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Premium, Free or Freemium Web Content

Which is Best for Your Media Site?


A photo of a man's hands on a laptop computer with dollar bills on the screen

Website owners face a critical decision in whether to charge for content.

Photo © Alberto Incrocci / Getty Images
New media platforms give traditional media outlets a boost to their newspaper, magazine, radio or TV business. But today, many media companies are having to decide whether to charge visitors for online content. Several factors should be considered as you weigh the pros and cons of paid versus free content.

Website Design
While every media website's goal is to build traffic, adding paid content affects your site design and how you'll sell readers on your content.

Free Web Content: The focus is on content and building stats. Convince people your media site is worth their time. What can they find from you that’s not somewhere else online?

Paid Web Content: Money and time will be spent to build a paywall. Will you restrict all of your content or offer a freemium service, which includes some free content? Assure people your site is worth their money, especially if they used to get your content for free.

Cross-Promotion to Other Media
You started a website as an extension of your traditional media platform. But the usual cross-promotion can be more complicated when your content comes with a price tag.

Free Web Content: Even if content is widely available on other sites, it can still be used to cross-promote to your other media. A story on your local school system's performance can simply include the basics on one platform and a complete report on the other.

Paid Web Content: Exclusive content is critical. Visitors will be unwilling to pay for the same news they can find elsewhere, like the school system report. You could lure readers with a sneak peek of the story that's only available to website subscribers before offering it on the free part of your site or in your traditional media outlet.

Business Model
Traditional media businesses have spent years coming up with web strategies to make sure they're not spending $1,000 to make $100 on their site. The business model changes dramatically when you add paid web subscribers.

Free Web Content: Your site is completely ad revenue-driven. Ad rates are based on your stats, just as a TV or radio station would sell commercial time using the ratings book as a guide.

Paid Web Content: You receive ad revenue, plus subscriber fees. While that sounds like more dollars, the number of visitors to your site will likely take a hit when you erect a paywall. So you may lose advertisers who want to reach the biggest audience possible and your subscriber base will have to make up for that lost revenue.

Site Positioning Against Your Competitors
If you and your competitors are on the same playing field -- everyone's content is free or they're all paid sites -- positioning your online brand is straightforward. That changes if you're the only one in town requiring a paid subscription.

Free Web Content: If your site is free, you're not at a competitive disadvantage as long as your content is updated and the site looks and performs well.

Paid Web Content: You will fall if people leave your site to get free content from your competitors. Your rival could tout that they're the biggest site in your market, leaving you without a comeback line.

Reader Interaction
Even your interaction with readers is affected with the switch to paid media. You have to be careful not to lose out on building your overall brand.

Free Web Content: There are unlimited opportunities to connect with your audience. You want people to interact with you through your site and social media platforms.

Paid Web Content: You're cut off from some of the outlets new media offers you to communicate with your readers. They may not want to have to pay to post their photos in your web gallery or to comment on the news. You may also lose your Facebook fans and Twitter followers as a result.

Impact on Your Community
Your readers are the reason you're in business. Their expectation is to get web content for free. Any change will affect you from a public relations standpoint.

Free Web Content: A free site builds goodwill in the community and can drive people to your offline product.

Paid Web Content: Your image could be hurt in your community, especially at first, with people blasting you for charging them. But your most dedicated readers need to be reminded why they trusted you as a source of information when your content was free.

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