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Right now, almost all United Business Media’s magazine websites are free. And, although the B2B publisher wants to extract more money from them, there is no one-size, group-wide lurch to paid, as there has been at counterparts like Emap.
CEO David Levin explained the approach to me this month. Asked about his plan, whilst we sat on his office sofa overlooking the Thames, Levin, as his answer, instead called me up to sit at his desktop PC, on which he loaded UBM’s corporate wiki.
Levin walked me through the many groups, info pages and project sections where over 6,000 UBM staff around the world share everything from goodwill messages and earthquake alerts to best practice and strategic initiatives.
One such group is “Paid Content”, the place where UBMers are mulling over the concept. Any staff member can contribute ideas and experiences, no matter their station or seniority.
The illustration was clear – for UBM, initiatives like paid content are neither top-down dictates nor implemented group-wide. Unlike News Corp.’s dogmatic CEO, for example, Levin has flattened the hierarchy of UBM’s people policy to the degree that the company is sort of crowdsourcing its ideas from within, organically, electronically connected with itself.
“There are a hundred flowers blooming,” Levin told me. “There isn’t one single thing, there is not universal freemium. We’ve got a number of different experiments running, different approaches to how the (web) cookie works out who you are (for charging).
“We’re letting the wiki be the environment where people say ‘this is working’ or ‘it isn’t’. And then, when we come up to the regular meetings, we ask, ‘are we making the right call?’.”
UBM is in no rush and, it seems, no knees are jerking. Project Caxton is an ongoing review of every print title, asking: “Is there a path to being a leader in each one?,” Levin asks. “Caxton throws up questions. We’re not driven by quarterly targets, we’re driven by ‘can you make it profitable in the future?’
“Most of our titles are controlled-circulation. We came from a world that’s free-to-read; it’s harder to convert people to pay-to-read. In this phase, people think paid circulation is better than controlled – but there was a time when people would tell you ‘let’s kill off all this paid circulation, it’s not going to make us any money’.
“Our legacy is overwhelmingly controlled-circulation. The transition to paid from controlled-circulation is hard, but something that we’re doing in different parts.”
The main part?: “Effectively, let’s call it freemium,” Levin says. “We’re basically saying, the FT model is right – a limited amount of access for free and then it works out who you are and you’ve got to pay.”
But the group is at least as keen on selling new supporting data, training and video services, around its magazines’ web articles, as selling the core content itself. And, thanks to the wiki’s project teams, no single approach is likely to be adopted on a blithe, blanket basis.
“There is now huge upside, and not much of a down side,” Levin says. “Business is about putting yourself in a position where, on balance, you can win.”