Neil Thackray’s Business Media Blog

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Thinking About the B2B Paid Content Problem

Rory rightly notes that I haven’t posted much about the paid content model.  Let’s have a tour around some of the issues we face.

For traditional business media companies whose living has been based on magazines, paid content has been an ancillary activity.  Its’ provenance was in the sale of subscriptions and occasionally retail copies of magazines.  In 1983, when I was new to all this, paid for titles were under threat from controlled circulation targeted magazines.  I remember how Electronics Weekly, originally a paid for magazine, was busy trying to convert its paid readers to CC to exploit the growing ad market that was being colonised by the free but demographically elegant Electronics Times.  Giving up an entire revenue stream looked like madness to me then, and in the long run so it proved.

Meanwhile the paid circulations of those titles who stuck with it has declined progressively over time.  As the annonymous Business Media Blogger has pointed out, this trend has been evident for ten years.  Magazine publishing, traditionally the dissemination of news, is no longer a paying model.  News, even in business to business, is a free commodity.

In traditional business publishing companies, led by managers whose background is often largely advertising sales, paid content has become a minority sport.  Even in the large corporates, most of which have substantial divisions which rely on paid content, there has been little transfer of learning and competence into the divsions which are advertising dependent.

So this is my first hypothesis.  If paid content is to be a larger part of the revenue mix, the first challenge is to recruit some expertise and competence into the organisation.

In digital publishing, there are some really interesting paid content models that could inform our future strategy.  Before we do that lets consider some of the barriers to making this real.

1) The Value problem, We have an inflated view of the value of the content we already produce.

2) The breadth problem.  Most of our original content is neither deep enough, original enough, comprehensive enough or complex enough to command a high price,

3) The scale problem.  Building paid revenues is a long game.  It is easy to sell a little, but it is hard to sell a lot.  Most b2b online publishers struggle to get users to stay on their site for more than a couple of pages at a time when the content is free.  How can we expect to scale a paid content model when we can’t engage our users for nothing?

4) The problem of abundance or the competitor problem.  There are hundreds of sources of b2b information and a lot of it is free.  What could it be about our infomation that makes it distinctive?

Does this mean the paid content model is uninteresting?  Not a bit of it. In coming posts we will have a look at the alternative paid content models and consider how we can use them in building the new era business media model.  The topics include, curated content, subscription news, online membership models, micropayment models, premium and “freemium” models.  If you have a view, I would love to hear it.

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March 17, 2009 - Posted by | business media strategy, Uncategorized | , ,


  1. Hi Neil,

    The second to last sentence is where the industry really needs to start drilling into more. We ran a “making online publishing pay” series and these examples really help.

    I’m also of the view that it’s not just a “publisher” problem. It’s also up to advertisers to create compelling B2B campaigns which generate results i.e CPL not CPM!

    I also like point three. However again, it’s my view and vision, that business media sites can engage their readers for free.

    The trick is to foster the community; provide value add services around this to drive revenue.

    Other tools the industry needs to look at include APIs and widgets to disperse and monetise content. Not much, which is why it’s so hard to price and define a model for business media!


    Comment by Jonathan | March 17, 2009

  2. Hi Jonathan (we should meet by the way). I agree with your CPL point. But this is more than better creative from advertisers. We need to help them work out how to engage with our online audiences. If it is true that content delivery success is about reader engagement then so is the ad model. Popunders and MPUs and banners and skys just don’t cut it.

    I also agree that there is not one model. Each solution will be a hybrid of many things, or do one thing really well. Either of these approaches is better than the default approach which is to do several things badly.

    Free content is a perfectly good model, but in b2b there are not too many folk getting rich doing it.

    Comment by neilthackray | March 17, 2009

  3. Fair response. Have just dropped you a mail.

    Comment by Jonathan | March 17, 2009

  4. Hi Neil,

    As someone whose worked on paid-for media for more of my career than not, I’d like to think that it’s a model that works, and I’m sure there are niches where it could be.

    But my instinct is that our job as publishers revolves around building as trusting a relationship as possible with as many readers as possible. Then you monetise those channels of conversation – for instance, newsletter ads, display ads, recruitment ads, events, awards, expos etc.

    In the end, market by market it becomes a calculation – which is worth more to you as a publisher – a paying audience, or a large audience? You’re probably not going to have both.


    Tim – Mumbrella

    Comment by Tim Burrowes - Mumbrella | March 20, 2009

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