Free, Not Paid, the Key to Success for Print Publishers Going Mobile

It’s no secret that print publishers have taken a beating with the rise of the Internet (I can tell you about it firsthand), but some old-school publishers are applying those difficult lessons in mobile, according to a new survey from the Audit Bureau of Circulations. The industry assocation’s survey of its U.S. and Canadian business members found that print publications are increasingly viewing mobile as a legitimate way to increase their reach, find new audiences and generate additional revenue. Here are a few nuggets from the survey:

  • Nearly 70 percent said mobile is receiving more attention from their publication this year than last year, and more than one-third believe their publication already has a well-developed plan for attacking and conquering the mobile market.
  • Fifty-six percent of senior executives said their publication has plans to develop a smartphone app in the next two years, while 17 percent said they already have an app in production.
  • Nearly one-third said mobile will have a “significant impact” on their revenues within three years.
  • More than 80 percent believe consumers will rely more heavily on their phones as a primary source of information in the next three years.

Leveraging mobile isn’t all that new for print publications, actually. Media companies such as Hearst Magazines and Time Inc. for years have developed mobile apps and secured space on carrier decks as a way to increase brand awareness and build a new revenue stream. And while the mere mention of print media draws raised eyebrows in some quarters, there’s some evidence that mobile can help breathe some life into the flailing industry: The Hockey News — which, admittedly, is a niche publication — recently said it experienced “modest growth” in print readership after launching a free mobile site that, presumably, should have cannibalized its traditional business. And magazines such as Runner’s World and Seventeen are building customer relationships with free iPhone apps that offer complementary content such as shopping guides and fashion tips.

But those efforts contrast starkly with the plans of media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who recently said The Wall Street Journal will start charging for mobile access on the BlackBerry and iPhone. Users with those smartphones will be asked to pay $2 a week, twice the amount print and online subscribers pay.

The strategy defies logic, according to a recent study from Harris Interactive UK commissioned by The survey of UK consumers found that 74 percent of readers say they would look for another site if their favorite news site began charging, while only 5 percent would continue reading. I think readers would be even less likely to pony up the subscription fee for access on a smartphone, which is inferior to PCs when it comes to reading news content.

Ad revenues will increasingly play a key role as print publications move into mobile, of course, but ad dollars alone won’t support every mobile play from every traditional publisher moving into the space. So while publishers are wise to offer free, ad-supported apps and online content to users, they will also have to find complementary ways to interact more closely with existing readers through innovative apps and services. They should view mobile not just as a channel to push their content but as a way to hold two-way conversations with print subscribers. And they shouldn’t try to cram mobile into the decaying, paid-subscriber business model.

Question of the week

Will mobile users pay for access to news?
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Colin Gibbs

Colin Gibbs

Founder and Principal Peak Mobile Insights

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2 Comments Subscribers to comment
  1. There is a small window of opportunity to charge SOME mobile users for news content on their mobile devices. That is because the publishers can target content specifically for the mobile user and offer them something better than:

    – free news from competitors
    – standard website news
    – news that isn’t enhanced by the mobile context.

    For example, the smartphone’s browser can view any page a PC browser can view…but it won’t be formatted correctly, it will be relatively slow to load, and scripted features (ex: comment windows like this) may not run.

    A publisher that provides a specialized app that puts the news one click away, and:

    – formats it very well for the mobile screen
    – takes unique phone UI elements into consideration
    – uses intelligent cache, background fetch, or batch sync for better speed and offline (tunnel, plane) access
    – personalizes the news to reduce the need for browsing
    – moves preferred sports teams, topics, regional weather to the top
    – is sensitive to the user’s location, presence, etc.

    You see that ^^^the thing that makes the user pay is a better User Experience, NOT the content itself. A minority will pay for the content, but many will pay for a better UX.^^^

    At least, that’s the kind of thing for which iPhone users have proven they will pay – both in terms of the device, and in terms of apps.

    Offer people something of incremental value, they just might pay. Offer just the news, and think they will pay for the content itself, and they’ll go somewhere else where the same news is free.

    Derek Kerton

  2. The Hockey News is a great example, as is GigaOM Pro.. both serve content I am incredibly interested in, both are fast and first with news and analysis, and this is what I am after.

    If the WSJ put a dedicated staff to any one specific content category that I was interested in and it was best in class, I would probably pay for it – but the mere idea of paying for mainstream media is absurd. Generic news a day later is not what I am after. Does mainstream media not realize that I don’t want the same regurgitated news I can see 1000 other places? Do they not get I want the best experts giving me up to the minute analysis that only insiders can get?

    ^^^The future of content delivery is niche. I call it Gordon Gecko news (Wall Street reference) – make me an expert in the subject matter related to me professionally and socially. That information, I will gladly pay for.^^^

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