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Paid Subscriptions: The Next Great Trend In Online Advertising?

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As respected online publications such as, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal removed all or most of their paid subscription models over the course of the decade, conventional wisdom formed that holding print content intended for a mainstream audience behind a pay wall was a noble but failed experiment.

But are paid subscriptions on the Internet poised to make a comeback, albeit in a different form?

There are several standard ways to make money in the highly competitive online publishing space. The dominant one for years has been free content supported by advertising, but the massive amount of supply (even of the high-quality stuff) coupled with a worldwide recession have pushed down rates that advertisers are willing to pay for ad space, squeezing profit margins for most online publishers.

TechCrunch’s MG Siegler points out a not-so-little secret about online display ads: most people couldn’t care less about them:

The web is increasingly filling up with ads. Many sites, including this one, have a bunch of them all around with the hopes that you’ll find one relevant to you, and click on it. Of course, most of you don’t. And if you do, it may be by accident.

While there are a number of other ways to make money at the online content game, such as using content to sell products and services, there are a few factors at play that could pave the way for online paid subscriptions to make major headway over the next few years.

An Anti-ad Network?
Siegler discussed online advertising while covering Contenture, an “anti-ad network” that allows publishers to group themselves together with the idea that Contenture members can pay a subscription fee to gain access to a group of member sites that have the ads removed.


Think about what the future of online browsing might look like when you take this idea to scale. For example, what if you could one day pay Contenture (or Facebook Connect, perhaps) $5 a month — a fee I’m grabbing out of the ether — with the blessed result of being able to visit thousands of high-quality web sites, absolutely ad-free? That could theoretically provide both an important revenue stream for publishers while improving the user experience at the same time.

Subscriptions For Mobile Content
Amazon, with its handheld content reader Kindle, is steadily moving forward — using a similar strategy as Apple in terms of monetizing the sale and distribution of MP3s to iPod devices — with the creation of a massive and sustainable business in getting people to pay for digital content.

While the Kindle is best known for selling books available from the catalog, there’s a growing number of magazine, newspaper and blog subscriptions that can be paid for using an existing Amazon account. Importantly, the Kindle is “training” a mainstream marketplace to pay for digital content, including a subscription component.


While an announcement on Wednesday (again covered by Siegler on TechCrunch) that Amazon is opening all blogs to become part of the Kindle Publishing for Blogs Beta program was not front-page news, it could be another notable step toward building the importance of online subscriptions for online publishers.

Consider, too, that the Kindle’s forthcoming DX release, with its 9.7-inch screen, has the opportunity to further challenge both the computer monitor and print for the attention of readers across the planet. Therefore “training” people to pay for content in the form of subscriptions on the Kindle may have vast repercussions for the future of digital content.

What is your take on the future of the online paid subscription model for online content?

8 Responses to “Paid Subscriptions: The Next Great Trend In Online Advertising?”

  1. Steve V.

    This is the ‘cable TV’ model people have been talking about for years. It requires mass scale ($5/mo spread across thousands of sites still doesn’t mean squat til you get tens of millions of users.)

    The difference is a) that cable programming was unique, and b) it was not available already for free.

    This is a noble idea, but risks becoming as popular as… oh… DRM?

  2. Ads can work. I just can’t see making much money off them unless you have a huge audience.

    I don’t mind ads so long as they are not overly animated, blinking gifs, or flash. Or delay loaded the page because some ad server is slow/not responding. Even worse than flash – including the unbelievably obnoxious automatically playing flash movie – are layers that appear on top of the content.

    There are very few sites I would pay for.

  3. I don’t see the fee based model working. Pick up any newspaper or magazine and the editorial and content are surrounded by adverts.

    None of this is offensive to me, the reader, and I believe it to be so with websites. The majority of searches ignore banners and other advertising and just read the content unless a particular advert catches their eye.

    I don’t see this model changing in the foreseeable future.

  4. A fee will never be enough. The model has to be mixed. How will you support the production team, including writes, tech team, editors, etc… of massive companies like NYT or any other? Just by charging a small fee? If the fee is high we know, as a fact, people won’t pay it. I think the model should be mixed. fee+ads, like any print paper.
    Of course in order to bring back fees a very hard to achieve coordinated action will need to happen. there are too many news sources today and if only a few of them keep offering their content for free the whole idea is dead. (Just as an example: I would pay to read NYT if my alternative is Yahoo or MSN News but if Globe & Mail is free I wouldn’t pay for NYT).

  5. It has to happen, I feel. The advertising model is broken and advertisers only want their material in front of polished, consistent content. Most people who blog / create content and do other things cannot do that long enough to build an audience large enough to make money through advertising revenue.

    At a certain point, if this really is what we want to do for a living, we have to make money by other means, and I prefer the pay for content model. You may have a smaller audience, but who cares? That audience clearly likes what you’re doing and they’ve invested something to keep you going. That’s more than most of us can say about web advertising.

  6. Interesting. I wonder though will this ever take off? Are people really that bothered by ads on a site as long as their content is served first? I think this is a long way off yet for the casual mainstream internet user.