Content monetisation: Is there a ‘Holy Grail’?

Earlier last month, we spoke to Weekend Post in Botswana, Nation Media Group in Kenya, Daily Nation in Zambia and The Monitor in Uganda about digital transformation in the media industry. These conversations centred around reader revenue prospects for African newsrooms. The conversation was led by  Lyndsey Jones, Coach and Strategic Advisor for WAN-IFRA – Women in News.

We spoke to Jones for further insights into the ideas shared during these sessions. 

What makes people pay for content online?

It’s high-quality journalism, without a doubt, with a move towards more personalised content for audiences within audiences. 

It is niche content, or ‘Day 2’ journalism, which is an organisation’s ‘take’ on a major news story; it could be background analyses telling you why stories matter to you, and even perhaps what action you need to take – news you can use in your job, for example.

But remember that audiences are becoming more and more fragmented, so if you can offer personalised content, which is tailored to specific audiences coming to your site – that could be the type of service that people will pay for.

Above all, though, you will need to have a strategy that engages your audience, forming customer habits and building loyalty. This will create a virtuous circle where people become more likely to pay for a product – and return for it again and again. 

What revenue options do media organisations have as the transition to digital increasingly takes root across Africa? 

Diversifying revenue streams is key – building up some form of paywall model, for example, while also adapting your events business for a virtual world and running hybrid events. Or repackaging TV and radio content for different audiences online. 

What we’re also beginning to see is an uptick in paid advertising on niche content subscription sites. So if you’re an advertiser and you want to target investment bankers or politicians, you may be more likely to take out adverts on a business news site or a niche politics site than go to the more general tech titans.

Facebook and Google still dominate the global advertising space, but there may be more room for niche sites that target the emerging influential middle classes in their regions. There may be untapped potential in local language sites, for example.

Other ways to make money include native advertising – where adverts look like the format in which news content appears. But make sure the content is clearly labelled ‘promoted’ or ‘sponsored’ – editorial independence is key.  The same rule goes for affiliate revenue, where a publisher includes links in copy that take the user to an e-commerce site to buy products.

Then there are multimedia options, such as video and podcasts. Here, sponsorship and adverts can work well.

It can be nearly impossible to predict subscriptions long term, particularly in regions where a trust deficit means audiences prefer to pay for content on a daily or weekly basis. How can media organisations navigate this kind of environment where autorenewals make up only a small portion of subscriptions?

I think it comes down to trust. Trust is so vital to the news business. 

If you are a trusted brand, a trusted source of accurate reporting, where people know they can come to your website to check whether a story is true or not, especially in the era of fake news, then that is valuable. It will add value to the business and brand reputation. 

It may become a reason people will pay for your product. 

The issue is that it can take time to build up that trust between consumer and company, and to incentivise those consumers to actually part with their money via subscriptions. And once you have your subscriber, what’s your plan to keep them? It is easier to retain consumers than it is to find new ones.

Is there a logic to subscriptions or any predictability around audience behaviour that media organisations can bank on?

There are tactics you can use – such as, is your site easy to sign up to? And this may seem perverse, but is it easy to cancel a subscription, too? People expect to be able to have full services online that are easy to use.

If you can make the experience as painless and convenient as possible, it means consumers won’t have to put too much effort into thinking about a purchase decision. Bundling and packaging of content can also help to add value.

Then there is the ‘try before you buy’ model. It is well known that consumers are more likely to buy a product once they have tried it. That’s why some niche sites will give away some of their exclusive content for free – perhaps after a day or so of it being behind a paywall –  to increase the discoverability of the news brand online.

There are several competitors in the news market and a lot of free content that can complicate efforts to institute paywalls. What can media organisations looking to pursue this path do?

I’m a big believer in moving away from general news that is free elsewhere if you want to charge for your content. It’s all about offering a product that is different and stands out.

Having said that, you will still want to cover important news that is free elsewhere – the trick comes in how that major news story speaks to your own core content strategy.

What is your take on it? How can you, as a news organisation, add value to it that isn’t covered elsewhere? And you may want to record the event because it is important, but need to be careful you do not duplicate work by publishing too many stories on the same topic and cannibalising your own content. 

So control your agenda and even have a playbook on how editorial is going to handle this type of event as part of its core content strategy.

Jones is the author of the forthcoming business education book, ‘Going Digital’, to be published by Pearson in early 2022, and a former executive editor of the ‘Financial Times’.

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