blog.

      Likely different for a How To blog, of course, but TechnoSailor is somewhere in between that and a commentary site.

  5. It’s a conundrum that I haven’t figured out how to solve, either. Being at the mercy of advertisers — and search engines — sucks.

    At the same time, most of the hard core readers of blogs now do so through RSS. You’d almost surely have to switch away from RSS delivery to go to a subscription model, no?

  6. @Aaron

    The writing and content on Technosailor is enjoyable. Often times, I find equal or greater value from the comments though. I wonder how sharp the drop in comments would be with a paid model? I think pursuing the subscription model is a mistake and part of me wonders if you have a “just kidding” post already written.

    One example of a free blog that seems to generate a lot of value for the author is Fred Wilson’s avc.com. Fred gives all the advertising revenue from his blog to charity, but uses the blog to solicit ideas for his investments. Is there way you could monetize your free blog postings in a similar vein? For example, use the Technosailor brand recognition to arrange speaking fees at conferences, a book deal, or a start a consulting service? Jeff Jarvis, author of What Would Google Do?, wrote that the book was a way to monetize his free blog postings.

    I think of blogs frequently along the lines the music industry may be heading: bands release free music/videos on youtube then monetize their brand recognition through concerts and merchandise. Surely your high quality, high traffic blog postings and brand recognition are leading to revenue producing opportunities in the business world?

    Another option to think about is going the gigaom.com or huffingtonpost.com route where you build a site around the aggregation of many bloggers in the hopes of driving up your traffic and ad rates.

    Regardless, good luck. Losing you to the Dark Web would be a loss.

    1. Doing this is not decided. And it’s not about the money. It’s about the demand. Jason Calacanis, as an example has been incredibly successful in his “I’m quitting blogging” routine that turned into a private email list. In my minds eyes, it’s about making the content a sought after commodity. A lot of great arguments against and I’m listening. No decision has been made.

  7. I think that it will eliminate a lot of natural traffic obtained to the website from people stumbling across your site such as myself. I would be more than happy to donate $5 per month, but would prefer to see the value in this being a free and informative blog.

  8. I agree with Sean and Joel. I stumbled across your site by accident. And I am enjoying reading it. I never would have found it, and never would have subscribed to it to find out about it if I had to have paid for it. As for me, I enjoy reading people’s opinions, but I don’t think I’d pay for them!

  9. No. I pay less than 5 dollars a month for hosting at ibizpanel. A blog is not comparable to a magazine, the retail purchase of a magazine is by impulse, or emotional, or there might be a symbol of status when you subscribe to one serious magazine and quote news from it. I was a magazine distribution analyst (a real paying job) and there is a big supply chain behind a magazine. While you are one single(?) writer renting space on a machine that runs free Linux.
    Do you remember somethingawful business model? One time $10 dollar fee to get access to the paid forums, and they offers free content too! Go lower.

  10. I was never scared of paying for a online subscription as long as I got something valuable out of it. The problems is that most of the people subscribe only to get concrete facts and results. Only a small part of the public subscribes to get abstract ideas, opinions, advice and so on.

    I think that the book publishing model (not ebook) is very powerful. Look at ” Small Is the New Big” – Seth Godin. 183 blog postings about one subject in one book. You can take a look at Amazon to see what the people thing about such a book.

  11. It is a difficult game. Anyone who said it would be easy to get revenues off blogs has neither done full-time blogging nor made any revenues in their life. Subscription blogs will remain a rarity, even within B2B. For consumer sites, it is almost impossible. The problem is you’re feeding off other media sites for your material, which, by definition, isn’t unique.

    Within technology blogs, people may pay for a hybrid site like yours: a mix of blog and original reporting, with lots of context thrown in, and multiple ways to access the content.

  12. I personally like the “donation” model.

    When I was in high school, my mom, the booster’s president, quickly learned that asking for donations yielded a higher profit than asking for $5 at our car wash fundraisers.

    Today, I donate whenever I remember/get asked to my favorite blogs, music sites, news sites and free applications.

    So I may not pay $5/month for Technosailor, but I would definitely throw $10 or $15 at you every few months or so.

  13. I read some of the articles here and find them useful, but I do not think I would pay for the current mix of content you offer. Nothing against the content though.

    As someone who has worked as an editor at paid print newsletter publications, if I was going to pay a subscription, I would expect more content and regular defined publishing schedule along with audio and video content. Assuming you are going to do that, then I think you could probably make it work as you are very knowledgeable about the topic you cover.

    The only problem you have is that there are a ton of places that offer similar content and offer it for free. A site with a concentration of useful content that solves problems will do well and if you can bring all that content together in one place, then I think you might have something.

    With that said, I think you have to really think about what you would charge. There are many people that will not pay $1 month, but then there may be an acceptable number that would pay $20 month. I might would even keep the news type content free and then wall off the technical articles and video tutorials. So there is much to consider with the pricing.

    I think the commenter that suggested paid special reports or ebooks is on track. I don’t think there is enough of that type of content and I think that would be profitable on a high traffic blog such as this one.

    I also think the economic environment may make switching to a subscription model a little dicey a this time.

Comments are closed.