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Blogs Charging for Content – Can it Work?

Scott at Blog Herald asks Could Blogging Adopt A Paid Content Business Model? and points out a number of blogs (including ProBlogger) that could conceivably charge readers for content.

It’s an interesting topic and one that has popped up as a discussion point a couple of times a year since I started blogging on an entrepreneurial level. It’s also a question I get asked quite a lot from bloggers looking at their options for monetizing their sites.

On one level I can understand why bloggers would see this as an option. Other publishing businesses do it (magazines, newspapers, pay TV and industry reports/publications) and even other types of web sites do it (membership sites) – so why can’t blogs?

My response to those exploring this monetization model is generally something along the lines of this (beware – the following is messy and a somewhat random collection of thoughts):

It’s possible - a certain percentage of people will pay a subscription for online content for one or a combination of the following reasons:

  • it saves them time
  • it is unique and can’t be found elsewhere for free
  • it comes from someone they perceive as having expertise
  • it is very useful and helps them in some area of their life (I have a pretty wide definition of ‘useful’ which includes things like being enterained.
  • it comes from someone who they are loyal to

If a blog were able to produce content that tapped into these things (unique, useful, exclusive content provided by an expert or someone that readers are loyal to) than guess they might have a case for charging for content.

However – there are certain obstacles to this:

  • competition – on most (if not all) topics that I can think of there is an oversupply of information already available for free online. Coming up with something unique and exclusive will be difficult in most niches.
  • critical mass – I said above that a ‘certain percentage of people’ would be willing to pay for a subscription to a blog in some circumstances. I don’t know if anyone has done any study on that ‘certain percentage’ would be but I suspect it would be low. As a result you’d need to have a fairly large readership to start with to find enough paid subscribers.
  • a culture of ‘free’ - ‘free’ is something that is central to blogging culture. While I think in wider culture there would be more likelihood of finding paying customers – bloggers themselves tend to be into ‘free’ and many can be almost anti anything that charges for information.
  • established expectations – the problem with suddenly turning a blog (or some part of it) into a paid service is that it works against the expectations that it’s loyal readers have already built up of it. For example – here at ProBlogger I’ve given away free information on making money online for 2.5 years. If I were to suddenly start holding back part of that information for those willing to pay I can imagine the outcry).
  • blogging without the link – the interlinking nature of blogging is something that blogging as a medium has been built on. If I write something of worth it’s likely to be linked to by others and their readers will come to see what it’s about. The problem with locked areas of blogs is that when people connect with what you write in them that they don’t have a way to pass it on to friends.

So how might paid subscriptions work when it comes to blogging?

If I knew the answer to this I’d probably be doing it myself – but here are a few more random thoughts which might stimulate some discussion:

  • &Free AND Paid - unless you’re lucky enough to have a very high profile that magnetically draws people to you I suspect that you’ll need to offer those who you’d like to subscribe to your paid service something for free. This might mean you have a lower level free blog that is valuable yet holds something back or a blog on a related topic or an industry news blog etc. Getting this balance right between paid and free will be crucial. Give too much away and people may not feel the need to pay – don’t give enough away and people won’t see the point in paying.
  • Paid Content and Value – the paid component of a blog needs to enhance the life of those who pay for it in some way. You need to give something that is truly valuable. This might include exclusive information, personal attention or coaching, the ability to connect with other high level people etc.
  • Entertainment – one of the areas that I suspect might do better with paid subscriptions is entertainment. While you can be entertained for free in many places today, entertainment taps into something different than presenting people with information. I need to think this one through a little more.
  • Status – another half baked idea that I have is that people like to be seen to be on ‘the inside’ of certain communities. I know people who pay a yearly fee to be a part of certain clubs that they rarely use simply to flash the cards that come with membership. They also are able to list of others who are members – even if they’ve not met them.
  • Filters – while I’ve said above that a barrier to paid subscriptions is competition and the large volumes of free information online – I wonder whether this might actually be something that we’ll see people reversing and using as a sales pitch – ie they offer their services as a personal filtering service. Of course the barrier to this is the increasing amount of Web 2.0 tools that are getting better at filtering information – but perhaps there’s something to be said for a human filter.
  • Personal Coaching - one obvious extension for blogs that could be worthy of adding a paid subscription to is areas for more personal coaching and interaction. This is what many internet marketers are doing with their sites – having different levels of membership that offer different services and tools. Usually at the top of the membership levels is the opportunity for one on one coaching with the site owner. Along the way up the membership levels are opportunities for small group coaching and learning. I could see bloggers adding these types of membership levels to blogs – but they’d need to have a fairly sizable readership and to ensure that the free areas maintained a good quality.

As I’ve emphasized numerous times above – I’m no expert in this area and would love to hear what others have to say.

  • Would you pay for content (or services) from some blogs? Which ones? What would you pay for?
  • Do you know of bloggers who already do this successfully? (ScrivsTyme is one that I know of – although it’s podcasting not blogging).
  • Anything else to add? I’m sure there is plenty more that could be said on the topic both in terms of ways forward and barriers to paid areas on blogs. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
About Darren Rowse

Darren Rowse is the founder and editor of ProBlogger Blog Tips and Digital Photography School. Learn more about him here and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.

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Comments

  1. Darren, I’ve answered the questions below with question numbers to make it easy for you and I’ve put my thoughts at the bottom.

    1) Yes. I would pay for blogs if the blogger is really good at the topic and the fee is reasonable. But, I’m expecting personal assistance when I pay. As in, you should help me get money for my site.

    2) I haven’t seen any blogs doing this. But, the Diggnation podcast does it and they’re quite successful.

    I think the Diggnation approach is better. Serve the latest for paid people and make a delay of 1-2 days for it to get to the regular reader. This is really harsh, in a way actually because the blogosphere is meant to be a place where anyone can discuss freely and anyone can express their opinions.

  2. Yaacov says:

    I’m working on a starting a local gardening blog paying special attention to pruning times, techniques, pest, disease, weed, and water alerts. Also may have discounts from landscapers and nurseries available to subscribers. If my local knowledge can help make people’s yards look better and save them money I’m sure I can get paid subscribers for my blog. Plus, I’m in a dense area and local word of mouth may be able to replace blog linking.

    What about offering a mix of paid/free content? footnoted.org has been experimenting with it.

  3. Matti says:

    that puts a grin on my face…
    “bloggers” are more and more sounding like “traditional” media. Now the talk is about paid content, the holy grail of publishing companies on the web.
    As somebody in the publishing industry, let me say this: been there, done that, didn’t work.

  4. Maki says:

    I definitely don’t mind paying for personal coaching on a topic or area I’m not familiar with. If the blogger displays expertise in her field, I’ll be more than happy to pay her for one-on-one tutorial sessions.

    I also don’t mind paying for specific tools like WordPress plugins or design templates or computer applications. Some bloggers have selling these items quite successfully

  5. There definitely is an oversupply of most information on the internet, so what you can only sell is technique : how to make money online is probably the major topic still.

    But, even so, you can’t really sell it as blog content unless you are something special or have a B2B audience that will pay with tax-deductible income.

    The answer then, I think, is to package your product into a different delivery medium, so that the buyer actually receives a product, not just access. This was done in pre-broadband days as ebooks, and that’s probably what we’re left with now.

    Ebooks are like mobile websites, but give a personal delivery which many will pay for.

  6. I already offer blog coaching and it is something I really enjoy doing and I am told works well for the customer also. It’s not really something I see as paid content, more consultancy. I guess it would be paid content if other subscribers could see the advice as it is written in a forum setting?

    One of my monetisation strategies for my blog is going to be paid content. Anyone following my blog carefully will already be able to guess what that is going to be ;)

  7. CNC Venture says:

    I definitely think there is potential to this model, but like you said I think its success would be completely dependent on value. Obviously like when selling anything, if the perceived value is greater than the cost then you can generate a satisfied customer.

    I definitely think that the Free AND Paid method is probably optimal – and when provifing information to paid users I think it would need to be of higher detail with more practical applications. I also think that status would need to have a lot to do with it as well – so you’d need some representation/public differentiation of free and paid users.

    I also think that with payment people expect progress. When you are reading free information I think people are a little more forgiving with “old” or “uninspiring” posts. When you are paying a subscription you expect cutting edge stuff and I know I personally would expect at least part of the earnings to be reinvested back in to feesable things for paying members to use, whether they be tools, guides or free trials etc etc. You want to know that your money is being spent to develop the service not just another revenue stream into the blog owners pocket.

    That is my two Aussie cents.

  8. I think how SEOmoz has been dealing with their paid section is quite interesting. Continuing the same proposition for free but adding aditional value for their premium members.

    That way existing users don’t really feel ripped off but the potential for a subscription based services for the big fans. Personally I haven’t been convinced to sign up for the premium services so I can’t vouch for the services quality!

  9. Des says:

    Darren, your comments about “a culture of free” and “paid content and value” immediately reminded me of an article I read on Techdirt.

    http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20070301/005837.shtml

    It’s not related to blogging, but Mike (the author) goes on at length, especially in the comments, about the creation of value in the digital marketplace, where the economics of scarcity don’t apply.

    “You expand value by creating new non-scarce goods that make scarce goods more valuable — and you can keep on doing so, indefinitely. Successful new business models are about creating those non-scarce goods and helping them increase value”

    More here: http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20061026/102329.shtml

    I’m still wrapping my head around the details of his argument, but the “culture of free” means bloggers are inherently dealing in the non-scarce. Maybe that’ll spark some ideas for you.

  10. I am currently in the process of redesigning The Rock and Roll Report and this is something I have been thinking about for awhile. I think when it comes to music at least, the basic information has to be available for free due to the volume of music sites out there. What people might be willing to pay for are things like exclusive MP3 tracks from artists featured on the blog, access to podcast archives, discounts on merchandise, etc. Add into that site advertising and sponsorships and there is definitely an opportunity for a well written blog.
    I would think that at the end of the day, people will be willing to pay for “bonus” material but the basic blog content must be available for free.

  11. keith andrew says:

    No I would not pay. The reason being is 99% of the time the info is accessible someplace else so I always see the ‘pay’ scheme as a reason for me not to continue visiting the site.

  12. Does this not negate the entire concept of blogging? Blogging, by nature – not definition – is informal, conversational, transparent. Approach the line of paid subscriptions and paid content, and you’re a portal, magazine or other publishing-type model, not blogging.

  13. Marino says:

    I think that the best option would be some kind of exclusive content and personal coaching. However, I don’t think that charging for blog content is the best idea, but that’s just my opinion.

  14. I’ve seen the combination of free and paid content work in cases where the main content of the blog is free, but the author posts a fee-based e-book, white paper, or video. Marketing Sherpa comes to mind. If your audience is really interested in your expertise, you can charge for it. It’d be very important to do competitive analysis and a needs analysis first.

  15. Pay for content? Never. There is always a free alternative, even if it isn’t equal it still is better in my opinion.

  16. When I first put up my website, I didn’t even have a blog, and the primary product that I sold on the site was one on one coaching.

    However, as I became increasingly aware of the need to duplicate my efforts without duplicating the time it took me to help people, blogging and product creation immediately become larger priorities.

    I have considered several “pay for content” models, but in the end, Darren’s “culture of free” has kept me from ever seriously pursuing it. There is very little brand-new information in any given niche, and I think the human filter that was also mentioned is already in place in the form of the blog author(s).

    I don’t see an easy entrance model for premium blogging, and as long as other ways to monetize a blog or a website exist, I doubt the motivation will be there to build a large community of premium blogs.

    Or, I could be eating these words 6 months from now. :)

  17. Icheb says:

    http://www.copyblogger.com/5-common-mistakes-that-make-you-look-dumb/

    Might want to read that post, especially the part about “its” vs. “it’s”, which you stil haven’t understood. Someone earns a LIVING by writing and can’t use proper English.

  18. engtech says:

    The bigger subscription models that seem to be working that come to mind are the seoblackhat forums ($23,000/month revenues) and Daring Fireball

    http://daringfireball.net/members/

  19. In my experience, most people have quite a difficult time just getting visitors to to subscribe to the RSS feed (hence ProBlogger’s tips). I can’t imagine what they would have to go through to get people to pay to read! But then again, obviously the only people that this would truly work for is high-profile (like you, Darren) or specialist bloggers.

    Personally, the only blog that I might pay a small fee to read would be Seth Godin’s blog. Why? It is updated at least two times a day, the content is always fresh, insightful, and unique, and his blog is essentially an online book released on tiny nuggets of information. (Note that his latest book, Small is the New Big, is actually a collection of his best blog posts—highly recommend that book, by the way.)

    There are many ways to make money from your blog. Obviously there is advertising and affiliate links. But beyond that, if you are, for example, a web developer, the blog could go a long way in promoting your work or services, especially if you’re a well-respected blogger. Just look at 37Signals, the guys behind Basecamp. They have generated a massive following, mostly because of their interaction with the community (especially with the contribution of the open-source Ruby on Rails framework). If you aren’t a web developer, you can still promote your work. For example, you could publish a few ebooks (which, of course, relate to the topic of your blog) and promote those.

    I doubt that there would be more than a handful of blogs that could successfully charge users to read. In fact, if you are currently making money off of advertisements, removing those and going to a subscription-based model would probably bring your revenue down drastically.

  20. I advocate the “free” culture. I won’t pay for online content unless it is excellent and is not provided anywhere else (including books, yes books made of paper, I still read those).

    Examples:

    - Jakob Nielsen’s articles/reports.
    - Stephen Covey’s webinars and newsletters.

    Unless you are as good as these two in your niche, I won’t pay you.

  21. I don’t think this idea is so revolutionary. Sites have been doing it for a while now. They just don’t usually call them blogs. But they’re organized like blogs are; they often use blog platforms as content management systems. They charge subscriptions or fees to read articles. It’s really the same thing.

    Additionally, many bloggers attach a donate button to their feeds. Essentially they let the readers decide to pay for the content or not. And plenty of readers donate.

  22. Shane says:

    Pretty much anything you want to find out is available freely somewhere on the internet.

    That said, I think a pay site can work but it might be better suited as a forum rather than a blog. Quadszilla has a great business model for his site which is a free blog with a paid access forum. I haven’t joined it, but I can see how an area of “specialized knowledge” and the opportunity to network with others of a high calibre in a forum setting could appeal to people.

  23. Ok first of all, been reading your stuff for a while. Thanks as its helped me improve my blog a lot….

    OK now the topic at hand…

    I personally would not pay for a blog and if for instince you started charging? I would not stay on board, nothing against you (seeing I dont know you) BUT the thing with the Internet is that there is always a FREE service around the corner and so why spend my money on something when I can have it for free???

    I think this is what makes the Internet so powerful and thats because you can get a lot for free were in the non-Internet world, you couldn’t…

    my 2c

  24. ian says:

    I like a lot of the blogs that I read, but I would not pay to subscribe to any of them, unless they offered my some special value above just reading the posts. I figure they should be able to successfully earn an income via other means, eg advertising, affiliates, etc

  25. John Hood says:

    I’m happy to follow affiliate links as ‘payment’, but would be disinclined to subscribe for paid content!

  26. Kian Ann says:

    There aren’t any I’ve seen that require a subscription fee to view a blog, but there are programs out that that offer access to a “secret blog” as a bonus to a product.

    I personally don’t think it would be called a blog if access was so limited. It would be more like a “membership site”

  27. Blaine Moore says:

    I have seen one successful model, but I can not recall off hand what the site or topic was. I’m pretty sure that I commented about it here at ProBlogger the last time that this topic came up, though, so somebody could find the specifics.

    Basically, the latest 2 weeks worth of articles were free. A paid subscription was required for any archives older than that. However, those pages were still available in the search engine caches so search visitors could still find the site through older articles. There was nothing stopping somebody from seeing an old article if they knew the URL, they just couldn’t browse the archives or search the archives from the site. Using the search engines it was still possible to do those things, but they didn’t really worry about that since the niche they were targetting were people that needed info fast and would have the budgets to pay for the privelidge and probably wouldn’t waste their time on SE tricks.

  28. I’ve not read through the comments so apologies if I am duplicating, but the 1) issue I can see from paid membership is how you would get new readers if your content is all secure away from the search engines and the likes.

    Not a very good comparison but how many people who are new into SEO know WMW and about membership. They would only find out via forums etc. and probably not by searching on Google etc.

  29. There are scores of websites that successfully charge a subscription fee for access.

    At our company, SubHub, we have built a platform to enable content experts to easily build and run a content website that generates money via subscriptions, or advertising, or e-commerce. I say this not to be self-promotional, but because this is exactly what we do. We built the company because we saw a need for it. My co-founder and I are long-time internet media professionals.

    What is interesting about the discussion here is that most commenters view this from the blogging perspective — are you a blogger if you charge? Is it a blog? Is it consistent with the blogging ethos?

    We now have roughly 35 websites on our platform, most charging a subscription fee. We know of dozens of other paid subscription websites using software solutions offered by competitors.

    Without intending to be judgemental at all, it is interesting and somewhat curious to me that people who define themselves primarily as bloggers are still debating whether or not this can be done. It definitely can be done and is being done. Many individuals and small to mid-sized publishers are making good money with paid content websites.

    I don’t think a single one of our clients views themselves as a blogger, or started as a blogger. They view themselves as experts in their categories and as being able to provide information that is of real value to their niche audiences.

    There is plenty of information that people will pay for if they perceive it to be of actionable value. Our most prominent client is probably Jancis Robinson, the well-known UK-based wine expert. She has a worldwide reputation, and she has thousands of subscribers to her website each of whom is paying £69 per year for access.

    For Jancis, this is a fantastic revenue stream. For her subscribers, it is a great deal because for roughly the cost of a case of wine they get expert advice regarding which wines to buy, which wines to watch, etc. This is well worth the modest subscription price. And while there is plenty of free wine info on the web, most of it is not at the level of expertise that Jancis can provide, and people who really care about wines recognize this.

    We also have clients who have sites on fly fishing; landlord-tenant litigation; wealth creation for Christians; entrepreneurship; food and wine matching and numerous others. Each may attract a paying audience of dozens to maybe thousands, but this is a very healthy income stream to an individual content creator.

    The characteristics of success for creating a successful paid content website are:

    1. Real expertise in a niche subject
    2. Ability to frequently create high-quality content about the subject
    3. A brand or personal reputation in the niche
    4. Ability to market to the niche — via a mailing list, newspaper column, personal appearances or whatever works

    Some bloggers may possess these characteristics and therefore may have a good shot at implementing a successful paid model. Other bloggers may not bring all of these attributes to the table and therefore may be better off keeping it free and open and perhaps generating revenues via advertising, e-commerce or something similar.

    A paid content website definitely needs to still give a lot of content away for free, as others here have pointed out. This keeps visitors coming back frequently and establishes a reputation for the site. Eventually, some visitors will convert to paid subscribers if they value the free content and see there is even more on offer behind the paid firewall.

    I am not sure what the official definition of a “blogger” is but this is arguably not blogging at all. It is content publishing. Our feeling is that this no longer needs to be owned solely by the big media companies. Why can’t individual content creators reach and market to their audiences directly, and keep the majority of revenues for themselves rather than depending on a middleman? To us this is well within the ethos of what the web, and blogging, is all about. It is personal publishing and personal empowerment. In this case it just puts revenues in those individuals’ pockets too.

    Kind regards,
    Evan Rudowski
    SubHub

  30. Rebecca says:

    Gag! (Sorry.)

    This week I received a brand new magazine (very small) in the mail, with an offer for “community” at their web-site. The site wanted to charge $25 for membership! There are plenty of free communities in the blogosphere, It’s just plain insulting to be asked to pay.

    The one exception is the last one you mentioned: Personal Coaching. And perhaps specialized forms and so-forth to go with it, but that probably falls more in to the category of e-books.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Original post by Darren Rowse and a wordpress plugin by Elliott [...]

  2. [...] Un bloggeur peut-il fournir du contenu payant? Oui…peut-être…ça dépend [...]

  3. [...] Darren Rowse delivers a powerful article on whether or not paid content memberships on a blog will work.  In my personal opinion, it won’t – since there will be so many other articles offering free content.  But if you’re as established as he is, I’ve no doubt he could get away with charging a few bucks here and there. [...]