Struggling online publishing companies considering a move to paid subscriptions might want to think twice, says a new market report.
According to a study of 1,895 newspaper-site visitors by Borrell & Associates, free content still rules the day. Seventy-one percent said they would go elsewhere if a site imposed subscription fees.
The number of news sites charging for content is relatively small, said the authors only about 15 newspapers and 27 sites. The perennial leader in the category is The Wall Street Journal online, which currently has 600,000 paid subscriptions.
The plethora of free news content on the Web has created a Mexican standoff among publishers afraid to scare any eyeballs away.
The concerns are well founded, says study co-author Peter Krasilovsky, who recommends instead gathering as much information as possible about users. "[Online publishers] are better at registering their customers and building up a case for charging by adding value-added services."
Newspapers that make their Web content free only to print subscribers are also missing the boat and may lose up to 90 percent of the non-subscriber audience, says the study.
The report says that while users don't want to pay for content, they're willing to trade fairly extensive personal information in return for free access. It's up to newspapers to mine this information and package it for advertisers.
"There's a lack of faith that data mining will ever amount to anything in the newspaper industry," said Krasilovsky, who adds that the situation should change over the next few years.
One piece of good news in the study is the finding that Web sites don't cannibalize their affiliated print publications. Thirty-eight percent of respondents said they saw information on news Web sites that prompted them to buy a print subscription.
The study encourages publishers to be patient and to only consider charging for premium content, if anything, while promoting the value of exclusive and unique stories.
"People can't just turn on a switch [to paid subscriptions]. It takes a lot of work," said Krasilovsky.