The debate rages on about whether the online version of the Wall Street Journal should be free or continue to charge for a subscription. WSJ.com is seen as the most successful subscription website in the world, so if it were to be made free, many commentators would see that as sounding the death knell for the paid-content business model.
This article suggests how, in my opinion, WSJ.com could make its content free while tripling its income to $150m from subscriptions and other revenues. Sound confusing and contradictory? Well, read on…
“The Funnel of Trust”
The best content websites make money from multiple revenue streams. The stronger the loyalty and trust that exist between a website and its audience, the more opportunities there are to make money from each relationship.
The Wall Street Journal is a trusted brand, but with most of its content hidden behind a subscription wall, its reach and influence are greatly restricted…as is its ability to monetize its content.
If WSJ.com were to provide its premium core content for free, its reach and traffic would explode, and that would create many new opportunities to make income from the enlarged audience.
The Funnel of Trust framework illustrates how successful content websites work.
Free premium, or “Freemium,” content encourages visitors to come to a site and read multiple pages, or in Internet-speak, increases eyeballs. The more pages that visitors read, the stronger the relationship becomes and the greater the level of trust that is established. Only when trust is established can the publisher really start to commercialize the relationship.
The commercialization part of the funnel advertising requires the least amount of trust. A visitor need make no commitment to the website beyond looking at pages to generate an income for the publisher. Affiliate marketing, whereby the publisher recommends a product or service to visitors in exchange for a commission on sales, requires a step-up in trust. One bad recommendation and the customer could be lost forever.
Selling products such as ebooks, reports, courses and merchandise directly requires enough trust between site and prospects for prospects to part with personal details and credit card numbers. Subscriptions take this one step further. Customers are usually paying in advance for something that does not yet exist. Finally, there are participation events such as seminars, courses, workshops and conferences. Customers must have complete trust in the website owner’s ability to deliver a high-value experience that costs a lot in terms of both money and time.
The more trust that is built between the visitor and website, the greater the potential there is to create multiple revenue streams from the audience.
WSJ.com and the Funnel of Trust
WSJ’s daily news is world-leading premium content that, if made free, would generate millions of eyeballs that could be converted into advertising revenue. Erik Schonfield speculates on TechCrunch that if the site were free, visitor numbers would increase tenfold, from the current one million subscribers to ten million readers. If each visitor looked at 20 pages a month, there would be an advertising inventory of 200 million pages. If one assumes a conservative price of $25 per thousand page views ($25 CPM), this would generate $60m in income.
But rather than this being the only revenue stream, it should be just the first of the five listed in the Funnel of Trust – advertising, affiliate, ecommerce, subscription and events.
WSJ.com, with its well-educated, high-net-worth audience, is well positioned to generate significant affiliate revenues. The Sunday Times in the U.K. has become very adept at negotiating revenue share relationships with a wide range of product and service providers. It has a Sunday Times Travel Club, Wine Society, Insurance Broker, Book Club and relationships with many retailers. WSJ.com should do the same.
If we assume that 20% of WSJ.com’s visitors spend $100 a year through its affiliate partners and the publisher takes an average 15% revenue share, then the income from this activity would be $30m (10m × 20% × $100 × 15%). Realistic? I don’t see why not.
Next in the list is ecommerce. There are some easy opportunities available to all newspapers, including the sale of photos (See The Independent), back issues, copies of articles that companies can use for marketing, books, reports, DVD courses and newspaper-branded merchandise.
If 5% of WSJ’s visitors spend $20 a year in the WSJ shop, that is potentially $10m in sales.
Then come the much-maligned subscription revenues. This is where it really gets interesting and requires a fundamental change in thinking.
According to the OPA, paid-for content revenues in the U.S. have increased from $2bn in 2005 to an estimated $5bn in 2007, so who is generating all this money?
The answer is niche content websites edited by experts who know their subjects inside out. Examples include BeerNet Communications (www.beernet.com), a site for U.S. beer distributors; JancisRobinson.com (www.jancisrobinson.com), a site providing expert wine tasting notes; BullmarketReport.com (www.bullmarketreport.com), a site providing stock tips; and the LVT Bulletin (www.lvtbulletin.com), a site providing legal advice to landlords. The list goes on. There are thousands of highly profitable niche information websites that provide unique, focused and timely information to small audiences for a premium subscription.
WSJ.com could capitalize on this nichification of markets by segmenting its audience and creating premium subscription websites for each of the niches.
For example, if analysis found that lawyers made up a significant number of its audience, it could create industry-leading niche sites about:
- Employment Law
- Ecommerce Law
- Pharmaceutical Law
- Real Estate Law
- Delaware Law
The niche sites would focus on news, reviews, features and interviews that go far deeper into a subject than WSJ would normally report. There would also be functionality that builds community among subscribers, such as a member directory and forum. All the niche sites would be promoted directly from the relevant sections on WSJ.com.
Each of these sites may get only 1,000 subscribers, but the subscription price can be high, for example $300/yr. Even these levels would generate $300k/year. In addition to subscription revenues, each site could
• have sponsorship at, say, $2,000 a month;
• run an industry jobs board at, say, $2,000 a month;
• sell reports, yearbooks, DVD courses, etc., at, say, $2,000 month; and
• arrange events, such as an annual summit or workshops – let’s say 250 attendees at $500 a ticket.
All told, that comes to an average income per niche site of $500k.
After costs and paying the editor, WSJ.com could be left with $250k per site. This in itself is not a lot, but if it were replicated 100, 500 or even 1,000 times, then the income could become very significant. Are there that many niche subjects? Well, I could think of 100 related to just legal activities. Then there are the hundreds related to the different financial markets – mortgages, hedge funds, bonds, money markets, Internet stocks, pharmaceutical stocks, etc. Also, every industry has dozens of niche opportunities. Remember BeerNet Communications aimed at the senior executives in the U.S. beer distributor sector? That’s pretty niche, but the site makes more than a million dollars a year.
Using these assumed numbers, if WSJ created 200 niche websites with a thousand subscribers each, that would be a total audience of 200,000, or just 2% of the projected 10m visitors. These are not unreasonable figures.
Making It Work in Practice
If I were setting up this operation within WSJ, I would create a centralized unit to manage all the niche websites. Specifically this department would
- provide and manage the publishing platform for the niche sites (this technology is already available from SubHub, www.subhub.com);
- work with the editorial team at WSJ.com to market the niche sites to their appropriate audiences;
- organize events such as summits, seminars and conferences on behalf of the niche sites; and
- manage the payment processing, accounting and distribution of funds.
Recruiting the Niche Website Editors
To make this scenario work, WSJ would need to recruit and incentivize the best experts from around the world for each niche site. My radical solution for achieving this would be to create the WSJ Associate Program. Experts would apply to become the WSJ associates for their respective specialist areas. For each expert accepted, WSJ would set up a new niche website and promote it to the relevant audience on the WSJ.com website.
The first $50k from the website would go to the site editor so he or she would have an income, the second $50k would go to WSJ and all revenues after that would be split fifty-fifty between the two parties (after costs). Therefore, a website generating $500k a year would give the expert an income of more than $200k. This kind of income should be enough to attract the very best writers and industry experts.
This solution should provide a perfect arrangement for both parties.
WSJ wouldn’t need to employ hundreds of new editors for the niche sites. The associate experts would remain independent and be paid only out of the income they generate.
The experts would benefit from the association with WSJ by having direct access to their audiences. The central support group would remove all the hassles of starting and managing a subscription website. And best of all, there would be an uncapped upside to the earning potential.
Doing the Math
So how much does this all add up to for WSJ.com?
Advertising = $60m (10m visitors looking at 20 pages a month. $25 CPM)
Affiliate = $30m (20% of visitors spending $100/yr. 15% commission)
Ecommerce = $10m (5% of visitors spend $20/yr.)
Subscription = $50m (200 niche sites contributing $250k each)
Grand Total = $150m
Everyone’s a winner.
Jeff Jarvis and his BuzzMachine groupies would get their free content, WSJ would triple its income, Rupert Murdoch would increase his influence by reaching a bigger audience and journalists and experts would get paid what they feel they are worth.