For as long as the Internet has existed there has been an argument between free and paid content. Some argue all content should be free. Others say if content has value it should be paid for . . . then there are the many shades of grey between these two positions.
Recently Rupert Murdoch and many other high profile publishers have joined the debate, which has led to the discussion reaching the mainstream media.
Experienced bloggers, web entrepreneurs and regular Internet users have long expressed the view that:
- General news content that is readily available through a variety of sources cannot be charged for
- Niche specialist content, with no or few competitive sources, can succeed with paid subscription
The question that has not convincingly been answered is ‘what falls under the heading niche specialist content?’
From my experience of helping to launch hundreds of paid membership sites around the world, I’ve noted that successful sites have one or more of the following attributes:
1. They Offer Unique and Exclusive Information
The number one reason that people pay for content is because they can’t get the information they need elsewhere for free. Successful membership websites tend to be run by people deeply immersed in their subject, whose access to certain sources, background knowledge and informed opinion creates sustainable advantage and value.
- B2B: Beernet provides news, rumors and job listings targeted at the ultra-niche US beer distributors. The total target audience is less than 2,500 individuals, yet the site, through subscriptions and ancillary revenues (selling reports, running events, etc), generates a seven-figure income.
- B2C: Herbmentor is a site about – you guessed it – herbs. The thousands of members from around the world learn and share information about herbs can be used for health, nutrition and cooking.
2. They Save Time
Searching for information on the Internet is time consuming. People from all walks of life will pay for information that makes their life easier and saves them time. Business people will pay for the right information available at the right time, particularly if their company is picking up the bill.
- B2B: getAbstract.com provides professionally written summaries of over 5,000 business books. This enables busy people to get the key messages from any book in a few minutes, rather than having to send hours reading the complete text.
- B2C: MacJournals provides a single destination for everything to do with Apple. Most of the information is available on the web, but Mac Journals provides a one-stop-shop which saves Mac lovers a lot of time and effort.
3. They Aggregate Data
Similar to saving time, people will pay to have a lot of disparate data brought together in one place. Many offline directories are moving online as paid searchable resources.
- B2B: BRAD Online is a UK database of advertising rates from thousands of magazines and newspapers. All the rates in the directory are available from the individual magazines, but the database brings them together in one place, making them easy to search and compare. At £1,430($2k) a year, clients must feel it offers valuable data.
- B2C: Ancestry.com has aggregated dozens of sources of information, which help individuals research their family tree. Most of this information is in the public domain, but for many the convenience of having it all in one pace is worth the investment of $10-$20 per month.
4. They Research the Truth
Filtering free web content for accurate data is very time consuming and often difficult. Individuals and businesses that need accurate data in a timely way are often happy to pay for access to a credible source.
- B2B: Econsultancy.com has 85,000 registered subscribers who rely on the site for up-to-date Internet data, product reviews and research.
- B2C: ConsumerReports.org is the most trusted resource for independent product reviews and consumer research in the US. Millions of people are happy to get access to advice and recommendations they trust.
5. They Provide Support to Small Businesses
Small businesses can greatly benefit from accessing very practical information from people in the same situation as themselves. They can learn from others experiences, saving both time and money – the two most valuable resources an entrepreneur has. The information is usually far more practical than is provided by associations and societies.
- B2C: MyMusicSuccess.com helps independent musicians make money without getting a record contract.
- B2B: RestaurantOwner.com offers practical, actionable advice for independent restaurant owners.
6. They Offer a Niche Community
Traditional publishers moving online underestimate the value that people place on being part of a community. Individuals, who are passionate about a subject like to talk, interact and share their knowledge with other people with a similar level of passion. They will pay to be part of a community of peers and fellow enthusiasts.
- B2C: ProBlogger.Community offers a paid membership community for bloggers who want to turn their sites into a living and lifestyle.
7. They Save Money or Reduce Risk
Information that either saves people money or time, or reduces risk has real quantifiable value. The accuracy of such data is critical so people will pay to access it from credible sources.
- B2B: HRHero.com is a wide-ranging human resource website. Much of their general content is free, but they charge for news about changes to state legislation, which companies within each state have to comply with.
- B2C: Sovereign Society provides information to help individuals protect and grow their wealth. It looks at changes in government regulation, tax laws, offshore tax havens, etc.
8. They Provide a Library of Resources
Libraries of pre-prepared resources can have great value to teachers, business people and hobbyists. They can be templates, plans or documents.
- B2C: Preaching Today has thousands of sermons which vicars, preachers and Christian teachers can download to save them having to write them themselves. This saves time, thought and effort.
- B2B: Lesson Planet has over 150k pre-prepared lesson plans and resources to save teachers time. Teachers subscribe and download the resources as they need them.
9. They Give Access to or Association With a ‘Celebrity’
People value being associated with and having access to the celebrities in their field of interest. Celebrity is a limited and controlled resource, so it is impossible to replicate. This trend is an extension of the traditional fan club, but the web has extended celebrity to experts in many niches.
- B2C & B2B: Jancis Robinson is a leading wine expert, who runs a subscription website. Her members get access to her personal views, her wine tasting notes and other people who share a passion for fine wines. The site is aimed at both professionals and amateurs.
- B2C: Shakira, the pop diva, has just launched her $40 a year fan club. Members get exclusive blog posts, discounts on gig tickets, early access to new songs and some free merchandise.
10. They Provide Multimedia Content
Print is limited in the way it can deliver information; the web provides far more freedom and versatility. Video and audio are perceived as having high value, and many member sites are charging for multimedia content, whilst giving articles away for free.
- B2B: StomperNet.com promotes itself as a community for serious entrepreneurs. They have created a faculty of well-known Internet marketers who provide hundreds of video lessons. The subscription is $197 month.
- B2C: FineWoodworking.com is the spin-off site from the magazine of the same name. The $35 annual subscription gives members access to a growing video library of wood working courses and tips.
11. They Provide Course Materials
The Internet is the perfect tool for delivering interactive course materials. Lessons can be delivered sequentially over a period of time, or can all be made available in one go, for the student to go through in their own time. Online training is set to grow rapidly.
- B2B: SEOBook is an online course aimed at individuals and businesses wishing to learn about search engine marketing.
- B2B: eMyth is a systemized process for starting and building a successful business. Their online course runs over six months and costs $1,400.
12. They ‘Promise’ Financial Success
Many of the most successful paid content websites provide advice on how to make money. This includes investing, gambling and business opportunities.
- B2C: BlogSuccess.com is targeted at people who want to make money from blogging. Jack Humphrey, who runs the site, has prospered as a blogger and members want to learn how he has done it.
- B2C: Motley Fool is one of the oldest investment research and advice websites. They offer a choice of seven different paid membership investment services ranging from $149 – $299/year.
13. They ‘Promise’ Fitness and Good Health
Good health, fitness and dieting sites continue to attract paying members. Often they are related to branded diet plans like the Atkins Diet and South Beach Diet. Like gym memberships, people tend to join, have a few enthusiastic months and then move on to the next fashion.
- B2C: SouthBeachDiet.com, a site that promotes the diet of the same name. In 2002, when the South Beach Diet book was very popular, the site is reported to have had an income of over $22 million.
14. They Offer Advice On Personal Problems and Illnesses
Individuals and families with problems greatly benefit from sharing their problems with others. There are many free forums and websites, which offer support, but often there is suspicion about the advice given and where it is coming from. This has left an opening in the market for sites run by credible professionals to provide support, advice and community to individuals and families with problems
- B2C: Social Anxiety Support offers support and advice to individuals suffering from stress and anxiety.
15. They Promise Exclusivity
People pay for exclusivity! They get pleasure and value out of having access to information and people that other people can’t get. It’s a similar phenomenon to private member clubs in the real world.
- B2C: Quintessenially.com describes itself at ‘the world’s leading private members club and concierge service’. It is truly professional and polished operation, providing excellent content and service which projects an image of wealth and privilege.
- B2B: DNForum.com is one of the world’s leading domain name forums. For those that don’t know, there is a big business based on the buying, selling and commercialization of domain names. Anyone can read the forums, but paying members get access to exclusive threads where the ‘most successful domaineers’ hang out.
16. They Provide a Home for Passionate People
A few websites manage to charge for membership by appealing to the conscious of their community. The proposition is usually simple; either you pay or the site will be financially unviable and will have to close. There are usually a few small benefits such as access to the publishers and member forums threads, but the main proposition is “if you get value, give something back”.
- B2B & B2C: LWN.net is a community for open source software developers and users. Members pay between $2.50 and $10 month to support this valuable and passionate community.
- B2B & B2C: WebMasterWorld.com is a site for webmasters and online marketers. It offers paid subscription, but members receive little benefit except the recognition that they are supporting the site and community
All content that can be digitized will end up being distributed over the web. Much of this content will be available from a variety of alternative sources, so it will have to be used to build an audience, which can be monetized in ways other than through subscription.
Some of this content however will be unique, valuable and highly specialized. As the examples above show, there is a big and willing audience ready to pay for the right content provided in the right format at the right time.
Miles Galliford is the co-founder of SubHub, a company set up to help bloggers, writers and publishers commercialize their web content. He has worked in the Internet for 10 years and helped launch hundreds of sites for clients around the world.