Magazines 24/7 Coverage: Are Paid Membership Websites the New Black?

Executives from ESPN, Rodale and Harvard Business Review discuss the challenges and benefits of charging users for online content

During this panel, General Manager & Editorial Director of ESPN Publishing Gary Hoenig admitted he didn’t know anything about SEO 6 months ago.

The concept of using SEO to acquire subscribers fascinates him, but acknowledged it isn’t exactly easy. “You can harness it if you try really hard,” said Hoenig. “You must allow the search engines to work for you, not against you.”

I had to throw that in there, but the primary message he delivered was that everyone in the room needed to focus more on who they are at their core. Publishers must clearly differentiate between what is commodity information and what is true analysis, to better understand which content they can get away with charging a premium to access.

Is your content worth anything to the consumer?

Hoenig insisted that if you don’t know the answer to that question, you have an ongoing problem.

He iterated that price point is key and reminded us about the miracle .99 print point iTunes has captured the market. If you can find a price in your universe that’s like that, you should be leveraging that opportunity, said Hoenig.

Is it OK to have advertising on your paid membership website?

Membership websites have their advantages and you don’t want the site cluttered. If you decide to take advertising in your membership product, you should try to give the advertiser a unique experience, perhaps by allowing them to be the official sponsor of a certain section of your membership website, as has done with their Insider product. “You really want to differentiate between the two types of advertising,” said Hoenig.

“The key to membership website success (or online success in general) is to start thinking of yourselves as content providers and out of the restrictions of paper and ink,” he added.


In terms of profitability, one membership website is equal to several magazines

At Rodale, there are 8 digital products that they charge monthly subscription fees for and according to MaryAnn Bekkedahl, EVP & Group Publisher, their paid digital subscriber revenue is currently equal to their paid advertising digital revenues.

She mentioned that digital services turn profitable in 2 years, versus the 5 years it takes on a magazine. Bekkedahl mentioned that with those kinds of profits, “we’ll keep doing it.”

Bekkedahl noted the key to success for their membership websites are the unique tools, often revolved around weight management, and the brand. Men’s Health Personal Trainer succeeds, in large part, because it’s Men’s Health.

She also added that the paid offers always work best when you can bundle them with a print offer. “When you can sell them all together you not only get the highest price point, but you get the most engagement.”

“I just don’t know” if premium sites are our one hope

A refreshing dose of honesty came from Hank Boye, Publisher at Harvard Business Review, who candidly told the audience that he just isn’t quite sure if their premium site is the one hope they have at succeeding in the long run.

“A premium site makes a lot of sense but it may not work ultimately,” admitted Boye. He’s more focused on the brand and the degree to which people want to engage. “Forget the economic pieces for a minute… experience the brand and pay us the value for what you get,” said Boye. “There isn’t one strategy that’s going to save you,” he said.

More Magazines 24/7 Coverage:

Print Vs. Web – The Editorial Challenge
Editors gather for a candid discussion about what’s working online and what isn’t

Rethinking Decision-Making in a 2.0 World
Google’s Analytics Evangelist, Avinash Kaushik, tells magazine publishers why some of their sites “suck” and what kind of thinking is required to fix them

Raising the Digital Bar in a Down Economy

Panelists share digital revenue percentages and thoughts on how they might increase revenues in the coming months and years



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