The Non-Scientific Approach to “Giving Away” Paid Content

The conundrum continues: How much should you give away on your membership websites?

There’s no scientific methodology behind subscription websites. Publishers with excellent conversion architecture can get away with giving away a lot of free content and still converting a large percentage of those free users into paid users.

Others still, have such a good reputation and and worth-while free trial that it doesn’t require giving anything away (other than the free trial) in order to get people in the door.

The others? Well, they might not be making any money at all.

Publishers who run subscription websites customarily offer up to 15% of their overall content to unregistered visitors, with the remainder accessible only by subscribers. The decision on what and how much content to open to all and what is available only to registered users or paid subscribers depends on the publisher’s strategy and the scope and intent of the website.

For example, the publisher of TheFool.com, a financial information site, has decided that news is free, but advice costs money. And WSJ.com, The Wall St. Journal’s website, puts about 15% of its content outside the firewall so people can find and use it before they bump into the 85% of content that requires payment.

A membership subscription website archetype provides paid members with a library of information on a specific topic of interest or a cluster of topics and creates a community of individuals who share a common interest.

A membership subscription website is user-driven and content-based. And unlike a newsletter subscription website, whose minimum information unit is an issue of the publication, a membership subscription website is a destination in and of itself. Its business goal is to generate revenue from user-access fees by acquiring and retaining members; it accepts little or no advertising.

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Different strategies for different membership websites

TheLadders.com, Match.com, and SSWUG.org are benchmark examples of the membership website archetype. All three require registration and payment for full access to the site.

TheLadders.com Membership Website Strategy

TheLadders.com provides job listings for those looking to make at least 100k per year. A basic membership is free;
premium membership, which requires a fee, includes access to hand-screened jobs and a resume critique. The publisher generates some information on the site, but users post the bulk of the content on the site. The website is updated constantly with new jobs and new resumes and their email newsletter is always a mild advertorial reminding people to look at new jobs.

The strategy: You can look at all the jobs you want, but if you want to apply, you’ll have to pay $35 per month. Their target audience is for people with a good paycheck ($100k+ per year), so $35 isn’t a large token, even for the recently unemployed. This also weeds out the valid applicants from the rest of the pack.

The Match.com Membership Website Strategy

On Match.com, it’s nearly impossible to browse the website without having a registration screen either pop up or block access to the page. Nearly all the content is behind a firewall. Free members have limited access to the search options, whereas premium members who pay for their membership can perform as many searches as they like and can communicate directly with their “matches” via email.

The strategy: Similar to TheLadders, Match.com lets you get in and look around, but you can’t take any “action” until you pay. This allows the user to see what (or who) is available to them and pay if they think making that connection is worth the money.

The SSWUG.org Membership Website Strategy

SSWUG.org offers some free content which is available to visitors and “registered guests,” but most of the content—archived articles, videos, and a script library—is behind a firewall and reserved for paid members. The primary member benefit is the community forum, through which members share information and help each other solve problems. The site content is updated daily and organized by date. It is searchable by topic or keyword.

The strategy: There is a lot of content for free on this site. By looking at the site, I’d say that you can access at least 20% if not closer to 50% of their content simply by visiting. However, they integrate their paid content  (articles, email discussion lists, advanced registration on the webcasts, the weekly show, etc.) so well into the free content, that it’s a simple upgrade to anyone who already likes the current content and wants more. Especially frequent visitors.

With all of this said, when unregistered visitors arrive at a membership website’s firewall, they should be presented with conversion architecture with an offer to register and/or pay for access to the premium content. Registered users, of course, should be recognized or presented with architecture that allows them to log in and immediately access the premium information.

Depending on the price and perceived value of the paid premium content, anywhere from one to five percent of the visitors will choose to become paid subscribers.

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