Media publishers are marching ever closer toward pay walls and price hikes for their content. Last month, GigaOM Network, a group well known for its tech blogs, announced it will charge a $79 annual fee for its research service. Hulu may soon jump to a subscription service as well. Offline, the New York Times recently increased the price of both its weekday and Sunday newspapers.
A variety of pricing schemes and solutions for content — pay walls, increased fees, bundling and micropayments — has been the topic of media discussion in the last year. But will people start paying for something that has been free? Not if there’s cheaper competition, says Ava Seave, adjunct associate professor in finance and economics. She is the co-author, with Bruce Greenwald and Jonathan Knee, of The Curse of the Mogul: What’s Wrong with the World’s Leading Media Companies, which will be published later this year.
“It’s pretty hard to start charging if there is a substitute product that is free,” she says. “Free competition forces companies to try and make due with advertising or other revenue, which they hope they are making up for in eyeballs. What we may see is that many companies will go under or become only marginally profitable. At this point new companies won’t want to enter in the ‘free’ business and they will try to enter by charging for some sort of differentiated product. But it’s tough.”
Print publishers for magazines and newspapers are struggling to find the right price for their products. But as ad revenue dries up, where does the pricing power remain if it’s not with advertisers? Seave says there is no one right answer to that question.
“You can’t make any generalizations across the board — each industry vertical is different,” she says. “One thing that you need to know is who the players are and look at the product in a local way or in a space.”
For example, the New York Times, in their decision to raise the print price, likely made a calculation that existing paper-readers were committed and a bump in the price would not lead to a subscriber drop-off.
“It seems as if the remaining readers of the newspaper are inelastic when it comes to price. Even with a higher price-per-copy, these readers will, by and large, stay with the paper,” she says. “It is possible that the Times will lose so few copies due to the price increase that they can still make more money from circulation and they can still be able to guarantee the same amount of money by guaranteeing the reader level to keep up their ad rates. They probably figured that paper buyers are committed and so net, they could be ahead for the moment.”
But for online-only media, finding the right price is especially difficult because free competition is stiff. “Electronic media has very little pricing power,” says Seave. “It is too easy for consumers to click around to find something that is a reasonable substitute and is free.”
So how do companies get online users and readers to start paying for their products? Create necessary value.
“You have hook someone into some sort of product and then make it so that it is essential to their work,” says Seave.
Photo credit: Rick Valentin