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Why content?

September 5, 2011

Let’s get existential for a moment.

Generic Beer, like generic content, has no fans

Courtesy of

I read a blog post by Rob O’Regan this week talking about the need for different revenue streams to feed publishers online.  Stacking up millions of generic page views isn’t the way for most publishers to survive online. The advertising rates just can’t support quality content, especially in a small country like New Zealand.

Now, how does a publisher monetise its readers? Readers can pay by:

* Actually paying money

* Signing up for a free subscription and handing over some of their data, all the better to target ads to them

* Coming back to visit often, and seeing lots of pages when they do. This again means publishers can better target ads through cookie tracking.

* Seeing generic untargeted (and low yield) ads.

Which brings us to the existential question at the heart of it all – why do you produce the content you produce? I’m talking here about the business reason for doing it – the journalistic reasons, while they may be laudable, don’t pay the bills.

It’s a question most traditional publishers, and many digital publishers, still don’t have a good answer to. The ones that do are the ones that will succeed in digital publishing. For companies like the Financial Times or New Zealand’s NBR, the answer is actually clear. For general news publishers with free websites, like or, it’s a bit more murky.

But the answer’s actually the same whether it’s the Financial Times, or a local blogger: to convert readers up the pyramid from once-in-a-while visitors to fans. Fans are the visitors who consume more pages (anecdotally, usually more than 50% of page views on a news site come from fans , which usually make up about 5-10% of site visitors). So even if you don’t target ads to their cookies, you still make way more ad revenue off addicts than people who pop-in from Facebook or Google to see a story, then pop off again.

Your fans are also the readers who will give you their money or their data or pay for a print subscription, which is the goal of publications like the FT and NBR.

So then what should be the purpose of free content? It’s simple: Marketing. The topic, quality, promotion and production cost of the content should be geared toward convincing readers to make the next step in that conversion process.  Content that “doesn’t perform” in the conversion game should be axed. Just like (gasp!) advertising.

Again, that applies to free news sites with no intention of charging or asking for reader data. The goal is still conversion. Just instead of convincing people to pay or give you their personal details, you’re trying to convince occasional readers to become fans, and fans to share and read even more. That’s the goal of your content, and it needs to be honed and tailored to that goal. To aim for otherwise is to struggle in the digital world.

There are nuances to this of course. You may tailor content to attract audiences that are more likely to convert, or higher value as regular visitors. Or you may convert people from being once-in-a-while readers to being regular free readers, to signing up for a free subsciption, to buying an iPad subscription, to getting a print subscription (like the FT does).

But the goal is always conversion. The free content is designed to lead you into paying, and the paid content is designed to lead you into paying more.

The publishers that do this successfully survive in the digital world. The ones that don’t – well, unless they have the scale of the HuffPo, it’s going to be tough.

So why do you publish the content you publish? Are you just attracting low-value page views from across the internet? Or are you actually growing a valuable audience of fans that can sustain a digital publishing business?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 6, 2011 1:19 pm

    Agree with a lot of this…though wonder if engagement/creating fans, can always be translated into revenue.

    Seems like a worthy goal, but having a bunch of readers that constantly come back to find the latest about the gruesome murder de joir, or click through cheerleader image galleries isn’t going to make that content, or those readers monetisable.

    Perhaps that’s covered by the idea that those users won’t pay money, buy a print sub etc and therefore that content will eventually be filtered out in favor of material that converts better – but some of those goals are pretty hard to track with a high degree of accuracy.

    It’s also true that a lot of the content that provides the best financial return often comes from those drive by readers that aren’t so engaged/task focused – at least in terms of the biggest rev stream for media, which is obviously advertising. That makes good sense – if you aren’t so absorbed, you’re more distractible and susceptible to advertiser messages. Or there’s the Google model, where you focus on achieving a high level of contextual relevance and the goal is all about getting people off your websites and onto the sites of advertisers as quickly and painlessly as possible.

    Suspect the answer is less about engagement than it is about more granular matching of content with revenue streams. i.e.: think about how an individual article is best monetised (i.e.: affiliate product link, paid access, other contextually relevant advertising types). Which I guess is part of what Rob O’Regan was getting at.

    Problem of course is that thinking isn’t generally going to be a great fit with the separation of Church and State (editorial/commercial) that exists in the average media org.

  2. September 7, 2011 9:51 pm

    Good point re engagement, but generally advertisers want more engaged audiences and will pay more for them. I haven’t seen any research on it but don’t think low engaged readers a more likely to click on ads.

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