Will more people pay for content? It doesn't look likely

Research from LinkedIn shows only 12% of professionals plan to pay for content in the next year

April 19, 2017

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More and more publishers are looking to subscription business models and content paywalls to save journalism as we know it. But can a strategy of charging for digital content really save the traditional publishing model? Do paywalls work? The evidence is in – and it doesn’t look promising for those relying on paywall revenues to balance the books.

Traditional newspaper brands like The Times, New York Times, Financial Times and Economist have led the way in charging people to access digital content. Interestingly, digital publishers like Buzzfeed, Vox and the Huffington Post have considered erecting paywalls of their own. The growing popularity of paywalls amongst publishers of all types seems a logical response to the challenges they face in the digital advertising market. Programmatic means less opportunity to charge a premium for ad inventory and ad blocking threatens the size of the audience they can sell. However, paywalls can only work if people accept that some digital content is worth paying for. New research from LinkedIn suggests that very few people do.

Only around 1 in 10 professionals pay for editorial content

We asked professionals on our network whether they paid for any online journalism currently – and whether they would consider paying to access such content in the next 12 months. The results should give publishers pause for thought. Only 12% of people in our study say that they pay for editorial content currently – and only the same proportion say they are prepared to do so during the next year. Not only is there a lack of willing payers for content – there’s also a lack of momentum to justify publishers shifting to a paywall strategy.

What could shift the balance in favour of paywalls?

There are some signs though, of a potential change on the horizon – and signs of hope for businesses that depend on audiences putting their hand in their pocket for quality journalism. Whereas 87% say they don’t pay for content today, only 76% say they definitely won’t in the next year. The 13% who declare they don’t know if they will pay or not could be waiting to see how the content landscape develops. The key factor shaping people’s willingness to pay for digital content is the quality of content available for free. If a critical mass of publishers moves to paywalls or subscription-based models that could start to tip the balance. A quarter of professionals being at least tacitly willing to pay for content provides something for editorial business models to work with.

What does the refusal of professionals to pay for content mean for B2B content marketing? As Doug Kessler argued during our B2B Dinner for Five recently, if people have less access to traditional journalism they will quickly start to miss the editorial standards and objectivity that it embodies. Brands that can play the role of traditional publishers could benefit – but only if they can find a way to signal the quality of their content to audiences. That requires a long-term commitment to building trusted content brands, and a consistently audience-centric approach. It’s not easy, but it could increasingly separate successful content brands from the rest.

Paying for content is one of the clearest ways to demonstrate that you value it – but it’s not the only way. One of the reasons why blogs have such an important role to play in B2B content marketing strategies is the potential they have for generating subscribers – an owned audience that have signaled they trust and value your content and handed you the responsibility for continuing to earn that trust. This exchange of trust and value is central to all editorial content – whether people are paying for it or not.

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