It’s no secret that the traditional print newspaper industry is losing money heavily all around the world. Costs are rising while circulation numbers are plummeting year upon year.
So it’s no surprise to hear the news that some of the world’s oldest newspapers such as the New York Times (US), the Times (UK) and the Sunday Times (UK) are to become the first general interest newspapers to charge for their online content.
Admittedly, the Wall Street Journal and the FT already charge for their premium online content, but these are topic specific titles that cater for a specific niche of reader.
So let’s examine why this approach is doomed to failure and the lessons that internet marketers can learn from it.
1) The Perceived Value Of General News Content
In general, the price you charge for anything sets the future expectation in the minds of the consumer. So if you give away content for free, the perceived value of it is set correspondingly low.
Once that initial perception is set, it’s extremely difficult to alter, especially when these expectations have been reinforced over time.
And as the major general interest newspapers have been providing free content since before the millennium, the entitlement mentality relating to general news content is now firmly entrenched in the minds of the public.
That perception won’t change just because the increasingly desperate newspaper companies start charging for access to the same type of content.
If the newspaper had first started charging for content in 1998 when they first started publishing information online, they might have had a fighting chance of making the paid business model work.
2) The Scope Of The Content
The scope of the content provided by general interest newspapers is too broad and at the same time too shallow.
Most newspaper provide a range of politics, financial news, fashion, celebrity and sport etc. But due to the all encompassing nature of their content, it must by definition cover the topics at a more superficial level.
And that’s a major weakness which these newspapers will struggle to overcome. Let’s face it, if you want detailed, in-depth coverage, commentary and stats on any of these topics, it’s possible to find a wide range of high-quality websites, blogs and video channels dedicated to each of these niche subjects.
Increasingly, these alternative sites provide content that is high-quality, relevant, and in many cases, free. So when you consider what else is available at the click of a mouse, why would anyone want to pay for the generalist content provided by the online department of the traditional newspapers?
3) The Online Competition
It you look at the potential competitors facing the newspapers, other online content providers have a number of significant advantages.
One of the biggest advantages held by internet only content providers is that they aren’t saddled with the burden of being perceived as general content provider.
Instead, they focus on a specific topic and due to this narrower focus are able to provide a deeper and more meaningful level of coverage. This allows them to target a highly specific group of readers who are looking for more in-depth coverage of the topic.
If you want to read a detailed report about the latest test match, would you rather subscribe to a general purpose newspaper that might devote 0.1% of the space to cricket, or would you rather pay to access a membership site entirely devoted to the world of test match cricket?
Taken as a whole, all the websites and blogs that the newspaper companies are competing against provide a massive volume of relevant, quality content every day. And it’s this constant flow of highly targeted, quality content that makes it much harder for anyone providing general news content to compete.
c) Lower Overheads
Finally, many of the content providers that the newspapers are competing against have extremely low overheads. The cost advantages of being entirely digital cannot be overstated.
These modern, lightweight, electronic content factories don’t have to worry about supporting the enormous expense of print-works, transport infrastructures, newsagent fees or pension deficits that are still carried by the traditional print media.
The Victorian model of physical print production relies upon mass production and the economy of scale to remain viable. So in the face of falling circulation, will only continue to act as a drag upon limited financial resources. In contrast, the online content providers can direct the majority of their revenue towards generating and promoting their content.
So what lessons can online marketers learn from this situation?
1) Relevant, Related Content Is Vital
You must provide closely related content that is designed to appeal to a specific audience. It’s much better to target a smaller audience and give them exactly what they’re looking for, rather than attempt to attract the entire world and fail to impress them.
Just imagine if this blog was a mixture of technology, knitting and horse racing. You would be rather confused and constantly thrown off balance by content that is not relevant to your interests (unless you happen to be interested in technology, knitting and horse racing, although I imagine that would be an extremely specialized niche market).
When you focus on a narrower scope of content it will allow you to provide a sufficient depth of coverage which will cater to the needs of your specific audience.
In turn, your readers will display more loyalty and be more likely to read more of your content more often.
2) Premium Online Information Must Possess Three Qualities
If you want to charge for your content it must be;
The content that you provide must be available only on your site. If people can get the same information elsewhere for free, it’s highly unlikely that they will pay for it.
b) High Quality
People won’t pay for information that is of an inferior quality or information that they can be readily gathered together from a range of sources. There has to be an element of originality or novelty to the content that you provide.
Your content must provide significant value for your readers, in terms of saving them time, saving them money, helping them to avoid pain or allowing them to improve the quality of their life.
So when taken together, the recent developments in the online newspaper industry show that if you want to be successful providing online information, you have to focus on a specific niche and be committed to providing high quality content that enhances the lives of your readers. And if you want to use the paid content business model, you can multiply the importance of these factors tenfold.